Minimalism is a quite popular and fervently researched artistic and cultural movement that goes in and out of vogue like high-waisted denim. Its impact on society is nothing short of revolutionary, with everything from fonts, to house design, to technology all embracing a functional and simple aesthetic that celebrates ergonomics and accessibility. It’s fitting that the entire philosophy surrounding minimalism can be put into three words: “less is more”. Yet for all it’s influence and beauty minimalism has always irked and confused me.
To be clear, I think the fact that going into the twenty-first century people have decided to approach the world in a more practical way is a beautiful thing. The creation of technology easily accessible for all members of the public, the rising popularity of the waste-reduction movement and a return to practices of meditation and mindfulness can all be attributed to minimalist attitudes and movements. My issue with minimalism doesn’t really have anything to do with these things at all, my issue merely stems from our cultural understanding of minimalism as an outsider or alternative movement, reserved for pious monks, hipsters and people who wear the same shirt for 15 years because they’re unsure if people would recognise them with a different shirt on. People see minimalism as an escape from the world when in reality it’s most applicable when providing simple solutions to daily problems and is a vital resource for just helping people who need it. I don’t think I ever really appreciated or understood these facets of minimalism until I began learning about it’s antithetical movement: maximalism.
Maximalism is a reaction to minimalism and in recent months, an increasing amount of fashion and design blogs have been indicating that we are about to see it come into vogue again in a very loud way. Maximalism at face value seems kinda gross right? In an overpopulated, polluted time period, the idea that we should be celebrating all things unnecessarily decadent is particularly repellant. Adding to maximalism’s bad reputation is how its central ideology is often summed up as “more is more”, as though it’s being spoken by a smug rich know-it all without an air of whimsy in their lungs who looks down on the simplicity of minimalism. However, just as it’s fitting that minimalism’s maxim can be summarised in three words, it’s also pertinent that maximalist’s cannot. I’m not sure I can properly find any way to simply, using words, summarise what it means to be a maximalist or engage with maximalist practices, what I can do however is describe an episode of Malcolm in the Middle (2000).
In the show’s second season about the life of a lower-middle class American family, they aired an episode called ‘Hal Quits’ (2001) in which father and at the time, primary breadwinner of the household, takes leave of his job and spends weeks painting his ‘masterpiece’. The event is prompted by going to his son’s school to talk about his job, which in typical Hal fashion ends up being as depressing as it is hilarious-culminating in one child asking “if your job is so boring and you don’t like it, why do you do it?” By the next scene Hal has obviously taken this to heart, deciding to take “kidney failure” leave from his boring office job in order to pursue the aforementioned painting. He spends the rest of the episode covered in paint, working haphazardly, frantically and hilariously on this massive wall sized painting that we never see. It nearly destroys him, yet when he finally adds the finishing touches to it he is overcome with a deep sense of content and even his sceptical family members appreciate the awesomeness of his vision. Despite the fact the painting falls immediately under the unsustainable amount of paint on it and is forever lost to the world, Hal is able to return to work and has become more or less content with his monotonous and stressful life.
Now, whilst there is a lot to unpack here, it’s evident that Hal is engaging with maximalist practices in order to deal with how helpless, powerless and disenfranchised he feels in his life. Hal isn’t doing this financially irresponsible act because he is finding a way to escape his responsibilities as a family-man, he’s creating a painting because he feels as though it’s the only way for him to connect with any semblance of individual meaning. The beautiful thing about this narrative is that he does find meaning and happiness, that elusive and confusing ideal is obtained by a man aggressively throwing paint against a wall.
Now that I’ve successfully over-analysed a family sitcom, I think it’s important to clarify what maximalism means for the average individual just trying to make it through their lives. We’re living in a world that’s completely saturated by lights, advertisements and a flurry of noise – and we’re getting nowhere by pretending that’s not the case. Maximalism doesn’t imply simply giving in to the endless sea of madness that is our technological landscape, it suggests diving into that sea and becoming a fucking dolphin. Adopting maximalist practices in our daily lives empowers us to live in a world where you have to balance a job, a degree and a social life and still have the energy and courage to be excited about life.
Maximalism is an emotive practice which emphasises passion, creativity and a post-modern understanding of meaning, and just like minimalism, it has its time and place.
Maximalism is useful when we consider how we stay informed about the world. It’s common knowledge that sticking to one source of media is likely to result in a shallow perspective of many issues, in these cases it’s important to emphasise the value of using the internet and the massive amount of content being pushed towards us to our strategic advantage – gathering a wide array of sources on a singular issue to culminate in a central, yet nuanced idea. In art as well, maximalism has become a creative outlet for primal expression using the technology and resources we have at our disposal in the modern era.
The central tenet of maximalism is determination. It may seem reckless and stupid, but the idea is that if we push hard enough and strive through adversity, we can achieve our goals. I may be spinning naive tales here, but I legitimately believe that by adopting a maximalist attitude in the way we set our life-goals we can give ourselves agency and avoid descending into fatalism.
I believe that one of the most prominent paradigm shifts in Western culture coming into the twenty-first century is the devaluing of binary structures and ideas. Life, is more complicated than “yes or no” and as time has gone by we have learnt to place items of identity, ideas and processes on spectrums and scales rather than categories. It’s important to remember the distinction between minimalism and maximalism by considering them not as fixing labels but as two ends on a line. There are going to be times in your life where it’s healthier to approach a task in a simple and clear manner, focusing on one thing at a time and there are going to be other times where you are going to have to frantically compose all your ideas in a fixed amount of time. Both of these approaches are useful in their own way and it is definitely time that we began placing equal value on them. For minimalism to carry any meaning other than a simple rejection of the excess and saturation of society we need to properly understand and value the ways maximalism can help us in our daily lives.