Two contrasting articles on minimalism

This morning I ran across a couple articles on minimalism:

The former has a sense of humor; the latter does not. The former contains thoughtful criticism; the latter is a knee-jerk reaction. The former makes an interesting argument; the latter quibbles about definitions.

The former article is by Vivek Haldar. I cannot tell who wrote the latter.

Here’s an excerpt from Haldar’s article:

The zenith … is a calm geek, sitting in a bare room with a desk upon which sits only a MacBook Air, his backpack of possessions on one side, the broadband Internet cable available but unplugged, fingers ready to type into the empty white screen of a minimalist editor.

I think that’s pretty funny. And I would hope that minimalists would be able to get a chuckle out of it.

But Haldar does not just lampoon hipster minimalism. He argues that you need periods of stimulation and clutter to be creative. He also argues that minimalism has its place.

Now I agree with most of the premises of the minimalists … My gripe is with the way they sell it as a way of life. It’s much more valuable as a periodic phase of life.

Minimalism cannot be a long-term strategy, but it makes an excellent short-term tactic.

The second article essentially argues that Haldar has the definition of minimalism wrong.

Minimalism, at its core, is the process of prioritizing your life and working towards concrete goals without giving in to distraction. … Like any school of thought with a certain critical mass, there is dissent and corruption among the ranks.

Who can find fault with prioritizing your life, working toward concrete goals, and avoiding distraction? And who wants to defend corruption? But this is just quibbling about definitions. By contrast, Haldar makes an argument independent of such a definition. Haldar argues that a certain set of attitudes and behaviors — however you want to label them — are not conducive to sustained creativity.

Here are some ideas I threw out a while ago on defining minimalism.

“Minimal” literally means an extreme. I appreciate moderate minimalists, though strictly speaking “moderate minimalist” is a contradiction in terms. A more accurate but unwieldy name for minimalists might be “people who are keenly aware of the indirect costs of owning stuff.”

… you could define a minimalist as someone who wants to eliminate non-essential possessions … But by that definition, Donald Trump would be a minimalist if he believes everything he owns is essential.

Generic discussions of minimalism are fluff. Haldar’s argument is more substantial because he makes a specific suggestion.

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10 thoughts on “Two contrasting articles on minimalism

  1. Hi. I wrote the second article (the humorless one). You say, “But this is just quibbling about definitions. By contrast, Haldar makes an argument independent of such a definition. Haldar argues that a certain set of attitudes and behaviors — however you want to label them — are not conducive to sustained creativity.”

    I didn’t argue with this because I agree with Vivek about most of them. What I disagree with is people applying the mainstream “minimalist” label to those behaviors. I’ve spent a lot of time arguing that this minimalist movement is not about asceticism or un-consumption (both of which have their own venerable social movements). I’m arguing that most of the sources that are not blatant self-serving nonsense are more about intentionalism. Vivek is obviously a smart and intelligent person, and I wouldn’t get invovled in something that reeks of Layne’s Law with him.

    I think a good example of minimalism/intentionalism is the Pack Light folks. These people aren’t shaving ounces off their kits so that they’ll be more enlightened; they’re shaving ounces off so that they can reduce the cost and difficulty of doing what they love. Perhaps I didn’t express it well enough, but this is what Minimalism means to me and the people I talk to.

  2. Dave: Thank you for leaving a comment. I appreciate your input. Although I criticized your article, I do not wish to imply any criticism of you personally or your beliefs. I imagine we agree more than we disagree.

    I do not consider myself a minimalist, but I’m in agreement with much of what I’ve read coming from people who do call themselves minimalists. I understand that minimalism is not asceticism, and that the people who espouse “blatant self-serving nonsense” are not representative. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read by Joshua Becker, for example. I find his spin on minimalism to be very positive: making room for what he values without being legalistic or proud. As I wrote in an earlier post:

    I imagine most people who call themselves minimalists do not want to be obsessed with eliminating stuff any more than they want to be obsessed with acquiring stuff. They just want to think about their stuff less.

  3. Thanks John. In retrospect, my real regret with my article is that I chose a punchy, over-promising title. I’m confident that the intentionalist/minimalist approach is viable long-term, but I didn’t really put forth a lot of concrete examples of how that works out.

    I’ll probably write a longer follow-up article where I attack the criticism more directly. I just felt like the other article was attacking a straw man and I wanted to take that away before going into specifics.

  4. I see minimalism as a knee-jerk reaction to the consumerism push of the last umpteen years. People (myself included) are getting tired of being told that Object X will bring lifetime happiness and social status.

    However, as with all extremes the truth is somewhere in-between. So I still own a shovel.

  5. I think I’d describe myself as living in a way that many would describe as minimalist, though my life is far from that of a monk. We have possessions though they are always considered and we usually use a ‘to get a new one an old one must go’ principle.

    It is this consideration that is, for me, important. Minimalism will forever be subjective (I for example look at most so-called minimalist architecture and think it is cluttered) but there is a fine line between being minimal and being empty.

    3 years ago we built a house which most I guess would describe as minimalist. Like many before us we took inspiration from the Cistercian architecture of places like Le Thoronet in Provence, as well as more contemporary interpretations like the work of Donald Judd, John Pawson, Claudio Silvestrin or van der Laan.

    Our living spaces are reduced to the simplest we could achieve given the constraints. Almost all possessions and details are hidden behind huge, handleless cupboard doors painted so as to appear as similar to the white plaster walls as possible. An example of the consideration needed was that the white has not only to be the same shade, but the reflectivity and texture of the surface has to appear the same in as many possible types of light so the doors appear to disappear. What objects that are left tend to be immovable and massive with a reduced palette of materials.

    Achieving such a reduction is difficult, mentally exhausting and dare I say, expensive. If you take a blank piece of paper and add one line that line becomes dominant and grabs the attention. If you have a piece of paper with 100 random lines on it the 101st makes little difference.

    It is the same for spaces. As the space tends towards the essential each item starts to stand-out and become dominant. A light switch starts to jump out or a piece of poor craftmanship becomes dominant. There is a big difference between minimal and empty.

    But when you get there you can turn this principle to your advantage. If we add a bowl of flowers into the living space the colours of the walls take on the reflective colours of the petals. A simple item becomes dominant like that line on the blank paper.

    I reject the notion that minimalism is counter to creativity and would suggest that the work of the Italian renaissance architect Andrea Palladio both defines the period and can be described as minimal. Good minimalism in my view reduces the non-essential to allow what is left to be given greater significance. By removing all unnecessary distractions the mind and eye can roam free.

    John, I think your quote

    “I imagine most people who call themselves minimalists do not want to be obsessed with eliminating stuff any more than they want to be obsessed with acquiring stuff. They just want to think about their stuff less”

    is apt. My wife still thinks I buy too many books, but I read them and then put them behind cupboard doors with all the appliances, the unused vases and even the telephone. I can kick a ball around with my son in the living room as there is nothing to break. This is the way we choose to live our lives. Our happy home becomes an escape from the chaos of modern life.

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