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TED TALLEY: What's up this month? Nothing comes to mind

by Ted Talley | August 13, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

Given the nation's state of affairs from plague to politics, I found it hard to approach the keyboard this month to offer you, dear reader, anything of substance. Nothing came to mind. Literally.

I recalled "Seinfeld" on TV, a show about nothing, as it became known. Imagine the concept "pitch" to NBC executives with that as the premise. Yet, a hit series launched in 1989 continued for nine years.

Thus I wondered how successful I might be in pitching not just a column about nothing but rather one that is nothing. If you're reading this, I guess my editor considered the premise. Well, to a tiny degree, since you're obviously seeing ink here.

Imagine a headline -- "Columnist has nothing to say" -- atop several column inches of blank newsprint (or iPad) but for an instructive superscript. The reader is to concentrate on the blank paper (or screen), consider ever-so-slight variations in the ecru-colored standard newsprint paper (a view usually impeded by bothersome words and ideas) and to search for meaning in the nothingness. Those still receiving print can ponder the slight wrinkles in the texture or imperfections known in the industry as "slugs," which are slight marks or teeny splinters, not persons of unenthusiastic gait, connecting one to the paper source: pulpwood hauled from the forest, bleached into rough-hewn paper and finding your hands at the breakfast table.

I propose this to be a valid artistic exercise as good as any. The reader self-informs, divining meaning from the blank space or creating words to put there if given the chance.

Examples in tandem creative fields exist.

In the graphics genre, a web search yielded much ado about nothing. At the top of the list was an essay penned by Roberto Pinheiro Machado, a former philosophy post-doctoral fellow at the University of Washington. His piece title is a mouthful: Nothingness and the Work of Art: A Comparative Approach to Existential Phenomenology and the Ontological Foundation of Aesthetics

If that doesn't sound like an opening volley in a grant application, I've never heard one. Yet in addition to his philosophical scholarliness, Machado is a Brazilian jazz saxophonist. Now that note is a resume-maker to me.

So shall we ponder metaphysics here in our Ozark woodlands and frame blank newsprint at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art offering comparative didactic labels linking to works in the permanent collection? I see a Rothko rough-around-the-edges, monochromatic square as a correlation. Or in a more patent line, a reference to Richard Caton Woodville's "War News from Mexico" with the astonished central figure reading a 19th century newspaper to onlookers.

Meanwhile in the performing arts, long stretches of tacit nothingness abound in squiggly quarter rests and block-like half and whole ones. Talented, patient tympanists will testify to their importance.

In 1952, composer John Cage created a concert piano work called "4:33" in which, when performed, using that term loosely, consists of the pianist at the bench (and perhaps orchestra members and conductor on stage) as the seated audience listens to four minutes and thirty-three seconds of complete silence. Well, not complete silence. Which is the point. In 1951, Cage visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard, a room engineered to absorb every sound. In his visit, Cage actually heard two recurring tones. The engineer explained: The low sound was blood rushing through the body and the high sound was the nervous system working. Hearing your brain at work---that's like scary stuff from "The Twilight Zone."

During "4:33" concert-goers are to experience, Simon and Garfunkel aside, all within the sound of silence. Rustling of programs, shifting bodies in seats, shuffling of feet. And of course, coughing. In that, it's fortunate I've never attended a performance of "4:33." I would have discarded composure, stood up and shouted thoughts I've squelched countless times in symphony halls.

"Here now, people, is your opportunity. Crinkle those candy wrappers! Talk, sneeze, cough. Bark like trained seals if you must until the orchestra returns to make music!"

Indeed, better for all if I were to sit it out at the lobby bar. In silence.

Proof of nothingness painted as profound thought abounds in the media. Our political leaders of all stripes are experts in vacuousness, repeating nothing to us and themselves and reminding me of the "Wizard of Oz."

Dorothy queries the Scarecrow, "How can you talk if you haven't got a brain?"

He responds: "I don't know... some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don't they?"

I defer to author L. Frank Baum and composer John Cage. I have nothing more to say.

Ted Talley is a resident of Bentonville who has lived in the Ozarks more than 25 years. His email is [email protected]


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