Why Minimalism is Having a Cultural Renaissance
The song starts with that unmistakable croon. The guitar strings separated and punctuated by light snaps. A monochromatic title card reads one simple word in white text:
The text gives way to an establishing shot of an empty room, its walls painted the same single coffee color of the title card. Daniel Caesar, one of the UK’s best and brightest young artists, stands in front of a mic hanging down from the ceiling.
He clutches a cup in one hand — coffee, like the color of his background. It also echoes the song’s most famous line:
“You’re the coffee that I need in the morning.”
His music is simple and bare, but beautiful.
The show frequently cuts to wide shots, as if to remind you of the emptiness of the room. Caesar is made the focal point not by complex props, but through absence.
Right now, this artistic style is exploding across every medium. From photography and writing to UI design. Artists are making bigger and bolder statements in an unlikely way.
As far back as the 4th century, Aristotle wrote that “art imitates life.” Sculpture, music, and writing, he thought, drew inspiration and reflected the society around them. Art was, and remains a representative pulse of our culture.
So when art begins to experience marked shifts, we should take notice.
A COLORS SHOW has quickly amassed millions of subscribers on YouTube with simple design. Each video follows the same template: an artist stands in the center of a room, the walls swathed in a single color that represents their musical profile. Other than that, the room is empty.
Across other mediums, minimalism — the art of using less — is becoming an element of style. Photographers, rather than populating their frames with swirls of objects and action, are honing in on single aspects. Even Medium, the very site that you’re using to read this article, reduces its design down to the sleek and simple.
Minimalism is having a cultural renaissance.
But how did minimalism, which just a decade ago was little more than a small subculture, explode into a dominant countercultural movement?
Countercultural movements exist because certain elements of the mainstream culture repulse a critical mass of people. Often, the counterculture champions values in direct opposition to the mainstream. In some cases, counterculture can evolve into a dynamic force that transforms the mainstream. Like how Romanticism swept across 18th and 19th Century Europe and North America, bringing literature, art, and music to the forefront.
American culture today is marked by excess and material wealth. Our society signals value through physical belongings, communicates status by title. The result is a bloated machine which has wreaked havoc on everything from our personal relationships to our global environment.
How did we get here?
Writers like Karl Marx warned us of the dangers inherent in capitalism. He theorized that capitalism’s emphasis on output would turn us into shallow materialists. And it would alienate the worker by forcing them into repetitive tasks until they were reduced from a thinking human being into an automaton. As we optimized the means of production for maximum output, we would begin to value quantity above all else.
Minimalism is a direct, opposing response to materialism. Its philosophy shuns the extraneous, reducing to only the truly essential.
But capitalism has emphasized material wealth long before minimalism became a popular counter-movement. It is a much more recent shift that is responsible for minimalism’s swelling popularity.
Today, we have more information at our fingertips than at any other point in human history. We have so many things clouding our focus on the daily, as we scroll through social media feeds and overcrowded email inboxes.
Finally, we hit a boiling point in information overload.
We are unfocused, unhappy, and overworked. As Internet access pervades every part of the world, we have billions of voices shouting at us through our smart phones 24/7.
Minimalism is becoming a part of the mainstream culture not as a conscious shift, but out of necessity. We are drowning in “the more.” So we value the focused attention of “the less.”
A COLORS SHOW contains a treasure trove of bare color palettes that I could have chosen to make my point, but I chose Caesar because his music captures the essence of minimalism like no other.
“You’re the coffee that I need in the morning
You’re my sunshine in the rain when it’s pouring
I just wanna see how beautiful you are.”
These lyrics focus on just the simplest aspects of love. There is something beautiful about Caesar’s elevation of the mundane.
In this overcrowded digital age, we could all use this focus.