A few months ago at the Design Museum in London, the English designer John Pawson opened his exhibit Plain Space attempting to display a sort of collective anthology of minimalist art and design. He is a rather controversial artist for it is sometimes up for question as to whether he is, in fact, an artist. After all, Pawson is responsible for both an austere Cistercian monastery in the Czech Republic and a Calvin Klein store in New York City. This has lead some commentators, such as Stephen Bayley, to conclude that this may be the end of minimalism as art because essentially, it no longer maintains its throne as the arch-snob of the art world. And yet, is that a fair characterization? Certainly, minimalism relaxes in the exclusive lounges of our highest social brows, but as I write this, I stare at the screen of a MacBook that is charging an iPod: two artifacts of a thoroughly populist impulse of unadornment.
All of this highlights the peculiarly dual nature of minimalism in that it dismantles the wall between art and style while simultaneously inhabiting both realms. It is doubtful that this ability of minimalism can be underestimated for I believe that it rests upon the unique position that we the observers hold in our perception of minimalist art and design, that of both subject and object. It might be difficult to flesh this out in the brevity of this article, however, this characteristic is perhaps unprecedented in the history of art where individuals have always been merely the subjects that perceive art forms; I (the subject) view the Mona Lisa (the object). Though that assertion may seem a bit banal, it is not accidental that this dichotomy has remained firmly established until now. It has ensured that art and style are never conflated for art is a representation of the physical world whereas style is a representation of individuals’ self-aware and introspective constructs.
The moment that an artist paints or sculpts an image of something, he or she is, intentionally or not, asserting a belief in the objective and intrinsic meaning of the physical world, a belief that we can passively receive forms therefrom via our senses. This belief, in turn, rests upon a notion that a personal God is responsible for this universe and necessarily imbued it with meaning, with form, by virtue of his creation. Prior to that, the first chapter of Genesis tells us that the first condition of the earth was “without form and void” and consequently, speaking in aesthetic terms, God existed as both the subject and the object of the cosmos as its only “form-giver.”
Therefore, all art that represents the physical world, even in an otherworldly manner, honors the inherent hierarchy embedded into Creation, offering a tribute to the Imago Dei that we all possess. Once this hierarchy has been lost, the distinction between art and style ultimately collapses and there is no reason to represent the physical world because there is no longer really isn’t anything to represent, all that is left to serve as the objects of art are the subjective judgments of individuals to confer onto it. And what art genre receives all the judgments of individuals better than minimalism?
Could it perhaps be the ultimate irony that the final consequence of the absence of the divine from modern art is a return to the pre-Creation cosmos wherein everything was formless and void? I am not, of course, indicting the whole of minimalism under an accusation of intrinsic rebellion, for it is certainly the case that visual silence can be a great aid in contemplation and meditation. However, it is curious that while the wonder and complexity of Creation has only intensified as we’ve explored it deeper, our art that has accompanied the progression has descended further into neutrality and blank austerity.
Caleb Roberts is a recent graduate of Oklahoma State University and lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma with his wife Julie where he directs his moonlighting interest of embodied theology into either his blog genu(re)flection or a bright red cast iron pot.