A Case Against Minimalism?

In perusing the recent after-Christmas sales, I noticed that there is quite a prevalent ethos in current aesthetics: a sleek, (anorexically-)thin model with her hair pulled back into a neat ponytail, her features angular no matter what her ethnicity, wearing simple-cut, unadorned clothing in a chic environment that is usually white or gray. It looks gorgeously stylish, and some of the cuts are so classic that we can see they have been in existence since the heyday of fashion icons Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy, the Givenchy designs that we still love today. But this isn’t only in the world of clothing and fashion: we can see this in the popularity of mid-century modern furniture design, industrial-chic restaurants and cafés and boutiques, and even in the trendy ethos of “clean eating.” I have always been a huge fan of Scandinavian design, have hated Midwestern furniture and its heavy, brown, complicated look, loathe over- detailed and studded handbags, and am a frugal sort who prefers to have less in terms of possessions. And dare I say, sometimes I find the gopurams (towers) of Hindu temples in my ancestral land of South India can be a bit gaudy?

But all of this has made me wonder, why is there such a dislike of the opulent, the rococo, the detailed, the maximalist? Why is there a fear of design ethic that is “too much”? Is this aesthetic doing a disservice to many people and cultures? Here are some thoughts.

-There is often a lack of emotion in minimalism. Why smile when you can pout or have a neutral expression? This seems to be the opinion of art directors everywhere. Why not have a few stray curls cascading over a shoulder that show an element of playfulness instead of every (unnaturally-straightened) hair pulled back? Why does the table have to be set with such sterile perfection in a photograph instead of people laughing and talking, a drop of wine spilled, a penne that has escaped from the pot?
I have often remarked, when in Germany and Austria, at the way that the corners of the rooms are at such perfect, sharp 90° angles that it’s almost ridiculous. In the United States, even 90° angle walls have a slight curve to them. I always read this as a fear of emotion, anything that is not perfectly straight and rigid.

-It seems to favor a “masculine” energy. Some might argue this is an essentialist argument that masculine aesthetics and energy are straight lines, hard, plain things and feminine aesthetics and energy are curves, details, anything flowing. But I think there is some truth to this argument, that anything that is feminine, rounded, and sensual does not often feature in high-fashion and high art.

-Minimalism favors a particular body type and look. 90% of the population does not look like the models in magazines and in high-fashion print. This majority, in other words, does not fit a “skinny white person” aesthetic, regardless of ethnicity. A majority of the world’s cultures outside of America, Anglophone countries, and Northwestern Europe appreciates curves, voluptuousness, and femininity.

-Minimalism dismisses folk art and traditional handicrafts and handiwork. Think of the beautiful embroidery of Eastern Europe or India, the swirling batik prints of Southeast Asia, or the multicolored stripes of Guatemalan fabric (see my last post my appreciation of textiles). Or consider Russian culture’s adoration of “bling” – if it’s opulent and gilded, Russians love it. There is something pleasing to the eye about details and ornaments.

-There is something to be said about opulence. Traditionally, more has always signified more – more money, higher status, et cetera. Only in our narrow, 21st-century secular Western societies does less equal more. In America, we can trace that back to Puritanism. There is a dislike of the lavish, the rococo is frowned upon, and being unadorned as a woman is perfectly fine. We don’t come from a culture that has magnificent palaces, jewels, historical houses of worship, or grand costumes. This is unfortunate, because I think it dims our appreciation of that which is special. Oscar Wilde adored luxury and anything opulent, and the Oscar Wilde Bar in New York City pays tribute to the famed aesthete with highly decorated settings and an aptly named “Temptation Room.” There is also an Oscar Wilde Lounge in the Hotel Café Royal in London that Wilde himself used to frequent. Decked out in red and gold, it seems perfectly suited to the writer, and one can imagine him sitting with a pot of Earl Grey, cranking out bons mots in a hand-sewn, leather-bound notebook.

What would Oscar think about the current rage for minimalism in art? Very likely, he would be quite critical of it. After all, he did say, “Let me be surrounded by luxury, I can do without the necessities!”

The Picture of Dorian Gray: Wilde’s Form over Function

In architecture and design, there is a principle that compares the form and function of a structure or object. That is, the aesthetic nature and qualities of an object versus its utility. Given that the wondrous Oscar Wilde was one of the great writers of the Aestheticism movement, it is only natural that his sole novel focuses more heavily on his ideas, luxurious prose, and numerous allusions to great works of art and literature. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a unique book—-no other author could’ve written it. There is a sense of richness, opulence, beauty, and pleasure throughout the novel, but it is also tempered by a sense of the sinister. The central theme of the book is aesthetics, and how they relate to life and death: the contrast of Beauty and Death/Evil.

The hallmarks of Wilde are certainly present throughout the book. It is full of his famous witty dialogue and aphorisms: “A man can be happy with any woman, as long as he does not love her”, “… his work was that curious mixture of bad painting and good intentions that always entitles a man to be called a representative British artist”, and (my favorite) “Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets.” There are long descriptive passages of sheer detail and beauty, right from the opening of the book and all throughout it: “Talking to him was like playing upon an exquisite violin. He answered to every touch and thrill of the bow…” or “Delhi muslins, finely wrought with gold-thread palmates, and stitched over with iridescent beetles’ wings; the Dacca gauzes, but from their transparency are known in the East as ‘woven air,’ ” to quote but a few passages.

While on the surface everything seems beautiful, lurking underneath are dark forces that drive Dorian to murder and madness. Once we scratch the surface of stunning beauty, we find horror underneath. We first see this in the death of Sybil Vane. In short, the love struck actress’s artistry is no longer compelling enough for Dorian to love her. Spurned, she takes her life. Her love for him is not enough; he wants her dramatic power and creativity that seduced him. He murders the artist Basil Hallward, who immortalized Dorian in paint, for the portrait has caused him great anguish in his life. Dorian Gray himself dies an aesthetic death: despite his eternally youthful looks, his undiscovered sins, and his wealth, the portrait has caused him too much misery in his life, and so he must destroy a work of art in order to free his soul. Thus we see a trajectory of murders: first for the death of artistic love, next the death of the actual artist, and finally, the death of a work of art (which is really Dorian himself). Art is the driving impulse behind Dorian’s life; art is the motive behind all of his dark actions. This is so uniquely Wilde, an idea no other author could have ever expressed. Its very existence was novel and scandalous (as were the homoerotic dynamics between Dorian and other men).

Countless allusions pepper the book, from Shakespeare to French writers to Marco Polo to Catholicism to Chopin and beyond. It is perhaps a dazzling display of Wilde’s knowledge and love of high culture. Wilde is an aesthete’s aesthete: no stone is left unturned when it comes to great works of art. A sense of voluptuousness pervades The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is reflected by the rich language. Wilde was no mere emotional lover of the beautiful; he was incredibly well read and traveled.

But Wilde, by nature, is not a novelist. He is best known as a playwright, and perhaps the novel reflects why. The pacing is often irregular, and the way in which events unfold is not always entirely smooth. Long passages are devoted to describing things that do not necessarily move the story forward. Transitions are sometimes a bit awkward and clumsy. Naturally, the dialogue is strong, given Wilde’s strengths in writing for the theater. But sometimes the dialogue runs over into extended soliloquies that sound unnatural (even if we factor out our modern linguistic sensibilities). Yes, we understand that Basil and Lord Henry wish to sing the praises of the beautiful Dorian, but the author sometimes loses the reader in endless odes to the title character. Long passages often serve as moral essays on human nature and character, and these also can become tedious to the reader from time to time. The novel does not always stay true to its purpose and its form; rather, it lapses into essays and plays.

Wilde’s descriptions of *things* are very developed, but his descriptions of characters’ inner lives or their motives are sometimes lacking. As a result, the characters can sometimes seem a bit flat. Again, I suggest that this is due to Wilde’s strengths as a playwright, as a play relies on the actors to bring the story alive and to show the audience a more rounded portrayal of what is on the page. While to an extent the reader has to use his or her imagination to conjure up the characters, Wilde expects a bit too much from him or her. There is a flatness to the novel that is a little disappointing, given Wilde’s keen understanding of human dynamics. These, perhaps, come out best in his comic lines, but in a dark, even tragic novel such as this, the reader feels that there are more layers that the author needs to explore. One could argue that Wilde lets tragedy shine best through comedy, rather than through straight-on, pure tragedy itself. The novel is sufficiently, abundantly dark in its subject matter, in the manner of a gothic tale, and yet Wilde does not manage to go deeper than the divertissement of a parlor novel.

As I mentioned above at the beginning of this essay, Wilde stresses form over function. But would we have it any other way? Would we not forgive Wilde of his sins of slightly sloppy, erratic structuring, knowing that he has taken us on an artistic ride in a way that no one else could have done? Can we not forgive him his endless descriptions of furnishings, knowing that these are the things that he holds dear? The Picture of Dorian Gray is, say, that beautiful vase we have on our table that does not quite hold the flowers properly, and yet it is so visually and emotionally appealing that we can’t bear not to display it. That beautiful vase that is one-of-a-kind, made by a potter who normally makes bowls. And would we not forgive Oscar Wilde all of his literary sins throughout the book when he gives us that (pardon the pun) picture-perfect ending where Dorian stabs the painting, and thereby stabs himself? That metaphor alone is worth the whole book.