Cost of Simplicity

Minimalist social media posts are extravagant in their austerity

Where “lifestyle” might once have referred to one’s general mode of living, it now refers to the fact that even the smallest detail of one’s everyday reality is capable of being documented, and thus subject to the same aesthetic and semiotic rigor as one’s style of furnishing or dress. “Influencers” — the marketing term for popular users of Instagram, Snapchat, or YouTube, with the power to guide their followers’ purchases — traffic not only in desirable appearances, or home décor, or even experience, but also in less tangible qualities: The upshot of all that desirable living has to look, to followers, like the good life. In return, content creators can garner thousands of dollars per post by integrating their sponsors’ products into their feeds.

Influencer culture is “spectacular,” as described by Guy Debord: “In all its specific manifestations, news or propaganda, advertising or the actual consumption of entertainment, the spectacle epitomizes the prevailing model of social life … In form as in content the spectacle serves as total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system. It further ensures the permanent presence of that justification, for it governs almost all time spent outside the production process itself.” Instagram, which has in many ways privatized our self images and our intimacies, is also self-reproducing — it sees us fusing our lives with corporate entities to the depth of our private moments. While billboards and television advertisements present a clear line between advertising and content, sponsored and otherwise monetized content blends in with non-monetized content.

Indicative of a virtuous life, free of excess, minimalism is very often the go-to aesthetic for an ambitious feed. Minimalism obscures its own extravagance

Influencers must maintain a balance between glamor (or else why would we be looking?) and attainability (or why else would we “follow” them?). They also need something like a unified aesthetic, a sensibility that can run through the details of the life presented. One look in particular provides the backdrop for many popular Instagram feeds: clean lines; use of materials from everyday life; simple, repetitive, color palette; void of sensory overload. Easy to look at, easy to absorb, and — crucially — indicative of a virtuous life, free of excess, minimalism is very often the go-to aesthetic for an ambitious feed.

Minimalism is both an easy enough aesthetic to obtain — a “goth juicer” would be much harder to find than a “minimalist” one — and one that suggests an ethos that is appealingly at odds with its dubious function: marketing. Minimalism, or pseudo-minimalism, turns out to be a handy undercover vehicle for consumer obsession: aesthetically pleasurable, and suggestive of high-minded austerity, it obscures its own extravagance. It signals virtue while suggesting that beauty and the good are one and the same.

In 2014, at a Sotheby’s auction, Barnett Newman’s painting Black Fire I sold for $84.2 million. Painted in 1961, half of the painting is black and the other, beige. A single black line interrupts the light portion. An abstract piano key. A very expensive abstract piano key. The minimalist painting, and the corresponding sale price, led to a collective response of I could do that (but you didn’t).

At its simplest, minimalism represents a lack of visual stimulation, opting for repetitive geometric forms void of metaphor in response to modernism’s decadence. Thomas Lawson, in his 1981 Artforum essay “Last Exit: Painting,” wrote that “Minimalist artists subverted modernist theory … If modernist art sought to concern itself with its own structures, then the minimalists would have objects made that could refer to nothing but their own making.” Minimalists wanted to be objective. As Kyle Chayka writes in the New York Times Magazine, the notion of minimalism quickly moved beyond of the realm of art history, and was co-opted into an ethos of everyday living. To become a minimalist ostensibly meant rejecting the consumerist notion of needing more things by buying less.

Brands have long tried to disguise their role as brands, and minimalism, or some form thereof, has long been a handy technique. In 2003, the counterculture magazine Adbusters released the Black Spot Sneaker, a “subversive” alternative to brands like Nike or Adidas. The Black Spot Sneaker distinguished itself by something approaching minimalist design: It was a shoe without a logo — besides, of course, the black dot it was branded with. Adbusters argued that the sneaker was an ethical alternative to big brands since it wasn’t made it sweatshops.

As Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter write in their 2004 book The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t be Jammed, ethical does not make anti-capital: “‘fair trade’ and ‘ethical marketing’ are hardly revolutionary ideas, and they certainly represent no threat to capitalist systems. If consumers are willing to pay more for shoes made by happy workers — or for eggs laid by happy chickens — there is money to be made in bringing these goods to market.” By creating a sneaker meant to disrupt capitalism by “uncooling” Nike, Adbusters were participating in market competition under the guise of subversion. “What we see on display in Adbusters magazine is, and always has been, the true spirit of capitalism.”

Companies have long used such aesthetic ruses to distinguish themselves as virtuous and thus gain a competitive advantage over their less virtuous competitors. The term “greenwashing” refers to brands’ attempts to appeal to an environmentally conscious consumer base — instead of making products that were environmentally friendly, companies simply changed the way they branded their products, opting for green packaging and logos with leaves to connote environmental responsibility. Brands that actually do use ethically sourced products are eager to share this information with consumers.

If greenwashing hid behind a good-for-the-environment facade, brands today hide behind a good-for-you filter — the suggestion being that self-optimization makes for a better world. Beauty brands like Glossier don’t sell makeup and skincare items as much as the notion that wearing their products will make you feel better about yourself. Their crowdsourced products, packaged with sleek, muted design, evoke simplicity and gentleness. Even the makeup aims for the effect of not wearing any: the idea is to “enhance” or “augment” your looks — you’re beautiful just as you are! — rather than change them altogether. Like Dove before them, Glossier’s packaging suggests that participating in capitalism can be a form of self-care. Here, a “minimalist” aesthetic is deployed to suggest purity, authenticity. As with “the KonMari method,” which advocated keeping only those objects that “sparked joy,” avoiding clutter means prioritizing the things that really matter. To be happy is to be virtuous is to be without baggage.

While the modes of production are promoted as a selling tactic, the modes of distribution are becoming more opaque

“This ‘commodification of the authentic’ is something Marx could not have predicted,” Isabelle Graw writes in her 2008 book, High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture. “For him, the problem lay in the fact that the object-like appearance of the commodity concealed the social character of labor. But the line between ‘fake’ and ‘real’ is no longer as clearly defined as Marx postulated.” While the modes of production are promoted as a selling tactic — whether it’s true or not — the modes of distribution are becoming more opaque.

Influencers’ brand loyalties are, of course, primarily to themselves, but in this way they are just like the rest of us. Late-stage capitalism has us waiting for death to stop working; the so-called “gig economy” has people constantly on the clock, and without the possibility of retirement. An Instagram influencer is always working. Their life is their brand, and their labors are constantly churning that life appealingly to viewers, while attempting to disguise themselves in the name of authenticity. Minimalism also applies to captioningto the careful language that influencers use to hide their relationships with brands. Since an FTC ruling in 2017, posts must make the reciprocal relationship clear with #ad or a “paid partnership” geotag, but Instagram influencers often opt for more subtle wording, like “collaboration” or “spokesperson.” They thank brands enthusiastically for sending them “a gift” that they “can’t wait to use.”

Graw offers an addendum to Debord’s theory of the spectacle: Whereas one can detach oneself from the spectacle, the “massive personality cult” practiced in celebrity culture makes absolute distance impossible. “Here, these conditions have burrowed their way deep into individual lives that remain subject to an economic imperative or ever-increasing value,” she writes. Instagram influencers are part of a new age of public figures who narrow the gap between celebrity and public. Not only do we feel like we know them; we know we could be them, and their content trades, literally, on tips and tricks for making this manifest.

“Celebrity culture is thus the true face of a neoliberal regime in which the individual is writ large,” Graw continues. “As everything now depends on this individual, it must optimize itself in every respect: maintain a tirelessly polished appearance, doggedly combat signs of ageing, continually improve its public image.” Consumer imperatives burrow into every facet of life — anything we might possibly want to document and show off to a public, large or small. Minimalism is often the favored aesthetic of this advertiser-consumer relationship, simply because it is so simple, so ambient and deceptively totalizing.

In reality, lifestyle media comes with an excess of clutter and of consumer costs. (In 2017, the online magazine Racked tracked the free things that were sent to them in six months. The total of these freebies, 2,894 of them, was $95,000; the packaging alone weighed 309 pounds.) But a minimalist backdrop suggests a life void of objects and clutter, a body void of excess calories, a mind void of troublesome thoughts and desires. It suggests an evolution beyond material pursuits, while at the same time selling an excess of products. The de-facto aesthetic of embedded advertising promises that you can attain a life of beauty, serenity, and freedom from want by buying the innumerable objects advertised. Its visuals, much like its constant demands on the viewer, are designed to disappear.

This essay is part of a collection on the theme of CONTENT. Also from this week, Navneet Alang on every utterance online becoming responsible for all contexts

Tatum Dooley is a writer living in Toronto. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Hairpin, the Fix, the White Wall Review, and elsewhere.