Along with absence, the other aesthetic feature of the pandemic is pattern. With astonishing swiftness and consistency, social distancing appears to have tamed civilization’s teeming entropy. Lines at the few open businesses organize in equidistant intervals, with hash marks taped on the ground every six feet. News photography often finds repetition at scale, via fleets of grounded airplanes tessellated on tarmacs or beds squared off in cubicles at makeshift hospitals. On Zoom calls, you see the varied fashions and faces and postures that mark human individuality—but it’s all flattened to 2-D and sliced into a matrix. On level after level, the pandemic has gridded, added symmetry, and buffed difference. Life now feels designed.
Though ghastly, such visuals are not entirely foreign, and I do not simply mean to reference apocalypse fiction. When surveying images of emptied train stations, lined-up shoppers, and PPE-swathed doctors, I have been shocked to sometimes find myself thinking of opulent things. Such as Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s house, a taupe denuded maze. Or the high-fashion runway looks of monochrome, body-encasing shapes. Or the vexingly featureless iPhone.What’s triggering the déjà vu is austerity, which in the pandemic is hygienic and in popular culture is just cool.
Maybe it won’t seem so cool anymore, after this. Thinking about a complex public-health emergency in terms of aesthetics seems preposterous, but this crisis is causing people to reevaluate all sorts of things that were once taken for granted, and the prestige around samey-sleekness should be one of them. The pandemic has not only grimly parodied the catchall consumer trend known as minimalism; it has spotlighted the inhumanity that can underlie it. Why did so many people adopt the aesthetics of quarantine before quarantine even began?
Minimalism recently went super-mainstream after decades—or, by some definitions, eons—of insurgency. The term, first meant as an insult, was attached to 1960s abstract artists whose work included hulking monoliths and unexpressive canvases. The movement proved divisive though highly influential, most notably in corporate architecture and product design. Anna Chave’s 1990 essay “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power” parsed the movement’s historical allusions, which included fascism. Wrote Chave, “What disturbs viewers most about Minimalist art may be what disturbs them about their own lives and times, as the face it projects is the society’s blankest, steeliest face; the impersonal face of technology, industry, and commerce; the unyielding face of the father: a face that is usually far more attractively masked.”
By the 2010s, the shock had worn off as minimalist design became conflated with ascetic lifestyle fads promising self-improvement through self-denial. The results included the “Millennial aesthetic,” which is cute and pastel rather than dour and stark, yet which still revels in the appearance of sparseness. “From tiny houses to microapartments to monochromatic clothing to interior-decorating trends—picture white walls interrupted only by succulents—less now goes further than ever,” reported Kyle Chayka, the author of the recent book The Longing for Less: Living With Minimalism, in a 2016 article. “The nearly four million images tagged #minimalism on Instagram include white sneakers, clouds, the works of Mondrian, neon signs, crumbling brick walls and grassy fields.” The lovable mascot for 2010s minimalism was Marie Kondo, the designer who counseled that people should throw out all possessions that do not “spark joy.”