MAXIMALISM, Enemy of Death

/ April 2022

Maximalism: the word describes itself. Maximalism is an aesthetic style to which I have long been drawn. Maximalist works resist summarization. They present a simple answer to the question of how to express the complexity of interiority within a finite work of art: create everything, all at once, all in the same place. There can be no summarization, no reduction in complexity. You defend yourself against death by recreating your internal complexity. The work of art is a phylactery storing your soul.

Consider some maximalist mathematics: every element you add doubles the number of subsets of elements (each set bifurcates into versions inclusive and exclusive of the new element). This exponential growth means that sufficiently dense or complex works have arbitrarily high complexity-level of interpretive space, of constellations to be formed. They create within themselves self-contained worlds of data and discourse. Maximalist works create rich collections of referential and signifying hooks to grasp on to, providing an implicit justification for constellating any subset of elements: that they were consciously placed together already by the maximalist author (and thus the essay becomes self-referential).

Let us begin with what is widely regarded as being among the greatest ever jazz albums: Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Coltrane is a paragon of maximalism. While his lines and phrasings are undeniably advanced and thoughtful, and while A Love Supreme clearly has a pre-composed structure, these structural elements of regularity serve to emphasize evermore the raw expressive power that goes into Coltrane’s playing. Against this compositional backdrop, we confront the real project behind the work. Coltrane, as well as his bandmates, solo as though they are trying to play every note simultaneously and just can’t quite make it happen, settling instead on impossibly elaborate runs.

The piece attacks the reality principle, attempts to deny that a physical body can have such sorrowful limitations as to not truly be able to express itself. This denial cannot be extricated from the aspiration towards divinity present in the work. The titular “love supreme” is Coltrane’s love of God, the named constituent movements corresponding to a personal religious meditation: Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance, Psalm. Perhaps most telling in this quartet is Pursuance: what is being pursued? What is the goal of this sonic quest? The answer is the divine. Coltrane plays as though his saxophone is Adam’s outstretched hand in The Creation of Adam, reaching towards God, hoping that if he sufficiently manifests his heavenly aspirations, there could finally be an answer from above. One must recall Bach’s recurring signature: Soli Deo Gloria.

Indeed, my encounters with maximalist artwork inevitably situate the pieces within the broader reaction to the silence of god. The Christian concept of Heaven, the Buddhist reincarnation cycle, and the other various religious landscapes of immortality, are maximalist imaginary spaces. They assert faithfully that there is always more, infinitely more, endlessly more content, life, joy to be had. The maximalism of us mortals, then, is a desperate attempt to cope with the finiteness of life for those doomed to die. Be they produced by the godless or the faithful, maximalist works aspirationally replicate these feelings of infinite grandeur within the constraints of the finite artwork, the finite lifetime.

We can listen to Pharoah Sanders’s The Creator Has a Master Plan, a clear response to A Love Supreme, for another incarnation of this striving. Pharoah (having played with Coltrane, even quoting the characteristic four-note rhythm despite lacking the “A Love Supreme” lyric) also attempts to play every note at once, and crashes against his mechanical limitations to arrive at the sweeping composition we ultimately hear. An interesting structural difference is that Creator expands the use of lyrics. While A Love Supreme contains a titular chant, Creator broadens the scope of the human voice in the divine composition with his recurring lyric: “The Creator has a master plan, / Peace and happiness for every man, / The Creator makes but one demand, / Peace and happiness through all the land.” These lyrics move beyond mere divinity and invoke a positive political project back on Earth. This political aspect of maximalism will be investigate more thoroughly throughout the essay. While vastly more could be said about maximalism in music, I will leave it here for brevity.

Let us move now to an invocation of divinity in another medium. Bruegel’s Tower of Babel painting, held in Vienna, has as its explicit subject matter the most famous of all attempts to make contact with divinity. The composition of the painting mirrors the grandiose project therein. Both the tower and its environs are elaborately detailed, with as many facets of the human reality surrounding such an astonishing project faithfully displayed. The effusive color palette gives the piece a dream-like veneer, while the foregrounded king with entourage and supplicants remind the viewer that we are ultimately witnessing a mortal folly, a project by imperfect humans with grandiose aspirations. The meta-maximalism of this piece distinguishes it: a maximalist depiction of a maximalist project, a commentary of immense complexity analyzing a project even more complex. Bruegel’s scene conveys both the vastness and the human limitations of its scene, but reminds us that striving for the infinite is among our most ancient inherited traditions.

While maximalism follows the infinitude of religious thought, it certainly goes beyond the limitations of religious subject matter. We can consider the Rivera mural Man, Controller of the Universe. This work attempts to depict the full scope of modernity: gas-masked soldiers, industrial laborers, inherited statues of divinities past, babies, animals, Darwin, Lenin, Marx, and more. At the center of this swirling chaos sits a man, donned with angelic wings of cosmic and cellular imagery, his focused yet thoughtful expression conveying his awareness of the grand scope of it all, his gloved hands operating the industrial machinery with which his torso has merged. Emanating from his levers and buttons of power is a central hand, grasping within it an oracular orb containing the mechanized dials and meters of the machine age. Here is a composition depicting itself: with one grand, sweeping view, it takes in the scope of the world around us, the vast infinity of the human experience, and draws the maelstrom into convergence within a single human agent. This agent, the man at the center of the universe, is the maximalist artist. Rivera has painted himself, the mechanized producer at the helm of madness, refining and refracting (note the parallel lenses filtering imagery to the central man) the images of the grand totality. Beleaguered and confused, the maximalist artist’s only recourse is to faithfully agglomerate the overwhelming complexity of their experience.

There is another form, cousin to painting, which is structurally maximalist: the atlas. The epistemological promise of the map is to faithfully depict an area, to encode the physicality of space into a hyper-complex written record. An atlas of the world, then, promises knowledge of the sweeping totality of terrestrial humanity. Its technocratic creation produces a maze of curves and symbols, a cipher of physicality. Maps appeal to me for this reason: they offer some semblance of navigation, of comprehension, a starting guide to the vast unknown. The map is a beautiful work of maximalism despite its status as a tool, rather than art.

Before moving on to literary maximalism, I would like to take a good look at architecture. Architecture is a form which physically alters our environment, and thus materially transforms our lives. Within the maximalist method, it has both the most significant limitations (materials, labor) and the greatest promise for actionable transformation, and is inextricably linked to politics.

We can first mention the immense canon of maximalist religious architecture. This is a category so vast that I barely feel the need to mention it. For the sake of inclusion, I will arbitrarily name the Sagrada Familia, Grand Mosque of Kairouan, Basílica de Guadalupe, and Quito’s Basilica del Voto Nacional as being magnificent, epic works of religious architecture which I have personally seen. This is to say nothing of the vast collection of religious structures throughout the world, most of which I have not seen. All of this is to say that architectural maximalism, like the maximalist approach as a whole, has its roots in the pursuit of divinity. The Tower of Babel itself can perhaps be seen as the patron concept of maximalism, both architectural and otherwise.

Now let us turn to the meat of architectural maximalism, that is, the structures which advance the core political argument inherent in any maximalist work of art. I will start with the Japanese postwar Metabolist school of architecture. The lofty concepts of this high-modernist movement never came to fruition due to their politically transformative implications, but they offer us a sense of how maximalist aesthetics can effortlessly merge with maximalist politics. One Metabolist proposal was to create a network of floating “Ocean Cities,” each a self-sufficient floating city of concrete containing within it the technology to produce modular concrete components and thus to alter itself. Such a city would have a natural metabolism, its human inhabitants dissolving into a mechanized super-organism moving through water and developing itself as desired. The operational reality of such a city demands a collectivist, fully democratic, autonomous government. Similar proposals described self-reproducing cities built on massive concrete trunks, with the city extending outwards as in a tree; the “Wall City” proposal to create a city built around a massive porous wall with housing on one side, workplaces on the other, and transit within the wall; and the “Agricultural City,” raised on concrete stilts above farmland.

The Metabolist visions offer collective futures, collective realities, defined by an all-consuming total reimagination of how society organizes itself. They are inherently lefitst projects, their politics arising naturally and concomitantly with the aesthetic form of a fully self-contained organic mega-structure. The aesthetics and politics of maximalist architecture define each other. If we can imagine anything aesthetically, including total transformation and reorganization, why can we not ask for it politically?

A radically different strain of maximalist architecture, focused more on reclaiming the radical potentials of postmodernism than pushing further the boundaries of high modernism, comes from Friedrich Hundertwasser. His designs envisioned intensely colorful, whimsical, imaginative structures filled inside and out with trees and other vegetation. They echo the simple premise, harkening back to William Morris, that the leftist political project is just the theoretical backing for wanting to create beautiful and joyful environments to live in. Hundertwasser’s structures are filled with life and color. They are designed for the needs of humans. Hundertwasser, beyond his realized structures, created proposals for total urban reorganization: reforesting areas inhabited by humans and integrating our structures into the earth, with every roof a green space and every community fully walkable. Again, this is a total reorganization of society, this time under the aesthetic maximalism of color, of beautiful possessions, of sustainable abundance, of the rejection of conformity and linearity in favor of constant reimagination. Again, the aesthetics cannot be distinguished from the politics: why not demand whatever we can imagine?

Finally, let us look at the contemporary artist Olalekan Jeyifous. His architectural visions, which I first saw in the Oakland Museum of California’s Afrofuturism exhibit, follow Hundertwasser’s lead in envisioning urban spaces filled with vegetation, color, and egalitarian community control. However, he innovates by turning ecological and engineering constraints into further components of design: urban farming, recycled and reclaimed materials, and an intensified but totally reimagined humane densification are core components of Jeyifous’s designs. The detritus of the postindustrial era is reabsorbed into the vision of collective future, an overwhelming abundance of shapes, patterns, and designs fluidly integrated into a broader reinvention of urban design and planning. I would point specifically to the projects Bodega Ecohaven and Shanty Mega-structures to have a sense of this aesthetic direction. Density and chaos transform into closeness and spontaneity in this imagined realm. The complexity of modernity is not sacrificed, but rather increased and used to regain the lost sense of total freedom which urban spaces conceptually promise.

We can turn now to the final category of maximalist art which I wish to investigate, that of literature. We can begin, as usual, with the religious pieces which lend their expressive immensity to secular works. On my mind are the Bible, Paradise Lost, and the Odyssey. Each of these epics tell sweeping stories serving, in Milton’s words, to “justifie the wayes of God to men.” Of course, matching the omnipotence of the Abrahamic God demands an unrelenting maximalism. The Bible is long, immensely detailed, filled with poetic complexity, and fulfills the myriad roles of offering a creation myth, cosmology, legal code, ethnic history, and personal and societal wisdom. Paradise Lost focuses intensely on the agglomerated substory of Lucifer’s rebellion and the fall, but maximally recounts this tale, complete with ultra-dense allusions and intensely detailed poetic storytelling. The Odyssey, a pagan contribution to this canon, has a far more limited subject matter: a partial recounting of a single human life. Bound up within this, of course, is a broad sweep of ancient Greek mythology, values, moral codes, and above all, the maximalist and collectivist narrative form of the epic itself.

From these religious origins, we can move to the maximalism of the modern era. For poetry, I would like to bring up Whiman’s “Song of Myself.” This poem has a maximalist structure, with 52 sections for the 52 weeks of a full year, as well as a maximalist argument of what constitutes the self: other humans, plants, animals, and the general world get drawn into the refracting lens of personal identity. Ego-death is the full scope of the self in this poem, with no vestiges of a limited individualism left behind. Leaves of Grass as a whole is an undoubtedly maximalist work, with the themes of ego death and cosmic collectivity running through the vast variety of individual subject matters covered in the hundreds of constituent poems. Similar in scope but with a more directed chronology is Neruda’s epic Canto General, a Torah-esque leftist epic attempting to recount a people’s history of Chile from indigenous settlement to the political repression which forced Neruda into exile. Art, the self, corporations, nature, historiography, and the divine are fair game in this definitive poetic history.

I bring up these works because poetry specifically offers an intense opportunity for maximalist aesthetics. As Adorno discusses in “Lyric Poetry and Society,” the poem format allows such free manipulation of language and concepts that it can provide a vast level of complexity to work with. Leaves of Grass and the Canto General leverage this power towards emancipatory political arguments, constellating the vastness of history and networks of life to make a case for a coherent whole, and thus for a collectivist unity.

I’ll make a brief note too on more contemporary maximalist literature. Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow are two incredible works of such epic scope as to be impossible to describe, with Gravity’s Rainbow containing around 400 named characters. These postmodern masterpieces successfully deliver us the complexity of the divine, creating new holy texts from the cultural wreckage of our era.

We must politicize art, yes, but all that’s needed to do so is to recognize the inherent political arguments lurking in every aesthetic structure. With that being said, the political maximalist manifesto is easy to state. To quote an excellent Italian novel, Vogliamo Tutto: We want everything! Look at the art we produce, the machines we build, the worlds we can imagine – we refuse to settle for less than our highest potential. We can imagine how we want to live and we can design the machines that allow us to live that way – so why not do it? We demand everything, to grow in every direction at once, to allow the beauty and wisdom of our aesthetic creations to justify their physical realizations, to enjoy our mortal years as best we can.

I have specifically traced the thread of religion as a vanguard of maximalism. Indeed, religious works demanded maximalism to fill the silence of God, to bridge the defining gap between fated fingers in The Creation of Adam. So we tossed up Babels anew, Bruegel’s work being self-referential: it itself is a tower of Babel, a work of relentless complexity and scope reaching towards the beauty of our silent creator. And let us not forget what an ironic defiance it is of the tale’s moral: God’s silence being questioned, He robs the would-be-worshippers of their ability to communicate, trapping them with him in silence. But Bruegel shouts through his kingdom of color and does not obey such a curse.

The maximalist aesthetic style was a response to the silence of God. Starved of divine speech, artistic works of such sweeping scale and grandeur were created so as to fill the existential gap. We innately have the creative power to create works of such scope as to be worshiped. Why leave them to canonical bearers of religion? Why not reclaim this vast creative energy and build the worlds we imagine in our most reaching visions? Why not create a society in the image of our most beautiful art?

We built our gods from story and song, and we can do so again.

As this is a maximalist essay, let me end with a critique of the entire thing. Among my favorite poems is a poem stolen out of another art form: the excellent 1932 Ozu film I Was Born, But…. It is an excellent film, but what interests me here is purely its title, the four-word poem

I was born, but…

This poem invokes the grand existential state of our lives so simply, so clearly. But it is as far as you can get from maximalism. It doesn’t even attempt to answer the existential question. Indeed, the reader is forced to imagine by themselves what the implied ending could be. What is the successor state to being born? It is life, consciousness, death – that is, it’s the whole thing, the whole story. This tiny poem implies the full maximalist response without attempting to state it.

So who needs maximalism? Well, for some strange reason, I still do. Perhaps I just like the material reassurance that we have the power to produce a whole world as a coherent work, to create a lasting record of our greatest attempts at creation.

So I cling on to maximalism, the answer to that ultimate silence, the translocation of our souls into our art, the recreation of your mind in a transmittable medium, the unification of all shards of your illusory self into a testament to your subjectivity. Maximalism! It staves off dread, for it is the enemy of death.

Postscript. Producing maximalist art requires living a maximalist life. One must accumulate a vast and varied set of experiences and sense-data to use as the raw material for maximalist art. So I aim to do everything, experience all there is, to live every life, and thus gain the necessary content to have a vague sense of what is going on.