ABSTRACT

Our fourth grade art teacher, Mrs. Lord, was always telling us to fill in the sky. I wanted to move on to another painting, but Lordy would say, “Why don’t you finish the painting you’ve made, Stevie? The sky isn’t just white, now is it? Why don’t you fill in the sky?” I wish I’d known about John Cage or Beckett back then. Maybe I

could have explained to Mrs. Lord that the emptiness of my sky helped to focus the eye on the exploding Russian MIG-23 I’d drawn. But this was 1953, and in fourth grade all I could think was that filling in the sky would mean wasting a whole lot of blue paint. It would be boring, even more boring than painting class was already. So, in a way, I agreed with Lordy: empty space was boring, and boredom was a bad thing-it gave you time to realize how boring school was, and what was the point anyway? A central undertaking, perhaps the central undertaking of the twentieth

century, was the elimination of boredom. Boredom came to be seen as a serious disorder, a cancer upon the healthy, productive use of time, an illness to be cured at all costs. Although the costs have been terrific, we mostly don’t notice them because we’re too busy; we don’t have the time. The attack upon empty time began as a simple economic imperative:

the faster anything could be moved or manufactured or cooked or written, the more money could be made. But this idea-the idea that time not filled with activity is time wasted-spread from the work-place

to all other arenas of life. Each moment nowadays must be filled with useful activity, or at least with some activity. By the end of the nineteenth century, the mad rush of modern culture

was on. Even as most people acquiesced to the cultural pressure to move faster and faster, some artists began to push back, and began searching for ways to help their audiences become aware of the importance of emptiness. In 1897 the French poet, Stéphane Mallarmé, utterly transformed poetry by spreading the words of his great poem “A Throw of the Dice” across the space of the page. During the following decades, even as the workaday world kept speeding up, several artists began to insist upon the importance of empty space and time. In the early 1900s the Russian artist Kasimir Malevich created works like “Black Square” and “White on White,” which forced the spectator to contemplate what he is not seeing. Composers like Berg and Webern began to use silence itself as a compositional element. In 1952 John Cage took the exploration of silence all the way. He composed 4’33”, during which the audience listens to silence-and whatever fills their personal experience of silencefor four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Cage said later “The sound experience which I prefer to all others is the experience of silence” (Sebestik, 1992). In the theater, it was Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, written in 1938,

that first made full use of silence. Our Town is a play almost without dramatic tension, an exciting, heart-rending, beautiful play aboutnothing. Or rather, about how very much is happening when nothing is happening, a play about the exquisite expressiveness of silence. The most dramatic scene of the play-if one can call it “dramatic”—is the love scene at the soda fountain, in which the two young lovers, George and Emily, stumble over their words and finally express their love by not mentioning it:

GEORGE: Emily, if I do improve and make a big change … would you be … I mean: could you be …

EMILY: I … I am now; I always have been. GEORGE: (pause) So, I guess this is an important talk we’ve been having. EMILY: Yes … yes.