Art of Objects, Less Is More, and How to Be Minimalist Today

Minimalist work becomes and projects its own objecthood, suggests modernist art critic and historian Michael M. Fried in his essay “Art and Objecthood”, published in 1967.


Who said “less is more”

Minimalism has many appearances, and in design, architecture, lifestyle it appears different. For instance, in art minimalism indulged as an “art of objects”, and focused on concrete, yet sometimes abstract, subjectivity and subjects. At times it’s not even there, but it is

Visual art critic Clement Greenberg, when describing modern and minimalist abstract art in 1939, stated:

The excitement of their [artists and designers of his era] art seems to lie most of all in its pure preoccupation with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, colors, etc., to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors.

In the literature first minimalist tendencies can be observed rather early, for example, in Robert Desnos’ L’Aumonyme (1923). Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, new forms of minimalist prose established in the United Stated. Modern minimalist literature presented simplicity in words and sentences, and it was characterized by general shortness – short words, sentences and paragraphs, short stories, reduced range of vocabulary, limited syntax or even minimal characters, expositions and scenes. The main representatives are Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme, Ann Beattie.

“In film there is no Minimalist movement of its own, rather individual approaches of Minimalist aspects in films can be found. One early example is Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952) from Guy-Ernest Debord, where a black and a white screen are shown alternately over a period of 80 minutes”, stated Christian Schrei, student at Information Design at the University of Applied Sciences Graz.

Design and architecture are richer in terms of minimalism origins. And even though in theory minimalism is believed to be an invention of 1960s and 1970s, De Stijl and traditional Japanese design could be considered predecessors of minimalism.

De Stijl ( “The Style” ), also known as neoplasticism, was an artistic movement in the Netherlands. It was founded by Theo van Doesburg in 1917 and lasted until 1931. The major principles presented by De Stijl concept included simplified visual compositions to the vertical and horizontal directions, as well as the use of only primary colors, and mainly black and white.


"Less is more"

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe


German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) also had a huge influence on the development of minimalism. He is the founding “father” of modern architecture with clean structures. Architect aimed for simplicity and clarity, he invoked the spirit of minimalism in the most accurate words – “less is more” – to express his vision.


Are all minimalists happy?

Study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology (2009) stated:

Most importantly from our perspective, however, is that regardless of whether people’s motivation lies in maintaining or increasing their income, the actual happiness data suggest that their expectations regarding the overall association between money and happiness may be exaggerated. Our claim that people overestimate the influence of money on happiness below the median household income is supported by the generally high levels of happiness reported by our low income respondents.

Another study noted:

Can money buy happiness? A large body of cross-sectional survey research has demonstrated that income has a reliable, but surprisingly weak effect on happiness within nations particularly once basic needs are met. Indeed, while real incomes have surged dramatically in recent decades, happiness levels have remained largely flat within developed countries across time. {...} Ironically, the potential for money to increase happiness may be subverted by the kinds of choices that thinking about money promotes; the mere thought of having money makes people less likely to help acquaintances, donate to charity, or choose to spend time with others, precisely the kinds of behaviors that are strongly associated with happiness.

 Indubitably, not every person who has low income is a minimalist. It’s quite the contrary. But these studies flash light on the idea of owning less and being happy. Money can’t buy happiness, and having cluttered life won’t bring it either. 

Getting rid of chaos

Example of what may seem as ideal minimalist living is The 100 Thing Challenge created by Dave Bruno. Author suggests to live a year with only 100 things. Another author Colin Wright has written about owning no more than 55 things. According to similar theories, to be a minimalist a person cannot own more than one hundred things. But is it possible for those, who have already settled down and have a family?

Undoubtedly, for many different people minimalism means many different things. Forcing to define it as a count of things is awry. In fact, to provoke minimalism in mind, a person does not need to get rid of all belongings (but knowing the limits, indeed, is essential).

Ideally minimalism is about getting rid of chaos and feeling free. Mind of state is more important than the number of owned things. Deciding to change and wanting a simpler life – that what counts. At the end of the day, minimalism defines who we are, not what we have.