Minimalism and the limits of late modernism
Excerpts from the Article "Does Minimalism matter?", Intelligent Life, Autumn 2010

Minimalism for the faithful: 
Monastery at Novy Dvur, Czech Republic
“Everything is now happening all at once. There was no longer a ruling style or taste, no common agreement on what is avant-garde and what is retrograde. Today the happening thing is just what is happening."
We have reached the end of “isms”. Minimalism was the last, and most curious, ism of all. The late 20th and early 21st centuries were peculiarly receptive to its poetics of purity—in architecture, in art, in food, in design.

Was minimalism the last absurd, exhausted spasm of neophilia, the cult of the new that so defined modern taste? Or is it still, and will it remain, the ultimate refinement of aesthetic sensibility: the place we go when we have been everywhere else? The answer to both questions is yes. 

The term “minimal art” first appeared circa 1965. Journalists writing about interior design began mentioning minimalism in the mid-1980s. But, unlike baroque or the pre-Raphaelites, the minimal aesthetic has been a continuous element in European culture. It’s been with us in some form since the fifth century BC, when Socrates declared that a well-made dung bucket was better than a poorly made gold shield.

In the 18th century architectural theorists such as Carlo Lodoli—creator of the sternly beautiful Pilgrim’s Hospice in Venice—began to play with the idea of “functionalism”: that buildings must not be compromised by decoration.

This idea that architecture must be driven by its function would later dominate the Modern Movement of the early 20th century. Adolf Loos, Otto Wagner, H.P. Berlage, Bruno Taut, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier all, in their different ways, stressed the importance of utility and their abhorrence of decoration. Loos entitled an essay “Ornament and Crime”. Le Corbusier studied aircraft and cars, before stating in 1923 that a house should be a simple “machine for living in”.

“Some people are dreaming about what they have not got, I am trying to forget what I have already had.”

Philip Johnson, the architect who was New York’s most influential tastemaker in the second half of the 20th century, used to say that the great thing about minimalism is that it was easy to copy. Cynical hoteliers and me-too loft-developers sell mere emptiness and no-budget-for-furniture as entry-level minimalism. The most important product of recent years, the iPod, is a perfect little essay in minimalist design—everything is hidden, subordinated to a ruthless formal perfectionism.

So there is some truth in the view that minimalism turned what was once flagged as art’s final solution into merely a slick style. ndeed, “simplicity is the final achievement”, as Frédéric Chopin wrote. “After one has played a vast quantity of notes…it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Minimalism takes Occam’s Razor to mess. It is a grandiose aesthetic of tidying up the world’s visual noise and material clutter.

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