163. The Meaningful Meaninglessness of Minimalism

Most definitions of the art movement known as minimalism usually end up oversimplifying things given the rich diversity of artists and works involved. Nonetheless, there is a set of family resemblances that can help us put the word to good use. James Meyer provides a helpful account of such resemblances:

“Although never exactly defined, the term ‘Minimalism’ (or ‘minimal art’) denotes an avant-garde style that emerged in New York and Los Angeles during the 1960s, most often associated with the work of Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and Robert Morris, and other artists briefly associated with the tendency. Primarily sculpture, Minimal art tends to consist of single or repeated geometric forms. Industrially produced or built by skilled workers following the artist’s instructions, it removes any trace of emotion or intuitive decision-making, in stark contrast to the Abstract Expressionist painting and sculpture that preceded it during the 1940s and 1950s. Minimal work does not allude to anything beyond its literal presence, or its existence in the physical world. Materials appear as materials; colour (if used at all) is non-referential. Often placed on walls, in corners, or directly on the floor, it is an installation art that reveals the gallery as an actual place, rendering the viewer conscious of moving through this space.”

Now the meaning of a minimalist work will typically not be a function of (1) any imitation or representation of other things or events; (2) any expression of feelings, ideas, transcendent experiences, etc.; and (3) any intellectual experience that might come from metaphor, allegory, or symbolism. For example, Frank Stella, commenting on his painting The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II (1959), asserted, “What you see is what you see”:

In contrast to expressionists and abstract expressionists, who tried to convey emotions and/or ideas, Stella’s black paintings from the late fifties and early sixties employed serial methods of composition in order to remove traces of the world beyond the paint and canvas. They were designed not to refer to, imitate, or represent anything. And they were not intended to be symbolic. They simply are what they are and the viewer is invited to experience them as such. Robert Morris’ work Two Columns (1961) provides another example of this aesthetic agenda:

Morris said his work was an “essentially empty” sculpture with “nothing to say”. The columns don’t speak in any traditional sense about something beyond themselves as language typically does. To many people this was indeed accurate: how could two columns made of painted plywood, one on its side and one upright, say anything at all? Many viewers walked away—and still walk away—with a sense that they had just encountered something meaningless. This is not surprising given the agenda of making art with, well, nothing to say.

But perhaps this strange art that says nothing actually says something after all. For when we are confronted with a lack of meaning we can find that lack aesthetically moving. For example, one might have an aesthetic experience of death in the face of the meaningless, mute, repetitions of some minimalist work that seem to negate our lives so full of meaning, talking, and developing purpose. And this experience, far from being undramatic, could actually verge on what Immanuel Kant referred to as the dynamic sublime insofar as this form of the sublime requires we feel a sense of our freedom in the face of aesthetically experienced fear (see here for an overview of the Kantian sublime). Alternatively, we might experience the lack of meaning as something peaceful, something that might quiet our noisy minds in their frantic search of so much meaning. And perhaps some minimalist works may, due to their lifelessness, offer us a contrast to our life. In doing so, they may make us feel more alive in their uncanny space of eternal silence. In doing so they might, paradoxically, seem to be giving us some life they really shouldn’t have.

For some more insights about art, symmetry, meaning, eternity, and death, go here.

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