Emptiness, Kenosis, and Art

I’m really into emptiness. Yes, it says something about what I’m made of! And, actually I think that is quite accurate as, according to Eckhart Tolle, quantum physics says that we are about 95% empty space.

Now emptiness to me means the “stuff out there,” meaning, some “external reference point.” (Oh, if my mom could hear me saying this, she would echo Hamlet’s mom, “Oh what a noble mind is here o’er thrown.” Well, in mom’s case, she probably would not elevate me to “noble.”)

Emptiness, such as the Christian doctrine of “kenosis” and the existentialist notion of “nothingness” convey to me merely the notion that there is something “out there” beyond the “small bright circle of our consciousness” (Conrad Aiken). Our finite minds cannot grasp it all which is what Einstein recognized when he noted that the end result of his studies was that a mystery lay at the base of existence. Einstein recognized that even his brilliant intelligence could not wrap itself around the majesty of life.

My grasp of this mystery is intellectual. I admit it. I humbly confess and beg to atone for this sin but I am just “stuck in my head,” damn it! But I’m married to an artist and musician, and I know artists and others who approach life with a different conceptual apparatus. (I try to straighten them out, to get them to see things the “right” way but they only look at me with bewilderment!) And therefore I increasingly embrace “otherness”, the fact that there are other ways of approaching this incredible mystery that we are all caught up in, that actually has encompassed us, that has “caught us up in” itself.

I would like to share with you a blog from a visual artist that a sister of mine has turned me on to which often really intrigues me. His name is Robert Genn and he just approaches reality differently than I do; he is much less “verbal” and I really like that. His emphasis is on the importance of emptiness, or “nothingness”:

Back around the turn of the 20th century, household gadgets, from sewing machines to new fangled vacuum cleaners, were decorated with floral or other motifs. In those days, people thought things looked better when they were covered with busyness. Sewing machines themselves were sometimes made in the form of dolphins, angels or even snakes. The wide ranging art critic Sir Herbert Read (1893-1968) wrote, “The necessity of ornament is psychological. There exists in man a certain feeling which has been called horror vacui, an incapacity to tolerate an empty space. This feeling is strongest in certain savage races, and in decadent periods of civilization.”

While sophisticated Asian art tends toward the spacious, and minimalism is not yet out of fashion in the West, Western art reveals a general trend for decoration. While we may indeed be living in decadent times, my argument is we’re just being Aristotelian: “Nature abhors a vacuum.”

Fact is, a blank space may be the much needed rest period that comes before the action. It may also be the part of the work that sends the viewer yawning. A bit idiosyncratic and certainly not for everyone, I make actors of my blank spots, especially the interminable ones. Spaces can often be gradated, blended, softened, hardened or at least formed into a strong negative area. Spaces also need nearby busyness to be effective in their spaciousness, just as sophisticated neutral tones and grays are needed for the surprise and excitement of nearby colour.

A significant space in many landscapes is the sky. While plain skies have their value, a more active and complex sky can bring drama to otherwise ordinary work. “The sky,” said John Constable, “is the principal actor in your painting.”

In sculpture, the surrounding space becomes as significant as the figure. “You leave space for the body,” said Henry Moore, “imagining the other part even though it isn’t there.”

To my eye, paintings and other art take their strength from a calculated dance in which the various elements come together, interact, and move apart. No matter what the subject matter or motif, abstract style or realistic, negative and positive spaces contrive to juxtapose in a way that engages the viewer’s eye. Like a lot of art concepts, this isn’t the only way to go, but it’s a valuable one.

Best regards,


PS: “A painter is a choreographer of space.” (Barnett Newman)

Esoterica: A painter who understood the value of space was Henri Matisse. Subject matter was often second to the organization of flats. “The whole arrangement of my picture is expressive,” said Matisse. “The place occupied by the figures or objects, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything plays a part.” Attention to space gave Matisse permission to play with colour. Some of the most interesting and spatial of Matisse’s works were his figure studies. We’ve taken the liberty to post some of my favourites at the top of the current clickback.


2 thoughts on “Emptiness, Kenosis, and Art

  1. landzek

    I guess the significance of nothingness lay in how we go about ornamenting it with what we say about it. For I would think, that I can’t think nothingness, but only about what it means.

    Sent from my iPhone



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