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I read much of Kyle Chayka’s new book The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism, out Jan. 21, in Colony Club on Georgia Avenue NW. It’s decorated in the now-familiar style that Chayka has dubbed elsewhere “AirSpace”—sparse wall decor, wide ceramic mugs in light, airy colors, small floating shelves with a curated selection of products for sale, and the general ambience of an IKEA or maybe a WeWork. AirSpace isn’t the signature look of a single chain. Instead, cafes, hotels, and stores “have all independently decided to adopt the same faux-artisanal aesthetic,” Chayka wrote in an article for The Verge in 2016, and their sameness is global. The principle of design and desire that shaped the 2010s also shaped AirSpaces: a relentless need for minimalism in our spaces and lives, to the point of obliterating individual eccentricism or taste.
Where did this global desire to reduce come from? Chayka, a D.C.-based freelance journalist and writer, investigates the phenomenon in his sharp debut. Quickly, the reader learns that ascetic aesthetics long predate Marie Kondo. While we get the term from 1960s visual art, minimalism has been part of our cultural inheritance for centuries, usually as a backlash when “the surrounding civilization is excessive—physically or psychologically too much—and has thus lost some kind of original authenticity that must be regained,” he writes. Approaching it chronologically is fruitless, as it reappears in various iterations throughout history. It’s just always covering its tracks, presenting itself as new, fresh, and born from a vacuum of ideas each time it pops up.
The Longing for Less begins with a character study of a woman who adopted minimalism—in the form of the 21st-century philosophy promoted by Kondo and Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, aka The Minimalists—partially as a response to a childhood of scarcity and hoarding. The minimalist gurus promise her a life that is suddenly and blissfully returned to a human scale, free from the overwhelming flow of globalization, breathless consumption, and digital noise. But if we’re making space in our homes and our lives, what, exactly, are we making space for?
It’s easy to make the facile joke that a book-length exploration of minimalism isn’t very minimalist, but that’s a misunderstanding of the book’s goals. Chayka is in tune with the spirit of the movement as he outlines minimalism’s absence. Without light, there’s no shadow; without sound, there’s no silence. At first, it guides the reader very clearly from idea to idea, but as it takes us past art history into a meditation on minimalist music and then through an exploration of Japanese influence on Western minimalist practice, the book’s scaffolding recedes, and straightforward thesis statements or summaries of content are less and less common. Rewardingly, as Chayka spends less time guiding the reader, his (often funny, always intelligent) voice begins to appear more and more in asides like “Once [the Buddha] realized that life sucks as much as it does, he forsook his title…” or “Proust would have loved Bose.”
While Chayka’s profile subject does feel genuinely refreshed and freed by her new lifestyle, he’s not content to stop the investigation there. We’re driven to shrink our collections, he argues, as a form of psychic protection in a volatile world. Someone teetering on the edge of climate and economic collapse can’t lose everything if they didn’t have anything in the first place. Renouncing worldly attachments in hope of enlightenment is a very Buddhist idea, and Chayka follows that thread in the book’s last section, which offers few easy answers but plenty of space for the reader to explore between clauses and declarations and make their own connections.
Curated minimalism is just a disguised form of consumption. In fact, minimalism constantly tries to conceal its own beginnings and ends. Even Donald Judd, perhaps the most famous capital-M Minimalist artist, couldn’t be so minimal as to be uninfluenced by the world at all. His masterworks in Marfa, Texas, hidden in the middle of the desert, are “specific objects” meant to be viewed exactly as they are, but Judd couldn’t entirely erase the fact that his work is housed in decommissioned military artillery sheds. And Jony Ive, the Apple designer so crucial to creating the streamlined, buttonless iPhones many of us now carry, could disguise but not erase the infrastructure needed for those products to work. Chayka reminds us that just out of sight, a mess of large, loud, ugly, and decidedly non-minimal mines and factories and underwater cables produce and support iPhones. Another of contemporary minimalism’s major tricks is convincing us that its philosophy will free us from the need to purchase. Soon, it tells us, you’ll be untethered by materialism—once you buy The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up or a bullet journal or an issue of Kinfolk or a book on how to simplify your life or a new shelf to better organize your items. And even those who do meet the fabled goal of only owning 100 items remain alienated from the products of their labor, he writes in one of the book’s nakedly Marxist asides. The work of 21st-century minimalism is not in simplifying our lives; it is in allowing us to believe they are simple.
As an aside, The Longing for Less is being published at the perfect time for D.C. dwellers. Chayka references a score of artists whose work is in the collections of National Mall museums. Dozens of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, a precursor to the Minimalists’ understanding of their works as simple objects, are on display at the Hirshhorn, and Yayoi Kusama’s work is returning there in April; works by Judd, Frank Stella, Claes Oldenburg, and Anne Truitt, to name a few, are on display in Smithsonian museums and the National Gallery of Art.
Minimalism presents us with an object and “rewards and reflects whatever kind of attention you direct at it,” Chayka writes. Throwing out old clothes, consolidating bookshelves, or deleting the most alluring apps on your phone may (rightfully) feel good, but they’re Band-Aids over the alienation of contemporary capitalism. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing worthwhile to be found in minimalism, though. As Chayka shows in the book’s moving last act, it’s still possible to encounter something sublime.
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