Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Toussaint's Small World

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Toussaint's Small World

Article excerpt

We designate things as "small" capriciously and according to different registers of perception. We may focus upon a thing's physical size; or upon its duration, intensity or range; upon its import, its significance; upon the quantity of the elements composing it; upon the simplicity of its structure. What seems to be common to all of those moves is the notion of reduction in relation to some more or less explicit norm. Art that insists upon that reduction and mobilizes it as a constructive principle can be termed minimalist.

The term is a loose one, broadly grouping all art that is animated by a concern for stylistic austerity (Baker 9). Observing the phenomenon from afar (that is, from the point of view of a committed maximalist), John Barth has suggested that the remark "Less is more" may be taken as an encapsulation of the minimalist esthetic, (1) an esthetic grounded in the belief that "artistic effect may be enhanced by a radical economy of artistic means" (1). Much minimalist art would appear to be subtended, moreover, by a common epistemological position, the notion that human knowledge is radically limited, and that art can effectively play upon those limits (Marshall and Barksdale 571).

Minimalism was first identified as a trend in the plastic arts. Frances Colpitt has defined it in the following manner: "Minimal art describes abstract, geometric painting and sculpture executed in the United States in the 1960s. Its predominant organizing principles include the right angle, the square, and the cube, rendered with a minimum of incident or compositional maneuvering" (1). Centered primarily in Manhattan, the movement included such figures as Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt, Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Mel Bochner, Tony Smith, Robert Smithson, and Walter De Maria. Somewhat later, it occurred to critics of music that, inspired by Cage and Stockhausen's experiments, certain young composers like La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Arvo Part, and Wolfgang Rihm had been exploring techniques of reduction and repetition analogous to those used by the plastic artists (Mertens 11, Tarasti i5); thus, the term "minimalist music" was coined.

In literature, one can of course argue that the impulse toward economy of expression is a recurrent phenomenon from, say, Democritus to Beckett. But more specifically, minimalism as a school of writing has been identified only recently, in American fiction. According to Kim Herzinger, the core group is composed of Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, Mary Robison, Tobias Wolff, and Bobbie Ann Mason; other writers sometimes cited as minimalists include Elizabeth Tallent, David Leavitt, Amy Hempel, Richard Ford, and Jayne Anne Phillips. Herzinger argues that minimalist fiction is formally sparse, tonally detached, elliptical, relatively plotless, and concerned with surface phenomena; its characteristic mode is representational (even hyperrealist), and not fabulist; its characteristic subject matter is domestic, quotidian, and banal (73).

Surveying the trend in 1986, John Barth qualifies the minimalist "New American Short Story" as "the most impressive phenomenon on the current (North American, especially the United States) literary scene" (1). He suggests that minimalism arises from (and continues to be nourished by) a variety of factors: the "unspeakable trauma" of Vietnam; the energy crisis and consequent reaction against American excess; a national decline in reading and writing skills; dwindling attention spans; a reaction against the fabulist avant-gardists of the previous generation (notably, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, William Gaddis, William Gass, John Hawkes, Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, and himself); and, finally, a rejection of the hyperbole of American commercial and political advertising (2). In Barth's view, minimalism is both necessary and salubrious in its effect, in that it operates "a cyclical correction in the history (and the microhistories) of literature and of art in general" (25). …

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