stuff and things

Given that the role of museum curator is predicated on the care and interpretation of objects, it will surprise nobody to learn that I am absolutely in favour of owning as many objects as possible. After all, that’s my job. Things, trinkets, tchotchkes - give me your costume jewellery, your tiny bowls that barely hold a single piece of fruit, your functionless objets, your unburned scented candles and perpetually blank notebooks. Personally and professionally, I am a devotee of Stuff.

Stuff, however, is decidedly not in vogue at the moment. We seem to be suffering from object fatigue, which is understandable as a reaction to the absurdities and excesses of late-stage capitalism. Why, when our time and our incomes are compressed by the demands of labour, in all its forms, would we want to expend those precious commodities on the acquisition of products? Products which, when consumed, prop up the very economic structures which compress and oppress us? Hence, the rise of KonMari - translating William Morris’ ‘useful or beautiful’ aphorism into the even pithier ‘spark joy’ - alongside new minimalism, Kinfolk, and International AirBnB Style. The essential principle which binds these movements together is a seemingly benign one: that we should have fewer things, but that those things which we do have should be of the highest quality, made in the least environmentally and socially damaging way, and stored or displayed in a rational, accessible fashion.

At a glance, this principle is hard to fault. Glenn Adamson advocates for ‘fewer, better things’, on the basis that an understanding of materials, making processes and design engenders a deeper appreciation of the objects in our lives, and a more sustainable engagement with consumption. While Adamson writes from a place of love and respect for objects, however, most proponents of ‘less stuff’ have positioned objects as the enemy. Modern minimalism is, in its worst incarnations, hierarchical and exclusionary, along axes of class, race and gender. Put simply, disavowing stuff is for the privileged.

The relationship between privilege and minimalism, like that between privilege and thinness, is a relatively new one. Historically, of course, conspicuous consumption was an important marker of one’s wealth and status, from the gilded encrustations of Versailles, to the corseted ladies of Thorstein Veblen’s fin-de-siècle leisure class. Now, however, wealth is marked by increased international mobility, and a desire to maximise both leisure time and labour productivity. In this environment, stuff is a burden; a useless agglomeration of objects which impedes both physical and spiritual freedom. Stuff is for the poor and the marginalised, who have the vulgar temerity to attach their sense of dignity and security to the possession of aspirational objects. Stuff is domestic, the apparatus of childrearing and personal grooming and cooking and cleaning: stuff is coded as female. Stuff is twee, tacky, tasteless.

Instead, the idea of Experience is positioned as the antithesis of Stuff. (Even museums are increasingly shifting their focus from object collections to immersive experiences). A quick Google search for the phrase ‘experiences not things’ throws up motivational images with the phrase Photoshopped onto a series of unconvincing sunsets; along with a litany of articles extolling the superiority of aforementioned experiences over aforementioned stuff. These articles are exclusively written by white men in their thirties who believe in ‘lifehacking’, and fondly imagine themselves to be Henry David Thoreau. If you can afford to prioritise experience over stuff, you have no fear that wearing a hoodie to work will have you written off as a slacker, no reason to avoid discarding your books because you can simply download them onto a Kindle, no need to tote around a bag stuffed with juice cartons and clean nappies and wet-wipes for your baby. You can exist with nothing more than a Macbook, AirPods and five identical grey cotton t-shirts, ideal for staging an Instagram flat-lay in your #tasteful #co-working #space.

The irony, of course, is that minimalism - for all its ostensible aim of sustainable living and prioritising quality over quantity - is just as invested in capitalistic structures of branding and consumption, as any more traditional mode of consumption. KonMari, Kinfolk et al. are brands in their own right, selling physical merchandise alongside an experiential concept for living. Modern minimalism is predicated upon the few things one owns belonging to the ‘correct’ brands - there’s no kudos in scribbling the draft of your novel on a W H Smith spiral jotter with a chewed Bic, when you ought to lovingly inscribe it in a Moleskine with a reassuringly obscure Japanese pen.

We should, by all means possible, be striving to reduce our consumption, and to promote quality, craftsmanship and longevity. Buying second-hand, and buying ethically produced goods if you can afford to do so (because transparent supply lines and fair wages drive up prices), are the right things to do. But objects deserve love. They transmit memories and stories. They bring sensory pleasure. They are a vehicle for skill and ingenuity in making. They offer security, and a sense of self-worth. Whether it’s a cabinet of collectable ceramic cats, or enough gold and gem-encrusted rings to physically prevent you from typing (guilty on both charges, your Honour), if you love it - keep it.