As a New York Times article from a few years ago pointed out, if you want to sell an apartment in the city, you must first remove all traces of character and color from its decor—even, as in one reported instance, when its antique-filled interior design had been featured in Architectural Digest. “Today’s buyer doesn’t want that look,” said a stager who charges as much as $20,000 to make over a seller’s home in spare, geometrical, white-and-chrome modern furnishings. “They want a cleaner, simpler lifestyle.” In the comments, Times readers complained that the staged apartments looked as sterile as an Airbnb—or, they might just have easily have observed, an art gallery.
One word for that lifestyle and the design that goes with it is minimalism. When the writer Kyle Chayka looked out his window in Brooklyn, as he describes it in his new book, The Longing for Less: Living With Minimalism, he spied a prime example of this trend, “a particular genre of apartment building popping up like geometric fungi all over the world” that are “basically boxes stacked on top of one another.” Instead of walls with windows, these complexes are sheathed in floor-to-ceiling sheets of glass. Through one of those sheets, Chayka gazed upon a staged condo, an “Instagram-ready tableau of white bed, white nightstand, white table, white kitchen cabinets.” He wondered “if this radical transparency could possibly be appealing to its future occupants.”
Chayka’s motivation for writing a book about minimalism was, he explains, a desire to “figure out the origins of the thought that less could be better than more—in possessions, in aesthetics, in sensory perception, and in the philosophy with which we approach our lives.” He grew up in rural Connecticut amid stifling clutter, and considers the drive toward less stuff to be “a conscientious way of approaching the world now that we’ve realized the buildup of human materialism, accelerating since the Industrial Revolution, is literally destroying the planet.” But he mistrusts pop tidying gurus like Marie Kondo, who strike him as selfish and reductive. “Just sort through your house or listen to a podcast,” as he sarcastically characterizes the self-help aspect of minimalism, “and happiness, satisfaction, and peace of mind could all be yours.”
Chayka opens with an account of meeting a woman who so enthusiastically embraced minimalism as a lifestyle that she spent a year deciding whether or not to buy a $20 travel mug, and he mentions bloggers and podcasters Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, subjects of a Netflix documentary. But the popular version of the movement soon drops out of the book. The following chapters, often broken into fragments, ruminate on the most culturally exalted manifestations of minimalism: fine artists like Donald Judd, avant-garde composers like John Cage, and Japanese writers and philosophers who elucidated the Zen-influenced aesthetics of their own culture.
This is disappointing, and at times intellectually muddled. What begins, promisingly, as wide-ranging synthesis of a fascinating and perplexing impulse becomes an exercise in taste, a guide to distinguishing between “good” minimalism—the giant concrete rectangles Judd installed in the desert landscape around Marfa, Texas—and “bad” minimalism—not just Kondo’s advice to throw away everything that doesn’t “spark joy,” but also Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut, a transparent box Chayka regards as controlling and narcissistic (not to mention easily vulgarized by Brooklyn real estate developers). It’s not that this kind of analysis has no merits; Chayka makes a fine art critic who persuasively argues for the power of works associated with the minimalism movement. (Judd irritably rejected the label.) He contends that these paintings, sculptures, and compositions challenge the beholder to come to terms with silence, with boredom, and with objects that represent nothing but themselves. He testifies, persuasively, to having experienced some transcendent moments when meeting those challenges.
But there’s a good deal of been-there-done-that in The Longing for Less. Plenty of critics have made the case for these minimalist artists, whose heyday came in the 1950s and ’60s. The fresher subject of contemporary lifestyle minimalism and its relationship to this high-art past goes largely unexplored. Chayka seems to disdain popular minimalism as a mere trend or affectation despite having met people, like the woman with the $20 travel mug, who have found it as revelatory as he finds the spare-but-homey interior of the six-story cast-iron building Judd bought in SoHo in 1968. True, the quintessential blogger minimalists often seem to rely, paradoxically, on the fetishization of certain perfect commodities—the best backpack, the only jacket you will ever need, the ideal black T-shirt to wear every single day. But high-art minimalism has its fair share of absurdities, too.
Chayka claims, for example, that minimalist art “destabilized the old idea of art as one heroic artist sweating in front of a canvas. Instead, the Minimalist artists adopted manufactured materials and incorporated found objects.” Nevertheless, nothing screams the lone-heroic-artist archetype so much as the enshrinement of the sites where Judd installed his work—that SoHo building and a massive hangar in Marfa among them—and the conversion of Marfa from a Podunk town into a destination for arty pilgrims. Judd would never have been able to buy up such sizable chunks of Marfa real estate were it not for the mystique of the heroic artist and the art-world economy that funds it. Furthermore, regardless of how prefab and industrialized the materials Judd used, a giant concrete rectangle made by him would be worth more than an identical rectangle made by, say, me. The original point might have been to train attention on the brute thing itself, unvarnished and referring to nothing, but its value now resides in something utterly immaterial: the knowledge that Donald Judd made it.
Art-world theorizing often comes across as nonsensical because it refers to values and idea systems more or less limited to the art world itself. That line about the heroic artist sweating over the canvas is a jab at the mythos of abstract expressionism, but it’s not as if anyone unfamiliar with the movement and looking at a Clyfford Still painting for the first time would be able to deduce that mythos from the canvas alone. Similarly, Chayka writes, “every person who encounters a Judd box in a space sees it slightly differently, depending on the time and context. Even though the object isn’t unique, the experience or perception of it is—therefore a stand mixer in a gallery can be as compelling as the Mona Lisa.”
I found myself wishing that Chayka might occasionally live up to this rhetoric and succumb to the charms of a stand mixer or any other genuinely mass-produced object, minimalist in style or not. The only objects Chayka lavishes this quality of attention on are bona fide artworks; for lesser minimalist commodities he seems to have nothing but contempt because they are so frankly commodified, like “expensive green juice, or complex skin treatments being sold as a ‘no-makeup’ look”—even though commodification is the whole point of “manufactured” or “industrial” materials.
The subject of minimalism is rife with mental thickets like this, even without art-world palaver to muddy the waters. How, it’s worth examining, did millennia of human culture pull a 180-degree turn so that appearing to own next to nothing is now higher status than owning a ton of stuff? In Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the poor Kim family infiltrates the home life of the wealthy Parks. The Parks live in a ravishing modernist mansion, the kind of place where you can count the objects in each room on one hand, while the Kims’ subterranean flat is full of crap. The answer of course is not that the Parks have fewer possessions, only that they have more space to conceal the possessions they have from the casual observer. (All that is not in the Parks’ sleek kitchen, for example, is hidden away in the cellar, along with some other secrets.) To refrain from overtly displaying one’s wealth has become the ultimate badge of it. It is to flaunt all the emptiness that you, like Judd, can afford to leave unfilled.
In perhaps the most trenchant passage in The Longing for Less, Chayka observes that lifestyle minimalism often leans on the apparent simplicity of technological devices and services. An iPhone might look small and elegant, but its “function depends on an enormous, complex, ugly superstructure of satellites and undersea cables” while the device itself is produced by workers laboring under ghastly conditions. “It’s easy to feel like a minimalist,” Chayka writes, “when you can order food, summon a car, or rent a room using a single brick of steel and silicon. But in reality it’s the opposite. We’re taking advantage of a maximalist assemblage.”
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That minimalism is a phenomenon of class is a line of inquiry Chayka too often fails to fully explore—perhaps because the minimalism he does admire is itself a form of luxury, produced by affluent artists for rich clients, displayed in places it takes disposable income to visit. He does touch on the famous photograph of Steve Jobs in 1982 sitting cross-legged on the floor of his Los Gatos home, holding a cup of tea, the room empty of everything but his $8,200 stereo and a (genuine) Tiffany lamp. The most ostentatious flaunting of the billon dollars that Apple was then making yearly is the extravagant amount of space Jobs has to waste. That so many of the early proponents of lifestyle minimalism, like Millburn and Nicodemus, came from the tech industry, where Jobs’ practice of wearing an identical black turtleneck and blue jeans every day was legendary, seems noteworthy. Instead of digging deeper into this, however, Chayka opts to recount a visit the Maverick Concert Hall in upstate New York, where John Cage’s “4’33” ”—four minutes and 33 seconds of silence—was first performed. The place is closed for the season, so he and his girlfriend listen to the quiet by themselves.
Chayka doubted the appeal of the fishbowl walls and spare, monochromatic decor of the staged condo next door. Yet New York City realtors know their game; the starkly-appointed units move faster. Long-standing real estate wisdom holds that a home on the market should be sparely furnished so that buyers can more easily imagine their own lives inserted into the space. But the minimalist decor now being installed by stagers is far more complete: not an invitation to make the space your own, but a fully outfitted habitat, something you can slip into without changing a thing, on the presumption that every family of your class can insert itself, interchangeably, into the same homes—just as every home of its type will suit every member of that class. This longing is not just for less stuff, but for less self, the rough edges smoothed off to create the ideal, generic, frictionless fit. Why do so many people want this, I found myself wondering as I read about Chayka’s excursions to Texas and Kyoto. By the end of The Longing for Less, I was still wondering.