Editor’s Note: This article is part of “Uncharted,” a series about the world we’re leaving behind, and the one being remade by the pandemic.
No comparison for the coronavirus pandemic is quite apt, in part because no world-stopping catastrophe in recent memory has been so quiet. Terrorism, war, hurricanes, and earthquakes create excessive, ultra-visual chaos: fireballs, rubble, water, wounds. The virus, meanwhile, cannot be seen, and the crisis it’s created has, in a horrifying way, tidied the world. Just as each added tally in the death count represents a subtraction from the human whole, the visceral and visual impact of the pandemic has been a mounting absence.
Everywhere you look, there’s deletion. The streets have been cleared of bustle. Masks replace that most idiosyncratic thing, the human face, with blankness. Protective gear renders medical teams into interchangeable forms. In ICUs, ventilators and tubes obscure the faces of patients. Grocery-store aisles are picked over, yawning and vacant. The attempts to counter the overwhelming stillness and sparseness can sometimes worsen it. When the 7 p.m. cheer goes out, I look out my window, but none of the cheerers is ever in direct view. The wild human voices seem disembodied.
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.”
Minimalism’s core and uncontroversial preaching is to think critically about what’s necessary and what’s not. In practice, what often results, as Chayka and other critics have noted, is a form of conspicuously inconspicuous consumption. In a 2018 passage on ambient music, the writer David Stubbs got at the elitist subtext of the orderly/disorderly design dichotomy: “Wealthy Westerners still squander obscene amounts of the world’s resources, but have found stylish, discreet ways of doing so … Poverty, by contrast, is a visibly maximal experience. It is shopping trolleys crammed with wretched but vital belongings which you have no place to park.” As Arielle Bernstein, a daughter of refugees, put it in a 2016 Atlantic piece, “For my grandparents, the question wasn’t whether an item sparked joy, but whether it was necessary for their survival.”
The notion of survival is now, of course, something even the wealthy are having to meditate on. It’s been widely noted that overly Kondoed households may be, in the present, fend-for-yourself crisis, a bit screwed. “I’m not the one who threw out everything that didn’t spark joy, Robert,” chides a figure in a recent New Yorker cartoon. “Enjoy spending the next few months rolling and unrolling your seven T-shirts.” The truth is that most Kondo followers who subscribe to The New Yorker are fine: They can still send out for the things they need. But it will be telling to see, when this is all over, whether anyone ditches stocked-up canned goods on account of them not sparking joy.
While the crisis has staged the revenge of stuff, it’s also implemented lifestyles long glamorized as minimalist. In social isolation, many of us just do less than we once did, and some of us are clearly enjoying it. “For the longest time, I have felt that there’s been too much world,” Olga Tokarczuk wrote in The New Yorker. “Too much, too fast, too loud. So I’m not experiencing any ‘isolation trauma,’ and it isn’t hard on me at all to not see people.” I feel a twinge of this relief too, but I am not sure it is something to be proudly embraced. People for whom coronavirus isolation is relatively serene tend to be lucky enough to be able to work from home, or rich enough to not need to work at all. There’s something misanthropic in celebrating isolation when the un-isolated risk infection; it calls back to the way that “self-care” has been, in recent years, evangelized to endorse callousness toward others.
With any of the existential trials that isolation has placed on society, it’s an open question whether the habits of this moment will stick around long-term or instead inspire rebellion. Certainly right now it’s impossible to forget that vaunted aesthetic terms such as clean and sterile derive from highly unglamorous medical situations. It’s hard to feel that hospital-like order and silence are, in themselves, values that ennoble life. Streets have now been emptied and six-foot grids have been implemented in order to guard against not just bodies but the jostle of existing in a diverse society: confrontations, connection, and accidents, happy and sad. In response, hearteningly, people are scrawling art on their blank masks and making noise out their windows. They know that one of the joys of good health is the ability to make a mess.