Celebrating the Art of Clutter?

paper clutter 614

Cause for celebration? I think not…

Should we in fact be celebrating the art of clutter? Well, yes. And no.

As it turns out, getting rid of stuff is very much in vogue these days; organizing our things has become a small industry, and it is both humbling and instructive to do an Amazon Kindle book search on the terms “clutter” and “decluttering”.  A quick perusal through the catalog of results reveals the themes motivating this mini-genre: have less stuff, be minimalist about your stuff, become organized, improve your life. There’s a bit of a skirmish between the neatniks who abhor clutter or disorganization and those who tolerate it.  There are even some interesting connections between decluttering and weight loss (lose your stuff, lose your spare tire).

Inevitably, there is also a backlash against this current trend, as illustrated by this recent New York Times article that implores us to “Celebrate the Art of Clutter.” My neighbor Joel alerted me to this article, in part because he and his wife Esther are aware of my 1000 things book project. We’ve swapped stories about our experiences with dealing with our parents’ stuff; some of her stories may even make it into my book (if she’s agreeable). Joel travels around the world for his work, and he apparently has quite the collection of mementos as a result. (He has even joked on several occasions about buying the house under construction nearby to store his collection.) So I wasn’t surprised when he shared this NYT article with me, which I read during a recent flight to the West Coast.

The article’s author Dominique Browning sees the current decluttering craze as a “cyclical event” which has once again gotten out of hand, and her article is a rallying cry for another counterattack by the troops in the pro-clutter camp to which she clearly belongs. Even though I don’t agree with its conclusions (more on that below), I actually love this article for several reasons. For starters, having started the process of reading several books on decluttering, I can understand where Ms. Browning is coming from. Her article is a protest against “being barraged with orders to pare down, throw away, de-clutter,” and to some extent she accurately depicts the objectionable qualities of this movement: prescriptive, earnest to the point of zealousness, with occasional overtones of smugness and moral superiority. The article also cleverly skewers this approach at times, for example:

Entire books (books we will soon enough be told to toss) cover the subject. And, even then there is an “art,” a Japanese art, no less, to doing so (and we all know that any Japanese art is the most artful art of all).

This latter sentence is a thinly veiled swipe at the NYT best-seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which describes a detailed method for dealing with clutter that does indeed elevate de-cluttering to a near art form that is clearly influenced by its Japanese author’s cultural roots. Having read this book on my recent flight back to the East Coast (here’s my review of the book), I can appreciate Ms. Browning’s sarcasm.

I also appreciate the article’s message about celebrating our material possessions, that our stuff is a reflection of a human needs: “…We admire. We desire. We love. We collect. We display…. We treasure.”  All that is well and good. Ms. Browning clearly believes that her way is what’s best, at least for her. And I can’t say that it isn’t — for her or you or anyone else. But I do believe that she is off base in three important respects.

The first one becomes clear when she starts describing her “entirely different agenda” in more detail — in particular, the part about “fantasizing about how I am going to pass my things on to my children. Who, I insist, must take them.” Uh oh. Because her things are so wonderful that of course her children will want to have them eventually; in the meantime, mommy knows best. Personally, if my mother had taken the trouble to tell me she was going to put her precious stuff in a warehouse for my future inheritance, I would have already been thinking about how I was going to sell it off the first moment I could (after going through and culling a few select objects). Irrespective of what Ms. Browning’s children actually think about this, her approach is selfish and short-sighted IMO. She celebrates her things because of the meanings she brings to them; it’s selfish to try to impose those meanings on anyone else, and it’s short-sighted to believe that this will happen.

The second one is in believing that accumulation is human nature and something to be celebrated, and that clutter is thus the best way to enjoy things. My own experience makes me far less sanguine about this prospect; modern society makes it far too easy to accumulate to excess without our even realizing it. I have seen or heard of too many people who reached a point where they had too many things, where the accumulation of things made it difficult or impossible for them to appreciate any of their things.

The third one is her unabashed embrace of covetousness. There’s a reason why that’s one of the Ten Commandments. I think she’s lost perspective, that she’s too invested in her things, based on her description. There’s a point at which our things can begin to overtake their intended proxies — experiences, relationships, emotions — and then the two-way street of possession turns in favor of the possessions, then they start to take over our lives.

There is value in holding, but there is also value in letting go. One of the fun things I learned from my 1000 things project was that there are many ways I can let go of a physical object while still deriving its pleasure and value.

So what I liked most about reading this article was that it was a gift because it helps me clarify where my book stands: somewhere in a middle ground where the focus is on having a healthy relationship with things.

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