Beyond Simple

Simplicity is what every designer is urged to remember when creating objects for regular use. It is not a bad mantra for all of the decorative arts and also applies to writing. Clarity, we are told, can get lost in complexity. I don’t think this is wrong, but simplicity, as pleasing as it can be, denies the role of style to some extent. We neither can, nor necessarily want, to write like Ernest Hemingway or create Shaker style furniture. Both are beautiful in their own right, but they should not be used as a good reason for not writing like, for example, Franz Kafka, or creating furniture in a rococo, classical or baroque style.

Our minds, however, often create an either/or dichotomy as it is far easier to digest. It takes work to understand Kafka and it requires attention to detail to understand style. It is far more difficult to understand great rococo than it is to understand Shaker furniture. This is not placing the two styles in contention, it is understanding that one is more complex in its nature. You either like the complexity or you don’t, but to dismiss it is a form of ignorance. That ignorance is easily cured, but the reality is that people take offense at things they are ignorant about rather than take the time to understand them.

This is true of our nation at this moment. There is a groundswell of support for non-toleration of what is called, “the other”, or people with whom we don’t identify. Essentially a dismissive attitude grounded in ignorance, it denies the value of any other system but our own. Looking at human history, most great empires that have not valued the other have essentially self-destructed, primarily for their inability to adapt to societal change. You can see a parallel in genetics as interbreeding causes species to lose the breadth of antibodies that are able to fight ever changing pathogens. Simply: diversity is good.

The truth is that it is hard to understand the other. It takes both tolerance and the intellectual capacity to realize that there is more than one way of doing something. The rococo style can be frivolous, to be sure, but there is a beauty to it that Shaker furniture can’t have. The opposite is true as well and for the connoisseur grasping those realities is part and parcel of connoisseurship. Understanding the many ways of being in this world, and recognizing that there is something to learn from all of them, is important to the survival of our society. Greatness isn’t pure, it’s a composite of many things.

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