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The Rise and Absorption of Minimalist Art: From the Post Modern Aesthetic Image to the Product of Global Consumerism

Minimalism is a movement that occurred throughout the arts and acted in many ways as a reaction against the indulgence and pretentiousness of modernism. On seeing the role of aesthetics emphasising a splendour in art and design that was married to the rational notion of 'the sublime' put forward by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, a post World War II movement away from Impressionism began to take hold throughout the world of art (Kant, 1973). Detaching from the notion of genius, works of art that existed as examples of sophisticated subjective interpretations of the object made by the artist, minimalism developed as a notion of defining the basic elements of the whole phenomenal experience of life, rather than any grandiose splendour of an object. Simple but precise lines and distinctions replaced the blurring and ambiguity of portraits and styles. This principle was not only applied to fine art. Moving into the latter part of the century where post modernity was taking a strong hold over the arts, human sciences and even pure sciences, minimalism also moved into the fields of music and literature. Detracting from the structural manipulation of the production and performance of music, the minimalist musician began using a simple and repetitive structure regularly bending pitch and alternating speeds to elicit new variations of familiar or consonant sounds. Likewise, in the world of literature, the notion of reducing prose to direct and paced narratives delineating from grand stories or omniscient authorship began to accompany the movement taking prominence in the 80's and 90's throughout the west. In terms of design, the traditional aesthetics of eastern cultures, such as Japan and China, became incorporated into the minimalist movement. Due to their onus on symbolism as a referent of natural shapes and scenes, their aesthetic was well suited to the deconstructed qualities wanting to be captured by minimalist fashion. However, towards the end of the 20th century, this design was to become absorbed into the growing global corporate mechanism and alter not only the position of the minimalist movement but also the way in which the artists, designers and stylist would hone their product. In examining this shift in perspective and artistic slant, we will look at the work of two designers in particular in relation to the greater shift in art and its means of global production.     

Using the Japanese style to encapsulate his onus on minimalism, Helmut Lang fashioned a number of ranges of denim wear and suits establishing his own brand in the process. Using high quality materials and simple designs, Lang established a trademark for seminal style based upon essential components, rejecting the superfluous and elaborates in this process. Going against the style in Paris, which was reminiscent of the impressionist art movement founded in the same region many years before, Lang established a brand of minimalist design that appealed to a global market and incorporated the founding traditions of many other world cultures during the 90's. By using high tech materials, the height of technological modernity, and extremely accurate and distinctive cuts, Lang was able to reject the muddying of definitive shapes and indulgence of elaborate accessories and achieve elegance through silhouettes and intellectual shading. Due to this, an emphasis upon making the viewer think about the aesthetic qualities in such simple and distinctive designs became a distinctive trait of the minimalist movement. Using shades rather than colours, popularly known for his favour of black and white or two-tone, Lang's brand helped to re-invigorate the images of both masculinity and femininity in terms of subtle rather than pompous displays of sexuality. Using the strength and identity of the brand, Lang seemed to personify not only minimalism but the greater artistic movement of the late 20th century in the shift from modernism to post-modernism within the world of design. Outlining this cultural shift, theorist and cultural critic Jean Baudrillard, outlined the immensity of this change (or ideological fracture) that had rendered such qualities as technological positivism, grand ideals of beauty and the idea of a true representation of personality as obsolete. Addressing the notion of the image and the ways in which it was adorned, represented and what it could signify, Baudrillard stated that, rather than being a representation of anything from an indication of social distinction to an indication of inner beauty, it was an,

Essentially, we can see from this that the role of minimalism and its significance in art as an avatar to an aesthetic origin has been absorbed by what Kracauer identifies as the principle of capitalist production; namely Prada. In doing so, the means of resistance to globally produced art and fashion (minimalism) has subsided and given way to a mass ornament of meaningless choice and unrecognisable origin due to it becoming absorbed by the global corporation of Prada. What we can see from this is that although the minimalist movement, encapsulated in the 90's by the designs and principles of among others Lang and Sadler, was revolutionary and authentic, once Prada had bought the brands and marketed them to a pre-defined global audience the meaning and significance of their artistic pursuit had given way to arbitrary whim. Highlighting this mechanism, we can see in the novel, The Devil Wears Prada that a clear rationale is given for this shift from authentic art to absorbed product. Essentially, we can see how creating a cultural and artistic pursuit tied to meaning, purpose and endeavour simply becomes the whim of the elites, whose by-product at the less affluent end of the capitalist scale manifests itself as an arbitrary and meaningless choice. For instance, in the text there is an instance wherein the protagonist, a young American girl, sheepishly laughs at what appears to her to be a seemingly insignificant perplexity that occurs over the choice of some almost identical accessories. She is then met with the explanation of this choice. Using the example of her own choice of regalia, a blue jumper, it is explained by the managing director that it was not her who chose the jumper, nor was it a designer, and that she has no idea of the choosing process. Following on from this assertion, the managing director of the fashion corporation then explains that the choice had been made by the whim of the fashion corporations, and not designers, before the product had been discarded and passed down to the shops and market places where she arbitrarily stumbled across it and purchased it without understanding (Weisberger, 2006). This suggests that the emphasis that is put upon the designers to follow and create new artistic endeavours and cultural pursuits is ultimately absorbed by global fashion corporations in the pursuit of trends, images and new ideas to sell products. Of course, the ideas that went into creating minimalism still remain true to the genre of minimalism. However, it is within this process of global appropriation of the produced artefact that we see the end of minimalist enquiry. Not because the artistic idea has ended it's relevant and meaningful life span, but because the brand is no longer perceived as new and so the whim of cultural desire, both led and facilitated by fashion corporations, has shifted to another genre after appropriating the last. However, with Langer and Sanger's departure from Prada and moves to houses situated in the nations of Japan and Britain respectively, authentic minimalist design and idea may return to these brands. But we can nonetheless see this as an indication for the end of its popularity post 90's.

Through analysing the artistic shifts in perspective through the latter part of the twentieth century we can see how and why the success of both Lang and Singer were achieved. In particular, we can see that through minimalist expression, and the accompanying position and stature of post-modernist inquiry, a movement away from the meaning and symbolism of reflective and objective aesthetics was displaced for a merge of both technologically celebrated materials and elemental designs based upon natural and seminal forms and shapes born of the phenomenal perception of nature and taken from an array of base cultural traditions. However, we can also see where this pursuit became absorbed by the greater premise of capitalist modes of production. Essentially, where there was once an established brand associated with a movement applying the principles of this minimalist art form, there became a meaningless brand product based upon pure aesthetic subjectivity and tailored whim. Although the minimalism of Lang and Sadler was realised and achieved, it was sold as a brand and genre; one of many arbitrary products for mass consumption.    

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