The Extraness of Minimalism

By Abigail Mengesha

Let’s not lie to each other. Minimalism is the most extra thing right now. Normally, the two terms are complete adversaries: denotatively, minimalism is the practice of using the least means necessary to achieve a desired effect, while extra, in its newly founded modern context, means doing the absolute most for generally no (or an unnecessary) reason. At first glance, it might be hard to recognize that these terms can intersect, but the principle and application of minimalism, specifically the way it is applied in the arts and its effects on people’s lives, have assimilated it into the realm of extraness.

One matter that masks this integration is the fallacy that extraness is closely associated with abundance and quantitative enormity, while in reality, it is purely a concomitant of magnitude and extremity. It does not depend on the amount of something, but on the concentration of its essence and the intensity of its substance. Whenever you label an object, person, or idea as extra, you are not commenting on how much of it is in existence, but on the strength of its actuality. This understanding indicates a correlation between extraness and minimalism, since the latter is a tool to get rid of the excess in favor of concentrating on the significant so that people can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom. Here, the excess is not given a bounded space or a constraint; contrary to popular belief, minimalism is not a set of restrictions or an instruction manual. You do not need to get rid of your car. You do not need to abandon your smart phone and move into a shack in the middle of nowhere. You do not need to check things off a list, particularly when that list does not exist in the first place. So, if this excess does not have a measurable representation, people’s preventive and/ or curative actions against it also become immeasurable. Their reactions surpass the enumerative make-up of limits, and attain a state of dynamic abstraction similar to that of extraness. It simply requires people to discard as much as they don’t need. As a result, it comes to light that both terms are concerned with a position relative to the superlative, not its quantitative representation.

Nowadays, art can highlight this interrelation. Modern art museums are full of minimalistic forms of art, which are the epitome of extra. Take, for example, Robert Ryman’s Twin, which is a blank canvas. Initially, this work might be dismissed since it appears to require nominal effort and time. How can something so simple be regarded as extra? And the answer lies in the previously verified definition: it is extra not in terms of the amount of effort the artist put into it but in its degree of simplicity. Like other minimalist works of art, it is extremely simple—literally just a canvas—since it resists the ideological requirement to imitate something and accepts that art should have its own reality. This results in a critical focus on the medium and form of the work, which entails an acute process of conceptualization that is void of individualized influence—a blank canvas is pretty silent about the artist—and consequently develops a severe intensity of impersonality. This final, grave sense of neutrality is attained by not physically doing the most—after all, mounting a canvas is not extra in the least sense—but by abstracting the art as much as possible.

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Art by Nadya  Mikhaylovskaya

Therefore, minimalist art becomes extra because of its glaring presentation and lack of components. It shies away from sophistication and embraces a sense of crudeness that is materially empty but immaterially pregnant with rich thinghood. The work sets out to expose the essence of art by eliminating all unessential elements. As a result, it has no moderation because it settles on the ultimate ends of the spectrum: the expression of enormously abstract terms like spirits, emotions, and ideas via extremely reduced visual representations. Visually, this kind of art may be subtle, but in its subtlety it aims at achieving the absolute most of what art can do.

Similarly, literary minimalism mirrors this sense of extraness. According to John Barth, literary minimalism arises from the notion that “less is more,” and that can be interpreted in various ways. There are minimalisms of unit, state, and proportion: short words, terse sentences and paragraphs, awfully brief stories, very thin novels. There are minimalisms of style: a reduced vocabulary; a reduced syntax that avoids periodic sentences, successive predicates and intricate subordinates; a reduced rhetorical devices that may avoid figurative elements altogether; a reduced, impassive tone. And there are minimalisms of material: nominal characters, nominal exposition, nominal action, nominal plot. Unlike minimalist art’s approach of “what you see is what you get,” literary minimalism condones, “there is more to what meets the eye” because meaning is entrusted and pressured upon a limited vocabulary, a restricted communication of details and an objective point of view. As a result, the works of authors who partake in this movement—namely, Ernest Hemingway, Tobias Woolf, and the like—forge content from context and require the active participation of readers to achieve the complete experience of their pieces. For instance, Hemingway’s short story “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” is composed of only six words, the very same ones that constituent the title. This is by far his tersest work, which desperately requires the reader to participate in the construction of a greater narrative. Hemingway jams the plot, theme, and setting of a whole story into half a dozen words. After all, like all minimal works of literature, it integrates allusion and inference via exclusion to add depth and make up for its restricted exposition. And this factor pushes literary minimalism towards the extreme.

Literary minimalism’s extraness arises from its need for a severe sense of removal, reduction, and concision. In a way, it requires intense concentration and intellectual investment to ground its practicality since it is saturated with oblique hints that arise from its linguistic limitations. If the authors are effective in their narration, there is no reason why readers wouldn’t be able to grasp the message without ornamental additions. And in its aim to remove the unnecessary, it boils down to a rigid and abrupt form of efficiency, which denotatively achieves the absolute maximum from the absolute minimum; and this explanation fits perfectly into the millennial interpretation of “extra.”

Correspondingly, the concept of minimalist architecture is to strip everything down to its essential quality and achieve simplicity. In Kanagawa, Japan, Shinichi Ogawa & Associates designed the Cube House, an epitome of this movement. From the front, the house is a solid gray cube with a single, narrow, white door. Thanks to its plainness and elementary features, each room is connected through this void in the living room. Seamlessly, the house blends in with other similar constructions, since minimalist architecture—the concept it’s based off—is characterized by plans where spaces are predictable and uncomplicated. Admittedly, the idea is not completely void of embellishment, but all parts and features are considered as relegates to a stage where no one can remove anything further to improve the design. Similar to literary minimalism, it uses the fewest and barest elements to achieve the desired functionality. As a result, the designs create a refuge from excess and grandiose additions because minimalist architects use space as a design in and of itself. The incorporation of basic geometric forms and the repetitions of structures compliment this dogma and depict the extent designers and architects are willing to go to achieve this heightened degree of simplicity. And in doing so, their works welcome extraness with open arms.

Achieving this level of simplicity requires a monastic orderliness and a sense of perfectionism. The straight lines, the clean-cut geometric furniture and the light filled open spaces have an element of exactness that surpasses any sense of moderation. This level of “perfect” is deeper than that of a monochromatic or a high contrast color scheme since it removes sofas, radiators, doors, and other elements of design that the inhabitant can do without. For this exact reason, the path to achieving smooth, simple designs gets tainted with extraness, one that will try to remove as much as it can because clutter is the farthest thing from perfect, from order, from cleanliness.

So, looking at these three forms of minimalism, an intersection reveals itself. All of them are extremely reductive and ambitious, regardless of their corresponding methods of achieving simplicity. They are inherently too much; too much in their disregard of the unnecessary; too much in their obsession with the necessary; and too much in their acts of separating the unnecessary from the necessary. And this extremity makes them extra because they are as close to the utmost as possible. This relationship—of the necessary, the unnecessary, and their distinction—reveals the irony behind the term “minimalism.” Even though, it strives for the minimum, the simplest, and the essential, it still takes the most supreme, the most complex, and the most intense actions to achieve the desired result. Just like extraness, minimalism is inseparable from its fixation on a position relative to the extreme and a concern with limitless magnitude.

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