By: Abi Hillrich

Popularized by mom-types and Instagram-famous LA girls, minimalism is currently having a moment. This may be the only context in which you’ve seen minimalism: the word in a too-long caption under a photo on Facebook or in repetitive Buzzfeed articles. “Minimalism” may call to mind images of clean, white New York City lofts with modern shapes and neutral colors. There are plants too, and probably wooden accents.

Of course, the foundational views of minimalism did not originate in the 21st century. As a movement that at its core encourages simplistic living, it stems from the teaching of philosophers for as long as we have had documented writings. There seems to be some sort of virtue in getting rid of excess, and a sense of self that people have consistently been able to discover by doing so.

Popular philosophers such as Confucius and Socrates taught a form of minimalism. “The secret of happiness, you see,” Socrates wrote, “is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” His assertion here seems to claim not only that is it good to refrain from excess, but that this act leads to happiness.

We even see this type of simplicity reflected in the teaching of Jesus. Matthew 16:26 (“What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”) seems to make it clear, just as minimalism attempts to, that one should be less concerned with possessions than with more important things. Surely, these philosophers are the primary originators of the idea that minimalistic living improves one’s moral standing and gives space for one to focus on something other than materialism.

The aesthetic movement of minimalism is another side of this term. It began more recently, in the early 1960s. Artists of this time period became interested in the pursuit of prioritizing the materials of a work over its meaning, motivated by the desire to remove unnecessary symbolism from artwork. The art created at the height of the minimalistic aesthetic movement was never meant to represent anything but itself; there was no personal or metaphorical layer to it.

Donald Judd was one of the renowned artists of this time period, and his work can be summed up by a piece called “Untitled” that he created in 1969. Made from brass and colored fluorescent plexiglass, it is a group of reflective rectangles that hangs on the wall. Another example of this style is “Die,” created by Tony Smith in 1962.

It is simply a six-foot cube of steel, placed on the floor of its museum of residence. Art in the minimalistic period embraced geometric shapes and a sleek aesthetic, which may seem unsurprising to those familiar with the current design trends. In fact this art movement is where the modern design of minimalism began. Geometric furniture, simple white walls, and neutral colors have their roots in the ideas of the artists in the 1960s, though this style hardly has the same rebelliously meaningless motivation as art created by Smith, Judd, and the like. These days, the shapes and themes of minimalism are primarily used for aesthetic purposes and have become a sign of good design.

It is important to differentiate the aesthetic of minimalism from a minimalistic lifestyle. While the two can go hand in hand, they do not always exist together. Creating for oneself a capsule wardrobe is one way the lifestyle is reflected today; this is a simple, small collection of clothes that are interchangeable among themselves and can create a host of options for everyday dress. In some of these wardrobes, the neutral blacks, whites, and tans are offset with boxy, geometric shapes to the clothing. In this way, both the aesthetic and the lifestyle are represented. On the other hand, using the design style of minimalism in house decorations is oftentimes expensive and high-class. This, by nature, abandons the core motivations of minimalism; the desire to live simply and modestly is often not even a consideration.

The idea of minimalism evident in 2018 is nothing like its beginning as a conscious decision to forsake a lifestyle dominated by consumerism. Instead, it has morphed into a thing that sometimes seeks to achieve the exact opposite of its original intentions. Minimalism has certainly become much more complex than Socrates or Confucius had intended; however, I believe there to be something beautiful about the way its definition continues to evolve as it means new and different things to those who are enamored with its ideals.

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