PRINT September 2010

Adrian Piper

IN THE THIRD MEDITATION, Descartes attempts to answer the solipsist’s question as to whether there exists anything external to oneself, by considering whether he has any ideas about the external world that could not have arisen from within his own mind. He distinguishes those properties that are “clearly and distinctly perceived” in his “ideas of corporeal objects, namely

–magnitude or extension in length, breadth, and depth;
–figure [i.e., shape], which results from the termination of extension;
–situation [i.e., position], which bodies of diverse figures preserve with reference to each other; and
–motion or the change of situation; to which may be added
–substance [i.e., solidity],
–duration, and

from the other tactile qualities,” including


The latter, Descartes observes, are “thought with so much obscurity and confusion” that he “cannot determine even whether they are true or false; in other words, whether or not the ideas [he has] of these qualities are in truth the ideas of real objects.”¹

Unfortunately, Descartes’s distinction did not lead him to a satisfactory answer to the solipsist’s question (for example, how could he have possibly thought God would not deceive him?!). But later philosophers, mostly of an empiricist persuasion, refined Descartes’s distinction² into that between primary and secondary qualities. Descartes’s first list comprises primary qualities, the objectively measurable, mathematical, and causal properties objects are taken to have in themselves, independent of what an observer may experience. These Descartes perceives “clearly and distinctly,” and this clarity and vividness are evidence— though not conclusive evidence—of the objects’ independent reality. Descartes’s second list comprises secondary qualities, the properties objects have as the result of the sensations they cause an observer to feel when perceiving them. Because secondary qualities depend on the observer’s subjective sensations, they do not provide evidence of the objects’ independent existence. On this analysis, any object that one perceives has these two components: a formal one that refers to its independent mathematical structure and physical status, and a sensory one that refers to its effects on one’s five senses.

But of course an object of perception has more kinds of properties than these. We might designate as tertiary qualities those which identify the myriad ways in which a particular set of primary and secondary qualities are combined: as a black-and-white-striped rectangle, for example, or as a blue sphere, or a steel and glass parallelogram, or a series of broken straight black or curved lines. Let’s then propose a provisional definition of a style as a particular set of tertiary qualities whose members are repeated, varied, and developed over time in objects that expand the members of the set without violating the constraints imposed by those tertiary qualities themselves—that generate, for example, a wide and developing variety of black-and-white-striped material, or rectangular brick construction patterns, or gothic arches, or broken-line representational drawings.³ Analogously, we might define quaternary qualities as those that specify the function of tertiary qualities. And so on.

Minimalism as a style has been characterized historically by its exploration of basic geometric shapes and de-emphasized, absent, or, at most, primary colors. That is, its tertiary qualities approximate equivalence to its primary qualities—its length, shape, size, position, duration, and the like—to the exclusion of subjective gesture, expression, representation, and thematic content. Herein lies the paradox of Minimalism: a style that consists in the rejection of style, and a consequent emphasis on the sheer thingness of the object; on its specificity,⁴ its concrete particularity;⁵ in effect, on its objective geometric reality independent of the associations, functions, or manual alterations we might impose on it. A Minimalist object is self-reflexive in that its tertiary stylistic qualities refer us back to the formal structure of the object in which they inhere—i.e., back to the object’s primary qualities—rather than away from the object: toward oneself as viewer, for example, in an act of mediated communication; or toward some external referent of a representation with which we have conventional associations; or toward some internal subjective state of oneself as viewer, whether of memory, imagination, or emotion. None of these external relationships matter to the experience of a Minimalist object. What matters is the particular quality and presence of the specific, concrete object before us—independent, self-contained, self-defined; aloof from our network of associations, functional manipulations, and interpersonal dynamics; demanding to be considered either on its own terms or not at all.

By thus rejecting all of these external relationships, Minimalism calls our attention to the ineffable mystery of the concrete, particular object, its inscrutability as an object that provokes us to ask, often in a state of high frustration, what it is for, what it is supposed to be, and what it means.⁶ Some take our compulsion to search for determinate significance as evidence of Minimalism’s aesthetic vacancy. They infer from their inability to figure out what the object is for or what it means that it is useless and meaningless. They conclude that Minimalism as an art-historical movement was a dead end,⁷ and that its only useful role is as an object of appropriation, comment, or parody. But such a role can be assigned to any artwork, not only to Minimalist work, that explores the idiolect of a recognized art-historical style; and it might be of sociological interest to review which styles are habitually subject to this critique and which escape it. What distinguishes Minimalism here is that the very critique of Minimal form that reduces it to a cliché signifier of mere objecthood is itself an example of this compulsion to seek determinate significance—as if the inscrutability of the object could be dispelled by noting dismissively that the object is inscrutable and pretending that this makes it scrutable. It would not be possible to raise these questions, nor would it occur to us to raise them, unless the very inscrutability and aloofness of the object itself reminded us of our own psychological and conceptual need to confer familiar meaning and function on it. It may happen that we do not recognize this need in ourselves, believing, rather, that we are reacting to an objective lack in the object that leads us to find it wanting—in meaning, function, significance, inventiveness, expressiveness, or any of the other quaternary qualities that drive our aesthetic judgments. This confusion of our own needs, desires, and beliefs with objective properties of the object is common in art criticism. But such a belief would be mistaken.

The paradox of Minimalism as a style that consists in the rejection of style itself confers meaning—even if not determinate meaning—on its forms, both art-historically and potentially. By repudiating the aesthetic overindulgence of secondary qualities, Minimalism offers an austere, backhanded critique both of the egocentric excesses of Abstract Expressionism (think you’d catch a Minimal artist pissing into the fireplace, drunk, at a party?) and of the studied revelry in superficiality characteristic of Pop art (think you’d catch a Minimal artist wearing a platinum wig?). By calling attention to the essential geometric and mathematical structure of any physical object, Minimalism reminds us of the properties in common by which all such objects function to differentiate us as subjects from them. In its seeming repudiation of tertiary qualities as such, it thereby repudiates the various signature styles—whether in Abstract Expressionism, Pop art, or more recent movements—that function as calling cards by which artists announce themselves as more noteworthy than any particular work they might make. Minimalism thus recalls to us the modesty and humility—actually, the awe—in the presence of the object evinced in the work of those anonymous medieval artists before Cimabue, who declined the chance to be celebrities. In its semantic inscrutability and the compulsion to search for meaning that it elicits from us, a Minimalist object reminds us that—as is in fact true for all physical objects—it is up to oneself as viewer to find or make such meaning. Minimalism thus serves the very important function that Descartes’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities itself did: of calling our attention to a self-contained natural world of objects and artifacts—and subjects—whose existence does not, after all, depend on representations, associations, and functions that could only have arisen from within our own minds. The stylistic paradox of Minimalism provides us with an answer to Descartes’s worry about solipsism.

Adrian Piper is an artist and philosopher based in Berlin.


1. René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. John Veitch, 1901., paragraph 19.

2. Galileo also made this distinction; see Galileo Galilei, The Assayer, trans. Stillman Drake and C. D. O’Malley, in The Controversy on the Comets of 1618 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1960).

3. See George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962).

4. Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” in Thomas Kellein, Donald Judd: Early Work, 1955–1968 (New York: D.A.P., 2002); first published in Arts Yearbook 8 (1965).

5. Adrian Piper, “Intuition and Concrete Particularity in Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic,” in F. Halsall, J. Jansen, and T. O’Connor, eds., Rediscovering Aesthetics (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008) and at

6. Adrian Piper, “Performance and the Fetishism of the Object,” Vanguard 10, no. 10 (December 1981–January 1982): 16–19; reprinted in Out of Order, Out of Sight, vol. 2, Selected Writings in Art Criticism 1967–1992 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 51–61.

7. Here I welcome yet another opportunity to argue with Sol. See Saul Ostrow, “Sol LeWitt Interview,” BOMB 85 (Fall 2003): 23–30.