Today I take on the Sisyphean task of explaining and shedding some light on minimalist art. Because even though it might seem otherwise – the less there is, the easier it will be – the underlying assumptions of minimalism aren’t at all straightforward. And even if we’re equipped with theoretical knowledge, experiencing minimalist artworks can still generate more questions than answers. Minimalism has become very fashionable lately, as a way to counterbalance widespread consumerism. Anything from lifestyle, clothes, to interior design can be minimalist. But what does minimalism mean in art?
The rule of thumb in minimalism is to stop trying to represent reality through “mimesis” (Greek for imitation, similarity). Artworks are not meant to evoke any associations with real-life objects. Minimalists, therefore, depart from the tradition where art is expected to either present or symbolize something specific. What is this shift all about? Mostly about the idea that art should be absolutely objective in its reception. In other words: when looking at the colorful neon tubes in Dan Flavin’s works, we are supposed to see colorful neon tubes; when looking at the large sheets introduced into the museum space by Robert Morris, we are supposed to see large sheets and nothing beyond that.
To understand cubism, we must know a bit about the movement, and to interpret a mythological scene, we must have at least a basic knowledge of mythology. Minimalist art, devoid of references to tradition, swaps all that for an attempted objectivity of experience, so that minimalist art is available to everyone. It is not about awakening subjective feelings in the viewer, which can be evoked by romantic landscapes or nudes, but about sensations of a purely visual nature. Having said that, it is difficult to pinpoint how this works out in practice, as everyone is bound to respond differently to different artworks, and so it is no longer be an objective experience.
In minimalist art, the space which hosts artworks plays a very important role, and unfortunately it’s something that photographs can’t capture. To be able to say that we like or dislike such an such work, we can’t rely on photos from exhibitions or descriptions. A cube made of wood may not have any artistic value (I see many of you nod right now) but perhaps, when viewed in a museum space – with appropriate lighting and the smell of wood floating in the air – it could make us feel something.
The minimal art trend emerged in the 1960s, but an interesting attempt to grasp it may be through the prism of the current trend for minimalism in lifestyle and in interior design. The “less is more” principle is to help us live more consciously, in the here and now, without being distracted by things that are irrelevant. Framed in this context, minimal art indeed makes sense. “Does it, though?”, I can hear you ask. It’s good to think of such works in terms of an invitation to contemplation. By looking at objects detached from real life, our mind slows down and quiets down for a moment, because unlike art that forcibly stands for something, minimal art doesn’t push us onto the carousel of endless associations and reflections.
This is, of course, one of the many interpretations of minimal art and I’m sure I won’t convince all of you, the same way I’m sure for many this art will never be contemplative or peaceful, but rather annoying, because neon tubes or a mirror cube just aren’t art. Fortunately, art has many faces, so if you’re not a fan of this one, it’s no big deal – there’s many more to choose from!
transl. Jakub Majchrzak