On experiencing art (and not buying stuff)

Bridget Scott

[image: Bridget Scott, Butoh dancer, Kyoto via Eatspeak]

I’ve recently become a minimalist. Plenty of people have advocated the non-consumerist path before but I’m quite taken by the approach of The Minimalists. These guys really walk their talk, and it’s refreshing to read about others who are dedicated to living meaningful lives with less stuff. So I’m consciously reshaping my life to embrace this approach and almost four months in I’ve got to say it feels really good.

Which brings me to art.

Living with less stuff in your life does not have to be an ugly or joyless experience. If it did, I don’t think I could hang in there. Experiencing art and design doesn’t necessarily have to involve owning more. It can, of course, and on a small scale that’s admirable and artists and designers who sell their work for a living will be immensely grateful. But beyond that, art and design can be experienced in ways that do not contribute to you or the planet amassing more belongings. Or even spending much money.

There is a growing movement in support of experientialism. The idea being that instead of possessing more belongings that we prioritise different kinds of experiences. James Wallman, an advocate of experientialism refers to the problems of modern material abundance in the developed world as ‘stuffocation’ and believes it contributes to ‘environmental degradation, species destruction, loneliness, anxiety, stress, depression.’ Not everyone’s a fan of Wallman’s view on stuffocation (he has been criticised for being simplistic), but for many it offers a way into understanding a pattern of modern life affecting masses of people (but certainly not all) in wealthy nations.

Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University has researched this area and he too advocates experiences over buying more possessions. He cites going to art exhibitions as an example of an experience that people would benefit from spending more of their time doing. Gilovich’s research addresses the belief that owning more things will keep us happier longer because experiences are temporary and ephemeral. But his research shows the converse happens. Gilovich and others’ research reveals that ‘happiness from material purchases diminishes over time, [and] experiences become an ingrained part of our identity.’ So we absorb our experiences and they become part of who we are. And we share experiences, connecting us to others which in turn, enriches our lives.

Such experiences stay with you. Years ago, while living in Kyoto, I attended a butoh dance performance. Several friends were butoh dances and I experienced many performances during my years there. One has stayed with me as being especially memorable. This dance was performed in a temple garden on the outer edges of Kyoto on a warm evening under a full moon. The audience was seated on the tatami floor of the temple tea house but facing outwards to the garden – a classic Japanese zen garden. The dancers performed in the garden – not on a traditional stage. Dancing barefoot across the rough, rocky terrain of a Japanese zen garden is definitely not for the weak. Pale bodied almost naked dancers (butoh dances cover themselves heavily with white body paint) performed in this environment and we, the audience, were spellbound. There was an otherworldliness about this experience that was completely absorbing, unique and deeply pleasurable.

The performance arts especially lend themselves to being experienced. But other encounters involving art and design can also be meaningful and minimalist in their intent. Some people like to visit favourite works of art on a regular basis. Alternatively, you might encounter a new piece of public art or a work in a gallery or museum for the first time and feel the need to absorb it quietly, for some time. I felt like this the first time I saw Annette Messager’s work Casino 2005. It just blew me away. I stayed sitting in the gallery observing it for a long period of time.

Other people might feel the need to be physically engaged in an experience, and things like design festivals are good for this. Simple things too can be so effective. For example, Instagram offers a myriad of possibilities in terms of art/design experience and engagement. But so too does the ‘real’ world (obviously).

There is a place for things, too, of course. The New Museum’s exhibition, The Keeper, delves into this area beautifully with an exploration of what it means to keep, the emotions woven through our relationship with objects, and the idea of value. While this exhibition showcases the collecting of things it offers those attending an experience with objects but is not urging them to fill their lives with more. Through exhibitions like this it’s possible to embed the principles of minimalism in your life and still appreciate the place of stuff.

Are you willing to commit to richer, more frequent art/design experiences in exchange for buying more stuff?