In Defence of Minimalism

4 Jul|Aliya Mughal

Ideas for frugal living are nothing new, writes Aliya Mughal

The term minimalism was originally used in relation to abstract art in the early 19th century, becoming more widespread in the 1960s and 1970s, to describe single colour compositions such as the famously prodigious canvases of Mark Rothko.  

Behind Rothko’s minimalistic use of colour was a desire to highlight society’s dull, thoughtless addiction to glitter, gossip and greed.

According to Simon Schama, writing in The Power of Art, Rothko was trying to “throttle the relentless chirpiness of contemporary life and reconnect us with the strenuous drama of the human condition”.  The point of his aesthetic rebellion was to “rehumanize the world by attacking the sedative quality of contemporary life”.

These days, the word minimalism has been appropriated by countless bloggers showing us how easy it is to bake if you keep it simple, how to be more Zen if you follow a few basic habits, and how to create peace in your home if you furnish it sparsely.

It’s easy to scoff at what looks like a superficial antidote to a culture of excess. But ideas for frugal living, and the resistance they inspire, are nothing new.

One of the early proponents of the simple life was Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius who wrote:

“Most of what we say and do is unnecessary: remove the superfluity, and you will have more time and less bother….the removal of the unnecessary should apply not only to actions but to thoughts also: then no redundant actions either will follow.”

Today’s ascetics have repackaged the same ideas to appeal to our modern appetite for style and substance.

Take Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, otherwise known as The Minimalists, bloggers on a mission to change the world with their black and white clothes and a website full of learned advice on how to live more with less.

Their message – minimalism is the route to the thing we all crave the most:  

“Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around. Real freedom.”

Which is precisely what Henry David Thoreau was pursuing when he retreated to Walden Pond in 1854 “to live deliberately [with] only the essential facts of life”.

Thoreau decided that everyone else was thoughtlessly committed to a life of “quiet desperation”, working hard for the sake of a perpetual existence of despair, and that “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity” was the real key to happiness.

Thoreau even went so far as to throw out three pieces of limestone because:   

“I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still.”   

A slightly exaggerated reaction to some ornaments, you might say.  But like the minimalists of today, Thoreau was smug because he realised a serious point – there are more interesting ways to spend your time than doing the dusting.

In his 1948 essay ‘Accumulations’, Aldous Huxley predicted that these turnarounds would come, that subsequent generations would discover the way forward was to reject “the accumulated evidence of whole civilizations” desperately hoarded by men who feared the “perishableness of matter”.

We should applaud the new vanguard of minimalists for resisting the trappings of a conventional, compulsive lifestyle.

It’s a sign of hope that we might counter what the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche, in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying describes as the “the source of the modern world’s bleak and destructive materialism”.

Freeing ourselves of physical baggage offers us a way to elevate our minds.

As Thoreau wrote: “Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.”