Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things is currently a trending documentary on Netflix, and it’s interesting enough despite the fact that the conceit and execution of the film isn’t unique and covers well-worn ground in terms of critiquing consumerism. The viewer is presented with a series of interviews from various experts and authors combined with an over-arching narrative of two men touring the country to talk to audiences about minimalism and, ironically enough, sell a book they co-authored on the subject (to be fair, they do address it and they do seem to have a decent outlook on the whole lifestyle). Some of the experts make arguments that are more convincing than others, and some, it appears, aren’t truly minimalists in the sense most of us would choose to use the word. The tiny-house dwelling folk, sure. The intentionally homeless guy, absolutely. But some of the figures in favor of “Minimalism” are simply trying to throw away excess stuff and avoid clutter. More accurately, this is called “Xtreme Organizing,” and being “Hella Thrifty,” and isn’t a Minimalist philosophy as such, which I take to be the paring down of any or all material possessions in order to free the soul. The actual definition of Minimalism is a bit unclear, and I suspect that if we were to go more in depth with all of the contributors to the documentary, some differences of opinion will emerge. All this said, somewhere in there among the parade of anti-consumerist pied-pipers is one that really stands out.
Following after some truly depressing footage of a screaming match between two customers at a Black Friday sale, Sociologist Juliet Schor is interviewed and she says something that made me go back and listen again. She says, “We are too materialistic in the everyday sense of the word, and we are not at all materialistic enough in the true sense of the word.”
Amen. We absolutely need to become more materialistic.
We’re all fairly disgusted by the shopping-obsessed accumulation machines that we have become, and the self-loathing as we hit the purchase button on yet another pair of Tom Brady bioceramic particle athlete recovery pajamas at Amazon.com is palpable, but we seem powerless to stop it. The reason why is that we’re thinking about the problem all wrong. As that wise sage Eddie Veder puts it in the soundtrack to Into the Wild,
There’s those thinking more or less, less is more
but if less is more how you’re keeping score?
Means for every point you make
your level drops
kinda like its starting from the top
you can’t do that…
I take this as a direct critique of minimalism. As Christopher McCandless discovered – it might kill you. It simply doesn’t work to approach material goods as objects to be harshly extracted from our lives by sheer force of willpower. If we do so, every purchase unmade is felt as an absence. Further, such an outlook is dangerous because it evaluates the physical world as an impediment to the spiritual world, placing the two at odds. When one wins, the other loses. A Minimalist, or anti-materialist, in this sense, is purposely depriving himself of material goods and hoping to find spiritual freedom by doing so.
Minimalism is merely the flip side of the consumerist coin. For instance, if pushed to think about it, a consumer would agree that material goods in and of themselves are unimportant. They are disposable, temporary, and easily moved on from with the advent of the next trend or the recently released, updated version of the product. New is good, old is worthless. This is why there seems to currently be no sense at all of the value of the materiality of goods. Visual art is relegated to whitewashed museums, dressing well is scorned, architecture is utilitarian, liturgy is a pale shadow of the God it worships, and even the human body itself is used only for pleasure and is understood to have no intrinsic value or connection to the healthiness of the “true self”. The body is quickly and easily modified by tattoo, plastic surgery, gender modification, you name it. We seek objects not for their beauty and value, not even for their usefulness or practicality, but rather for their symbolic meaning. They are mere totems of an immaterial goal such as display of wealth, social status, or wokeness to hipster insider culture. They’re easily moved on from once they no longer serve their purpose. If you don’t believe me, there’s a pile of old iphones a mile high somewhere that can prove the point (interestingly enough, all of the minimalists still managed to retain their Apple laptops).
This is the key to the baffling ascendancy of advertising. Marketing itself has become more important than the object – The particular celebrity attached to it, the story behind it, the narrative of what sort of person purchases it. Advertising overwhelms the actual, intrinsic quality of an object (This has even happened with modern art! The placard explaining the art is more important than the art. Tom Wolfe warned us about this!). This is all because consumerism is not actually about material objects and we don’t seek to acquire objects for their own, intrinsic value. Thus we have fashion fads with a 52-season cycle that no longer seek to be beautiful, the constant interior redecoration of homes, late-model cars, and on and on. Everything is disposable because value is linked not to an artifact as such but rather to a nebulous subjective goal. Juliet Schor says it is, “horrifying.” I agree.
Consumerists and Minimalists are working from the same playbook. Both are opposed to ascribing any value to a physical object. The former seeks it as a totem of subjective attainments and the latter seeks to avoid it. Either way, the material object is overlooked.
This is why I am not a Minimalist. The answer to materialism is actually to become more materialistic in the true sense of the word, not to seek possession of objects for a spiritual deliverable, but to value an object for its own inherent beauty and goodness. The physical qualities of an artifact are tied up with its spiritual qualities in a way that is appropriate to the object, meaning that it has a sign value proper to itself. It may be dependent, in some way, on the mind and intentions of its maker, but it also has objective beauty all its own. An object is valuable for what it is, and to see it as such requires the recovery of a healthy love of the material world.
Jacque Maritain has done a lot of work in aesthetics and discusses the value of a made thing (art), writing,
In any case, the activity of art is not of itself an activity of knowledge, but of creation; what it aspires to is the making of an object according to the inward demands and the proper good of that object.
In other words, the object matters. It matters that it be well made, according to a purpose, and it will be good and beautiful not by conveying social status on its owner, but all on its own as an artifact. This doesn’t mean objects cannot communicate in any subjective manner at all. Quite the opposite, only when we respect the object are we able to truly apprehend its sign value, or its spiritual meaningfulness. Maritain writes, “This work is an object and must always keep its consistency and its inherent value of an object, and at the same time is a sign.”
There are no shortcuts. Advertising that creates a false sense of desirability only leaves the consumer disillusioned and ready to quickly move on when advertising offers a newer, fancier model. On the other hand, getting rid of everything is a rejection of the goodness of the created world, which leaves us not more spiritually free but bereft and blinded. Maritain goes on to write, “The poet’s [or artist’s, or craftsman’s] work is an object which is at the same time a sign, and which abounds and overflows with signs and meanings.” This is to say that an object is not merely a sign, it is actually far more interesting. As Maritain notes, objects aren’t merely allegories; they are much, much more. Think Gerard Manley Hopkins staring at a freshly plowed field for hours and working to unlock the “Christed Inscape” of the man-made scene in front of him, how the gashes of gold-vermilion reveal the beauty of the earth just a plow-scratch away from shining forth. Objects are actually analogies by which the mysterious truth of the whole is communicated. Artifacts are, in this sense, sacred. The more we value them, the more of their sign value we perceive, and the more we approach the poetic value of the created and sub-created world.
The answer isn’t Minimalism. The answer is moderation and love. Moderation in consumption and love of the objects we encounter. The two work together, for we only bestow love on that which is worthy. A person who loves objects for their intrinsic goodness will not be surrounded by consumerist baubles, will not throw out old items, will not indulge in the purchase of shoddily made, cheap objects. But such a person will be surrounded by beautiful things, and will be inspired by these beautiful things, and even seek to find additional beautiful things. These parameters do not a Minimalist make. Rather they are the creed of a person with a healthy love of made objects, not as a consumer would as a quick and easy stand-in for salvation, but as icons of a more permanent, lovely world beyond this one.
The synopsis of Minimalism begins, “How might your life be better with less?” To which I answer with a question of my own – It might be, but also… it might not be?
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