In Celebration of Clutter


And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload, as they do the hills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the milky way.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick

I mentioned a painting called The Orgy by William Hogarth in a post I wrote a couple of weeks back. It is part of a series of eight paintings charting the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, a young man who squanders his fortune and winds up penniless in life. The original works are part of a larger collection of art works at the Sir John Soanes museum here in London. I went to look at the painting this week. Soanes (1753-1837) was Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy and created a personal museum out of three homes that he re-built in Holborn in central London. There are some 45000 objects on display, just as they were when Soanes lived there, everything from an alabaster Egyptian sarcophagus to Greco-roman statuary, medieval statues, paintings, etchings, it’s mind-boggling. The museum is one of London’s little gems.

The image at the top of the gives a little insight to just how much stuff is crammed into the space. As I wandered through the rooms, squeezing past Roman statues in small passageways and not knowing where to focus my eyes because every single surface had something worth seeing, I thought about the current trend in simplifying life and getting rid of clutter and particularly some talks I have heard in the past couple of years where creativity has been tied to making sure that your space is devoid of stuff, which apparently inhibits the creative process.

I lived for a long time in Los Angeles, bastion of mid-century modernism and all things zen, so perhaps it’s no wonder that the idea of clean surfaces is tied to creativity there, but as with most things, I think it is a bit more complex than that. I understand the extremes of collecting and hoarding, the disposophobia, that leads people to hoard and hold onto things that they not only don’t need, but which are actually inhibiting their well-being, but this prevailing cultural meme that wants us to minimize and essentially ‘go modern,’ because that is really the influence-space, functionality, utilitarianism etc., is a little disturbing to me.

Creativity, like many things, is an umbrella under which any number of diverse methodologies and practices have to live side by side. Ones relationship to stuff is quite subjective. But even a cursory exploration of an artist’s studio or a visit to Soanes museum tells you that what is going on is much more than simply a lack of discipline or a pathological behaviour.

There are things that we keep and grant significance to that seem agreed upon in the broader culture, family heirlooms, children’s crafts, holiday souvenirs etc. But I think that what we collect with intention is some kind of signifier, a revelation of sorts, about how we see ourselves and how we relate to the world around us.

You may have gathered that I am not a minimalist. I appreciate a nice clean space, I really do, but that is not a space I can exist in. I need to surround myself with things that stimulate, inspire, and in many ways reveal much about how I see myself. I am also very much an everything in its place person, a little bit of a neat-freak. I like stuff but I like it orderly. The apparent chaos of the Soanes museum, or an artist’s studio is not a challenge for me, it is an adventure of discovery. A visit to the Soanes Museum might just help you change your relationship to things, or you will immediately want to go to and sit in an empty room in an Eames chair looking at empty walla and breathing a sigh of relief.