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In the world of literature, art and photography, perhaps no word has been more misunderstood and maligned over the past decade than "minimalism."

One reason is every "minimalist" has a personal definition of the word.Minimalism can mean "small focus," as in the mini-paintings of Samuel Morse, or the poems by Francis Ponge on topics such as soap and bread crumbs.

It can also mean brevity of style or the use of a few, simple elements to achieve a grand effect. In photography it's often a tightly focused shot of patterns and colors usually passed over by the human eye.

Most agree, however, that the upshot of minimalist philosophy is "less is more." While the world pushes the notion "bigger is better," the minimalist looks for meaning, significance - even infinity - in the understated.

"Minimalism always tends to put you in touch with your craft and the materials you use," says Larry Levis, director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Utah. "Minimalism also makes an ironic comment on grander schemes. In some ways, of course, it will always be limiting."

Toward the end of his life, William Carlos Williams began writing poems about plums in the icebox, twigs and wheelbarrows that were so spare that many appear today in books for children. Here's his famous "Red Wheel Barrow:"

So much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


In the '50s the work of Williams was not appreciated as it is today, but he did help spawn a generation of writers who began putting emphasis on control and limited subject matter. By temperament and training, such artists found monumental importance in the small, the understated and the overlooked, much like Oriental monks who are said to gaze on the wings of dragonflies until the secrets of reality appear.

Minimalist writers such as Anne Beattie have carried the theory into fiction. In a Beattie story, the presence of a sugar bowl on a table often has the impact of fallen meteorite.

In recent years, however, there has been a backlash against such a small focus. So many unskilled writers and artists were turning to minimalism that bad minimalistic art was becoming the rule, not the exception. And bad minimalism is simply banal. Also, many artists themselves grew restless with minimalism because - by definition - it was limiting.

"When your theory of art is `less is more,' " poet Derek Walcott told Utahns not long ago, "you can never build cathedrals."

Still, writers, artists and photographers will continue to be intrigued and interested in minimalism. There's a charm and a keen sense of novelty to it, a feeling one is seeing something for the first time.

Says Levis: "There's a freshness and ironic revelation in good minimalism. It also has a social significance. Minimalism is often needed because things have become too grandiose. In that respect it is a comment on the culture."