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One of modern age’s great obsessions is the desire for simplicity.  You see this concept everywhere—lifestyle gurus sell millions of books about simplifying your life.  Hollywood blockbusters are about salt-of-the-earth country boys with a monosyllabic moral code who become action heroes and easily defeat the bad guys. TED talks distill data science into a short anecdote from primary school.  The infatuation for simplicity is omnipresent—in fad diets, in investment strategies, in household management, above all else, in politics (boy howdy is the desire to make things simple running rampant in politics!).

This is a shame: for simplicity is a fallacy.  Things are not simple at all.  Generally, the more one studies a field, the more one realizes how complicated, nuanced, self-contradictory, and messy that field is. A lead ball and a feather fall at the same rate…except in the real world where they fall so differently that thermodynamics and gravity are hidden. History is not one all-important person [Napoleon or Alexander the Great, for example] saying “I will accomplish X”: it is countless millions upon millions of people trying to accomplish innumerable conflicting goals in opposition to each other (all while churches, nation states, guilds, secret societies, kingpriests, banks, and other strange cabals work on their own conflicting agendas).  In college I was excited to take cell biology and learn about the simple building blocks that life is made of…until the professor came in and wrote the Krebs cycle on the board as the first thing.  That was the first ten minutes! The rest of the class was learning how wrong the “simple” elegant metabolism cycle (below) can go when you start adding new chemicals.

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Simplicity is not real except as a concept. And it is a dangerous concept! The purpose of today’s post is not to teach you the Krebs cycle (as if I could) or to encompass all of history.  Instead we are pushing back at simplicity by striking at minimalism–the art form which espouses reductive simplicity.

Why am I attacking minimalism instead of other confidence tricks based around the illusion of simplicity? Art is the wellspring that ideas come from.  Concepts that bubble up in a font on Mount Parnassus are sanctified by the muses (or I guess these days by Jerry Saltz) and then trickle into other fields.  To start to make some headway in this worldwide morass we are in, we need to let go of some of these illusions about simple being better.  To start with that we need to go back to minimalism’s aesthetic roots in modern art.

The reason art is so germinal is because it is a place of illusions and magic.  The most fantastic imaginings can be real there.  Do you not like to walk?  You can paint everyone as flying! Are you sad that most of the creatures that ever existed have gone extinct? Just draw them as living together in Super Eden! Do you chafe at the Byzantine organic chemistry level complexity of, well, everything…just draw it as ridiculously simple! And artists have certainly simplified.  There are many artists who became influential just painting white canvases: Malevich, Martin, Baer, Albers, Ryman…the list goes on and on.

Arguably some of these works were made to express the same concepts I am expressing here.  Simplicity is not simple.  That infamous white canvas “Bridge” by Robert Ryman (1982, pictured below) has probably engendered more complex philosophical art essays than just about any artwork from the seventies/eighties.  Looking at a pure white canvas makes you realize that white can be warm or it can be cold. White can have a variety of textures and microdetails…to say nothing of the dense world of allusions it opens up.  Thinking about the nature of white begins to raise troubling questions about cognition, physics, and the psychology behind how we see things.

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But sadly these meanings have not translated well as Minimalism the art movement has flowed into minimalism the cultural phenomena (frankly I think the minimalism wing in the art museums might be a bit of a carnival trick too, to get people laughing and talking not to impress them with the sublime).

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The minimalist aesthetic has been a growing problem in America for decades.  Any New Yorker will instantly recognize the prestige look of the present moment—off-white walls, ugly blocky furniture made of blonde wood and neutral fabric, recess lighting, lots of glass & steel, monochromatic accents, and minimalist artwork.  To obtain the image at the top of this paragraph, I went to Google and image searched “beautiful apartment” and the results were hundreds of images of identical white rooms with what seems like the same furniture set.  It is like being trapped inside a display refrigerator at Sears (does that place still exist?).  Is this beautiful? Obviously not, but it is cheap and simple for developers to craft.

I feel like these rooms are like the GUI of a computer—they are seemingly simple, but they are really designed by vast corporate interests to sell things (and also there are vast worlds of complexity, disorder, and mess crammed into storage, just out of sight).  Minimalism look good on screens—it is simple enough to be comprehensible even in a thumbnail so you can sell it online (no need for photoshopping). Also minimalism is like a carnival barker’s trick or an infomercial pitch in another way too.  Its simplicity makes it easy to sell.

And here is where we get to the real heart of minimalism.  It is commercially successful. That Ryman painting a few paragraphs back sold in 2015 for $20.6 million!  We already know how well Kondo’s works about decluttering your life sell.  The “clean” diet kills people because it lacks sufficient nutrients for human beings, but people adhere to it with religious fervor even when MDs beg them not to.

Our world is so complicated and baffling that the allure of simplicity is an enticement beyond any other.  Yet it is salesman’s con job.  Don’t let people convince you that white paintings have a meaning that supersedes all other art or that empty rooms are best.  Simple solutions in politics tend to be impossible and dangerous. Simple diets will kill you.  I wish I had said my thesis more simply, rather than writing such a winding narrative to say such a straightforward thing.  Anything of beguiling simplicity is almost certainly a lie.

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