All crisp white homes with smooth black accents and banana leaves in the corners. No bed frames, no knick-knacks. Bare walls and sunlight dancing on the empty wooden floors. Minimalism.
As an aesthetic trend, minimalism has steadily gained popularity in mainstream culture. It’s clean, simple, and elegant. It subverts consumerist culture by rejecting attachment to material items. Those who participate only own what is essential to living, nothing more. Some even go so far as only owning 100 items in total—that includes clothing, furniture, technology and sentimental items.
At the heart of minimalism is the idea of commitment. Those who strip away the unnecessary bulk in their lives commit to an ideal. They’ve turned away materiality in order to live in some higher plane of pleasures and morality, under the mindset that it isn’t what they possess that brings joy or meaning to their lives, but what they do with their lives. A noble notion that is hard to disagree with, there’s still something missing. If they reject the material, what are they committing to?
Historically, minimalism, among those who chose to live such a lifestyle, was a rejection of the physical world and a commitment to spirituality and peace. Most major Eastern and Western religious figures were known to have few possessions in order to focus on matters of a spiritual dimension. A simple google search of minimalism and religion will bring up the names of Siddhārta Guatama, Confucious, Ghandi, Mohammad, Jesus and Moses—all figures who have preached about the insignificance of the items of the world, how they are distractions from true peace, love, and understanding. They encouraged their followers to turn away from their possessions and to focus on God, Nirvana, Jannah, etc. Those who did became known as monks and nuns; the practice of a simple lifestyle came to be described as monastic and monkish. In other words, it became a niche way of life saved for the devout few.
As time went on, minimalism gained popularity in art, and now in decorative aesthetics. Yet, once again, there’s something missing from this discussion. What about those who don’t have the choice to live anything but a simple lifestyle? There have always been those who have to live without. Men, women, and children survive everyday with less possessions than monks. They also live with only the bare necessities, but in their case, they didn’t reject consumerist culture—consumerist culture rejected them.
Where do the homeless and the impoverished fit into this new aesthetic movement? Minimalist blogs and YouTube channels are romanticizing the idea of being able to carry everything you own in a backpack, sharing pictures on Tumblr of wide empty lofts, all while there are people sitting on the street right outside. Both sides live a stripped down life, yet the intentional minimalists are respected and fawned over as beautiful and moral, while the homeless are treated despicably, as if they were less than human beings.
Minimalism as an aesthetic lifestyle comes from a place of privilege. It is only for those that have items to reject. It is only for those that can still find shelter and food. It is only for those that look beautiful and have money. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
Those privileged enough to be able to reject consumerist culture can do so in a way that also subverts consumerist culture to help those in need. By giving aid to the poor and homeless, you are not only helping them to survive, but also pushing against current socio-economic structures and redistributing wealth. By doing so, your minimalist lifestyle has a purpose beyond aesthetic pleasure—in fact, you have found the thing to commit to that the minimalist lifestyle needs in order to function. Commit to something more than committing against materialism.