The Minimalist Artist’s Dilemma

I have been butting up against a dilemma in the past couple of weeks. It has been simmering in the background, but it keeps rising closer and closer to the surface. Pretty soon its going to break the surface and I am going to have to confront it head on.

This dilemma concerns the tension between the desire to create, and the desire to simplify. One involves producing, the other reducing. One involves making use of resources, the other involves conserving resources. On the one hand I want to be creative, and also value the creativity of others. On the other hand, I am conscious of the resources that are used up in this creative process, and also in packaging and shipping creative output if it is to be sold.

I have been exploring my desire to create through writing and photography. My writing is mostly online, and immediate, in blog form. I like not having to store up my words in books, boxes and folders. I just post it and let wordpress do the archiving. I have been doing some journal writing lately, with a pen and paper. I make sure not to write anything I would not be willing to have someone else read. I have a box of old journals in the “too hard” corner in the garage. I don’t want to add to it. I am going to try to make sure that anything of importance ends up in digital form so that I can shred the physical notebooks when the time comes. I think I am going to be doing more writing, and may need to come up with better solutions for storing and archiving my notes and finished work. I am grateful for the computer and the online resources available to do this.

Photography is really a hobby and a lot of the photos I have been using were taken on overseas trips, with no expectation of being reproduced or published in any public arena. I have enjoyed using my own work to illustrate my blog posts on this site, and I also enjoy having a photography based ImageChest Photography blog. The dilemma here is that I have been getting prints made of my photo’s and making greeting cards for sale. I have enjoyed this and explored different outlet for selling them, including shops, an online store, and markets. This is where the dilemma is, because I am conscious of the resources required to make and store physical photos. The cardboard is flown to Sydney from Tasmania. If I sell cards online, I need to post them around the world. Although this is small scale, it does consume resources.

The main dilemma with selling greeting cards is that thrusts me into the world of product marketing. When selling online there is the opportunity to get involved in teams and market each other’s products. While some of the items I have come across for sale online are beautiful artworks or valuable vintage items, a lot of the products are ephemeral expressions of our materialistic age. In other words, clutter in search of a home. I enjoy looking at other peoples online shops because I see the product images as just that, images. I don’t get hooked in by what they represent, and rarely feel the urge to buy anything. However I know that other people who look at these images are seeing something else. They are seeing products they can buy, and perhaps feeling excited about the prospect of a parcel in the mail. After all that is the point of the product promotion.

What I am learning is that in order to make and online shop work, you really need to engage in many forms of marketing, including social networks and blogs. And here is where it gets complicated. You see I don’t think my family and friends need me to be encouraging them to buy more stuff. I don’t think you need me encouraging you to buy more stuff. I have already put a few people onto online shopping sites and began to wonder if that was doing them a service. Much as I hate to say it, I feel like I am sending mixed messages by advocating simplicity while at the same time promoting online selling, even if it is handmade arts and crafts.

And here is the minimalist artists dilemma. How to be creative without over-using the earths resources. How to sell creative products without buying into our already materialistic culture. The digital arena offers one solution. I think I may be heading further toward digital writing and photography and away from physical products. Although even this is not without is problems, as we use up the earths scarce resources to build our electronic devices, and burn up energy to run them.

Another solution is an emphasis on quality over quantity. Once upon a time ladies did embroidery in the evenings by lamplight. Before there was TV. Before there was radio. Even before there was electric light. Ladies embroidered detailed pieces of work because that was a enjoyable way to fill time, and provided a way to introduce visual beauty into their lives. The investment of time and attention seems to warrant the object, to make it worthy of its existence. Crafting has been simplified, so that finished items can be produced quite quickly, in some cases creating a glut of creative output with is beyond what we really want or need.

So here I am, stating this dilemma. Now its not a secret and I have to deal with it. I have a lot of greeting cards stored in shoeboxes, but I don’t think I will be getting any more prints done for a while. I am going to make up the remaining stock I have, and see about selling it. Then I will work out whether this is really something I want to pursue.


  1. Aubrey said:

    I just did a google search on “minimalist dilemma selling stuff” to see if there was anyone else having the same dilemma that I’m having, and so I stumbled upon your article.

    I have been having this exact same dilemma. First it started with an Etsy shop selling my wood burned products. Then I felt terribly guilty that my wood, that was purchased to burn on was not made in the U.S.A. and so is coming thousands of miles away. So I recently closed down that shop. Then I realized that most of my favorite projects were using local tossed items and repurposing them. And yet, even with repurposing local thrown away items, I’m still having this dilemma of minimalism vs creative creation of more stuff. I am a writer and so I am trying to freelance write while I work on my novel. But I was going to open a repurposed shop, as another way to bring in some money to pay the bills and I just have trouble with the concept of more stuff, while I’m currently in the process of selling nearly all of our stuff so that we can move into an RV full time. Did you decide to continue just digitally? This has been a real struggle for me lately and it’s hard to find someone who also comes from a minimalist, simple living, eco-conscious place that understands this mental dilemma I’m having. Hence, my comment here. 🙂

    • LindaMay said:

      Hi, thanks for your comment. I am glad my thoughts have been of some encouragement to you in feeling that you are not alone. Firstly I would say its important that we not be too hard on ourselves because it really is a genuine dilemma, and the answer is going to be very personal. We are living in a time of massive over production and over consumption and we can’t stop living altogether in an effort to counter balance that. Whereas once handmade arts and crafts were a necessity as well as a pleasure, these days there is such a glut of all kinds of products that it can feel that our own offerings are just adding to the problem, which is a pity. It seems like the materialistic nature of our culture detracts from being able to enjoy and value our own capacity to produce and share our creativity.

      For myself I have decided to listen to my intuition rather than get bogged down in a philosophical debate. I went through a phase of buying and selling online, and of making and selling greeting cards. I really enjoyed both while I was doing them, but after a while the excitement of those activities waned of its own accord. I felt that I really wanted to head in the direction of simplicity and away from managing “stuff”. Getting involved in selling goods, although enjoyable, was going to work against that more important goal. I felt some initial disappointment in dropping those projects, but that quickly passed and now it seems like a lifetime ago when in fact it was only a few months. At a personal level I like the feeling of lightness that comes from having modest needs when it comes to personal possessions. Its also a relief not to have to think about transporting and storing raw materials and finished goods for sale.

      My plan was to start a business as a professional organiser, but I am beginning to question whether I want to pursue that direction partly because it still involves me in managing “stuff”, even if it is other peoples. I don’t own a car and it may be difficult to do that work without one. Since I am already car free I am reluctant to buy a car for a job that may not have a high financial return; I would need to sort a lot of other peoples stuff just to pay for the car! I enjoy writing and think I may head more in that direction. I am now thinking in terms of work that does not require a lot of physical space and overheads, and that could be location independent, or at least flexible. Or possibly returning to part-time paid employment and having my own time to myself.

      My experiment on how to live and make a living is still in progress. I took a leap of faith into uncertainty by quitting my steady job, and was hoping that an answer to the “what to do” question would appear within 6 months and all would be solved. I am single and am fortunate to be able to live rent free with my Mum. I had savings and and insurance payout to fund the project. I have explored a lot of options and each one has taught me something about myself and the direction I want to head in, so I count everything as valuable experience. I have found that the exercise has changed me and clarified what I want from life, so it feels like living with uncertainty and exploring options has been an important part of the process.

      I thought I was all set to “be a writer” but a soon as I decided on that, the impetus to write faded. I became aware that a lot of what I was doing was trying to construct and identity for myself. Will I be a writer, a photographer, and artist, a professional organiser, a second hand dealer”…? Each idea seemed to be like a bubble that would arise, have a life, and then burst. I am taking a break from trying to solve the “what do I want to be” question and looking inward to answer the more fundamental spiritual questions about who I really am, what I believe, and how I want to be in the world. Although the uncertainty about my future is greater now than when I started, I feel much happier and clearer about what is important to me. I am still in the middle of that introspective process which is why I have taken a break from blogging, as its quite personal, and also changing quickly. I am still a work in progress, but I do feel that things are becoming clearer. I suspect that the question is changing from “what do I want to be?” to “what is needed here?” The idea of “following your passion” is very strong just now. However thats a very individualistic model and we need to consider not only our own preferences, talents and skills, but also what the world requires, as it is in our own time and place.

      So what I would say to you is not to be afraid to listen closely to what your heart is telling you. There are many great options available to us in life, but we can’t do them all. The important thing is to discern what is the most important to you. Sometimes that might mean letting go of other attractive ideas, but I think thats the more meaningful way to live.

  2. Aubrey said:

    Thank you so much for your reply Linda.

    You mentioned buying and selling online and that’s one thing I’m doing now, primarily buying books and comic books and reselling them online. Yet it feels just like you said, like “managing stuff.” I’m a big time minimalist and have over the years parsed down so much and currently we are working towards selling nearly everything we own. I write a blog on minimalism and simple living because the lifestyle is very dear to me. So the idea of managing stuff just doesn’t sit well with me. I am with you, I like the idea of not transporting. We are working towards living in an off-the-grid RV full-time and so any added stuff would not be good in a smaller space.

    It sounds like we are in a somewhat similar boat. I too took a leap of faith and quit my job. Granted, my husband has one but to me it was a leap since it’s now created more than a year gap on my resume. Since we are wanting to travel in the RV I’m trying to come up with ways to be self-employed but with less stuff. I’m working on my first novel and thought that maybe I could pick up some freelance jobs, since that would involve my passion of writing and no added stuff.

    For me I’m less trying to solve the ‘what do I want to be’ question (because I know what I want to be, a novelist) and more just wanting to help pay the bills especially since the plan is for him to quit his job too and we both pay the bills with self-employment.

    I really like what you said about, “Sometimes that might mean letting go of other attractive ideas, but I think that’s the more meaningful way to live” because that’s how I’ve been feeling as of late. My idea of owning a repurposed shop sounds attractive, I have the chops to do it, and think it would do quite well but I still don’t want more stuff. So I may have to let it go.

    It seems we are both doing a bit of pondering while still going with the flow.

    Thanks again for your reply and it’s nice to find someone in a very similar boat and way of thinking. Cheers!

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