Sunday, January 15, 2017

Minimalism the Movie: There's No There There

by Drew Martin
The term “minimalism” came from Richard Wollheim’s criticism of the lack of content in the work produced by artists in the 60s who reacted to abstract expressionists' emotionally-loaded paintings by creating sterile objects with industrial materials. That being said, I have always welcomed the term to describe my decades of yearning for simplicity: satisfaction in small spaces and joy from simple activities. In fact, around the turn of the millennium, I even created a magazine called Min, which was distributed every full moon to a small audience. It was a project to explore what minimalism could be and was a reaction to magazines such as Real Simple, which were just like every other magazine in terms of production, size and distribution. Min was only one-page that over a year and a half devolved into a state of nothingness. Shown here is the December 11, 2000 issue.

So I thought I would like, if not love, Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things but I found it to be a bogus film and very disappointing. While the premise is simple living, it is basically a road trip film about two buddies, Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn, who drive from book signing to book signing, and stay in hotels in places such as Las Vegas in order to promote and sell their book about getting more out of life through a minimalist lifestyle. Not life-long conscientious citizens, they confess to having been superficial millennials chasing their own, self-imposed financial dreams through corporate retail jobs. 

Their brand of minimalism is really a redemption minimalism to self-righteously set the record straight that they are no longer the valueless capitalist consumers they once were. Ok, but they want you to buy their book because they say it will add value to your life. That stinging contradiction, and what feels like a personal passing fad of decluttered liberation, makes you realize that they are actually happier now not because of their so-called minimalist lifestyles but because instead of selling cellphones and clothing they are now peddling their own product, a self-help book.

I actually think it is great that they (and a handful of other yuppies like them interviewed in the film) 'saw the light of day,' but who are they kidding? The idea of living a simple life and criticizing indulgence is thousands of years old and is central to many religions. This is definitely the first time I ever quoted the Bible. Matthew 21:12 - And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves. When MIllburn stands in a barren landscape and dramatically reads from their book, it sounds heavily borrowed from the narration of Fight Club (1999 film based on 1996 book), which includes lines such as, "Like so many others, I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct."

It seems to specifically be a millennial folly - to be distracted and not have listened and then think one has developed an idea and want to take credit and be rewarded for it. This is the case here when there is no mention of the teachings of Jesus or 
Siddhārtha/Buddha, countless monks and naturalists, and what the hippies who begat them had attempted in the 60s/70s. During my frugal college days back in the late 80s and then a “minimalist” lifestyle that followed: living in a tiny trailer in the mountains of California when I was a vegan and worked on an organic farm (that I commuted to on my bike), couch-surfing up and down the coast, hitch-hiking and squatting around Europe, I always had the teachings of Gandhi on my mind. I cannot imagine trying to take credit for simplicity, or feeling like I had ‘discovered’ that lifestyle. This film has made me rethink the term selling out, which used to mean contradicting oneself for profit ‘after’ making a name for oneself for something worthy of respect. What we have here is a simultaneous selling out by merchandizing the message of minimalism.

There is kind of an absurd attack on America for brainwashing people to over-consume, and that we are just victims of this power. Sure there are many companies and forces at play here to support excessive consumerism but to bow to that is simply a matter of stupidity and weakness to personal desires for junk food and cheap products. America actually has a strong history and identity with minimalism through native tribes, protestant puritans, and groups such as the Amish and Mennonites. And nowhere is there such a national ideal of the austere loner living off the land. We treasure the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau who contemplate solitude.

Am I being a bit too critical of this neo-minimalist movement? A quick search just now led me to Kyle Chayka’s July 26, 2016 New York Times Magazine article “The Oppressive Gospel of ‘Minimalism” in which he concludes “The fetishized austerity and performative asceticism of minimalism is a kind of ongoing cultural sickness. We misinterpret material renunciation, austere aesthetics and blank, emptied spaces as symbols of capitalist absolution, when these trends really just provide us with further ways to serve our impulse to consume more, not less.”

And he points to Arielle Bernstein’s March 25, 2016 article in the Atlantic, Marie Kondo and the Privilege of Clutter: The Japanese author’s guide to “tidying up” promises joy in a minimalist life. For many, though, particularly the children of refugees and other immigrants, it may not be so simple.

One part of the film I did appreciate was something Nicodemus says during a talk to a small crowd. He tells the story (or maybe I should say parable) of a man he met torn by the idea of having less but not wanting to get rid of his book collection. Nicodemus explained to him that he should not part with his collection if it brought value to him.

And I like the inclusion of a mash-up speech by Jimmy Carter, who is the most thoughtful American president I have lived under. Carter, who was immensely disliked and blamed a lot, was actually a president who walked the talk: he was the first president to walk from the Capitol to the White House in the post-inauguration ceremony parade, and I remember him on television urging Americans to save energy by turning down their heat and putting on sweaters.

Good evening, it’s clear that the true problems of our nation are much deeper, deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages. Deeper,  deeper than inflation or recession. In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance but it is the truth and it is a warning.

The full, unedited Crisis of Confidence speech from July 15, 1979 by Jimmy Carter can be found here:

Maybe the self-proclaimed minimalists in this film have really embodied Wollheim's slur in the same way that the American yoga craze is void of the spiritual practices and disciplines that defined it in ancient India. People now tidy up their apartments and throw out a few old outfits and proclaim, "I am a minimalist!"