July 4, 2013 Repository 76: A Celebration of Nothingness Posted In: culture, perspective

 Image from wikipaintings, "Rooms by the Sea", 1951, Edward Hopper, private collection

“Rooms by the Sea”, 1951, Edward Hopper, private collection.

Celebrating the Fourth of July – a day of independence and freedom – I can’t help reflect on the idea of freedom, and how exciting and blessed one can feel given so much freedom. However, with freedom comes nothingness, and depending on your orientation, nothingness brings anxiety or a great sense of calm.

American culture by definition is nothingness – no specific history, no specific religion, equality in race and gender (yes even you mr./ms. corporation can be considered a person), and no clear pattern in cultural matters except for a trend in wherever the wind is blowing.

For Americans, visiting countries steeped in cultural history is exciting, brings a sense of awe, and inspires comfort in lineage and history. We take pictures and make pilgrimages to places like India, Europe, Russia – the exotic seems to have more than enough – a plethora of ideas and thingness – not like the nothingness from which we come. Which of course isn’t true – America is full of everything – a physical and cultural bazaar for the masses. National Parks! Portuguese Festival! Black History Month! Gay Pride Parade! Etcetera.

How is it that in the West, America specifically, nothingness is perceived as powerless and empty whereas in the East a void is respected, explored and extremely poignant? The nothingness of say Zen Buddhism is revered. How can we get from here to there?

I just dropped into the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum online – there are first and foremost “global art” concerns, then some craftsman and conservation bylines. Is there really such a thing as “American Art”? I know that American museums have gone through some major strategic thinking over the past 15-20 years about what they should acquire and collect – are they collecting and preserving an American specific agenda, or are they going global?


Installation image from the New York National Museum of the American Indian


Human face effigy; Kentucky, Gallatin County, Warsaw; 200 B.C-400 A.D.; stone; 10 inches; Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian, Washington D.C.

In a place where we stridently call ourselves “Asian American”, or “African American” or “American Indian” I wonder why to bother with the racial moniker? American does not refer to a specific culture, only to a zip code. The race bit is usually an attempt to place us in a tribe, where no tribes truly exist, except for our distant cousins who welcomed Europeans with pride, tears and confusion. I’m reminded of a review by art writer Peter Schjeldahl wrote years ago on a survey of “American Art” at the Whitney, he wrote:

In America, one speaks for oneself in the never certain case that one has a self to speak for and that anybody will be impressed.

He wrote this almost 10 years prior to the Kardashian or Jersey Shore plagues. Schjeldahl incidentally is known for throwing celebrity-filled 4th of July bashes at his home in upstate New York with his actress wife.

Returning to the idea of freedom – this is a very heady concept. As an artist I work best with the most restrictions – with deadlines, a border on a canvas, three colors versus 300, one concept versus 10. It’s like a child or a puppy – the more boundaries provided, the more comfortable one feels. On a geopolitical scale one can see on no uncertain terms how the borders humans make become so contentious, so childlike.

Given this inclination, and knowing the importance of sitting in the void and nothingness, I think it’s important to frequently break the boundaries we’ve provided for ourselves (don’t worry, they’ll grow back in other directions), so we can see freely, with no restrictions and in fresh ways. Instead of seeing nothingness as a threat – see it as a welcome moment to recharge and reconsider. Break everything.

So in celebrating freedom and independence today I remind you dear reader to celebrate the void, the nothingness that is America.

Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum, "Leap into the Void", 1960 Yves Klein (French, 1928–1962), photographed by Harry Shunk (German, 1924–2006) and Janos Kender (Hungarian, 1937–1983)

Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum, “Leap into the Void”, 1960
Yves Klein (French, 1928–1962), photographed by Harry Shunk (German, 1924–2006) and Janos Kender (Hungarian, 1937–1983)

Tagged: , , , , , ,

  1. Louise Sheils • July 6, 2015

    Wise thoughts, Catherine.
    I am just starting to write my MA thesis (Hispanic Studies)on Julio Cortázar short stories. It's all about boundaries. I'll have to quote you!
    Louise Reply

    • Catherine Haley Epstein • July 14, 2015

      Thank you Louise! I'd love to read your thesis on Julio Cortázar's work! Let me know when it's published. Best of luck and thank you so much for your note and for reading!! Warmly - Catherine Reply

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.