Note: Professor Stuart Peterfreund gently reminded me a month or so after I finished the essay below that many Art historians point to the roots of "Minimalism" in the Modernist quest for elemental forms, say in the work of Kandinsky and, in music, the twelve-tone system and focus on basic rhythm in the works of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. However this may be, I came of age in the Sixties when many American artists saw themselves as Minimalists. By then, it seems, Post-Modernism was already in the driver's seat.
As spring turns to summer, we are offered retrospective exhibitions, both in New York and in Los Angeles, on the phenomenon in art known as "Minimalism." You remember, perhaps, those white tennis shoes on a pedestal at the county art museum some time in the 1960's, or canvass paintings long on one primary color with or without a single line or dot of some other color.
It is useful to have such terms to cover historical periods and diverse artists, but ever since the arrival of the Internet there is something awkward about having "retrospectives" on anything, especially "minimal" objets d'art. After all, in our times, Microsoft Windows' computer screens have abolished either/or choices; three options exist ("maximum," "minimum," or "closed") and are constantly available to any viewer or reader of any image or text in order to pass fluidly on into the future. Speed of information inevitably affects what may remain of a sense of aesthetics, favoring deficit attention spans. Cutting and running from one special visual effect to the next supports empty-minded forward projections into a hyperactive future with the only relevant definition of "memory" relating to temporary storage of electronic data. All this might suggest that what is being celebrated is really the end of history--history as "bunk," as Henry Ford called it--from which there is only a minimum to absorb and that only for impermeable moments.
Two other words of recent currency come to mind: "transparency" and "deniability." Again, these are terms open to multiple definitions which overwash many contradictions. That democracies should be totally transparent may sound great to accountants looking at spread sheets, but when it comes to politicians, don't we often "see right through" their pronouncements? Deniability enables them to say, "I haven't read the report yet, so I don't know any of the details." But the ability to deny doesn't oblige us to believe their denial, especially when the report has been lying on their desks for three or four months. And just because Americans find World History "bunk" and only have the vaguest notion of events since 1776 doesn't mean we don't have a "rendez-vous" with a few more painful historical facts before the Bushes finally vanish from the political arena.
Of course, there are other words in frequent use which may reveal a little more about what is really going on: how about "downsizing," "outsourcing," and avoiding "redundancy." If "productivity" is defined in these terms and increases corporate profits, leaner and meaner is always better. Where does that leave room for human error or even any basic instruction in art, or any other skilled work for that matter? Or should we simply click "close" on this rigorously capitalistic ideological program and find something with a human face? Even Adam Smith, in addition to "the invisible hand," spoke of "enlightened self interest."
So back to Minimalism. Objects of art may be minimalized, but does that mean that Art itself should be reduced to the lowest common denominator, dumbed down, or perhaps vanish entirely? I worry about this tendency since it is everywhere in evidence. I begin feeling like Margaret Atwood, who, after trying to read Robe Grillet's The Voyeur, said it was like staring at a cafeteria tray without anything on it.
Then I think back to what I was looking for in art, literature, and music from the late 1960's onward. If artists could do something to organize the chaos and absurdity of life during the "Cold War" years and bring us a certain beauty or intensity through simplicity, I certainly didn't care what term they used for it. Some kind of coherent counter culture seemed to need to be re-created over and over at a very basic level available to everyday people, and I was reading Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Lao Tsu as well as William Carlos Williams, Harry Martinson, and Gary Snyder. And I was listening to non-professional (so-called "Science Fiction") writers and popular music, too.
Somehow or other, as you know, that counter culture got hijacked by the media, '70's hippies morphed into '80's and '90's yuppies, and terms like "postmodernism" and "minimalism" found more elaborate, intellectualized definitions at French and American universities. Fortunately for the rest of us, cultures survive in their multiplicity despite attempts to administer or organize them, and I have found plenty to my taste that may be seen as "minimalist": Andy Goldsworthy taking simple ideas out of doors and letting natural phenomena eventuate their own beautiful complexities, William Stafford and Denise Levertov fashioning everyday discourse and mundane insights into passionate poetry, or John Adams, Philip Glass, and Esa Pekka Salonen rediscovering harmonies and rhythms in satisfyingly "minimalist" ways.
But the problem with the idea of a retrospective on Minimalism as a exhibition inside institutionalized museums is that the potential viewer might experience it as a collection of items seen in a rearview mirror. Having advanced speedily in age, both the viewers and these objets, when minimalized, may consist of specks on the mirror itself, reflections off the rear window of whatever gasoline-guzzling vehicle they have traveled in on their way to the museum, rather than something actually outside the protected world of their individual mobility.
Using this kind of twisted minimalism, we might translate such biblical lines from the King James Version as "Now we see as through a glass darkly, but then face to face" into a much hipper, up-to-date "You are now looking into a rearview mirror in which objects may seem farther away than they actually are, but soon they will be in your face. (Or, even worse, ". . . soon they will interface.")
Or Minimalism may simply suggest a lowering of all expectations--a kind of clearing of the clutter of concepts and history and art for art's sake. Its opposite, Maximalism, might include all the discredited hyperbole of polyphonic Humanism, gaudy Baroque, severe Classicism, irresponsible Romanticism, and even the unbearable realities of Modernism. But it may be wise not to get trapped into thinking in terms of opposites because even as I write this essay I discover for the first time Louis I. Kahn from his illegitimate son's wonderful documentary, My Architect, and I realize that, if appreciated properly, Maximalism could be used as a term to describe how a sense of grandeur, mass, and material presence can re-ignite democratic vistas in far-off Bangladesh.
No, as life itself becomes more complicated, and Thoreau's "Simplify! Simplify!" rings in my ears, I have decided that the best response to these exhibitions is not to go to them. Why waste the precious, minimalized time we have left in life? Wouldn't it be better to reread a well-loved poem or listen to music? Poetry and music are innately minimum in that experience is distilled into rhythm and noise in some kind of structured time. Though the forms may be very complex, the experience is foreshortened when compared to the more maximized qualities of prose. In fact, I am currently rereading Dostoevsky's The Idiot in a paperback, Constance Garnett translation I purchased in the '60's for seventy-five cents, and I am finding all 597 pages brim full of whatever I might be looking for in Minimalism: the tiniest print I can possibly manage to read without glasses and not a single word needing to be minimalized or deleted!
When I complete my close encounter for the second time with Prince Myshkin, I may find my curiosity peaked and end up going to one of these exhibits if they are still running. I might even change my mind.
I hope so, but for now I think I will take the third option and simply "close," and go back to my reading.