In a world cluttered with both useful and useless information, it’s ever more essential to our development as humans to make the space and the time to reflect on what it all means to us. Absence created by white space can inspire active versus passive engagement with art and reveal meaning.
Advertising expert Keith Robertson looks at it this way, “White space is nothing. White space is the absence of content. White space does not hold content in the way that a photograph or text holds meaning and yet it gives meaning through context, to both image and text. In fact, white space can make or break the effective transmission of image and text.” Artists – visual and literary – make statements about the world and evoke emotion through the use of white space in the surrounding context.
In Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Cross, New Mexico, the white space is black. The cross divides the canvas into four distinct scenes and dominates the painting. Seen through a cultural lens, people can interpret this painting in a myriad of contradictory ways. A predominantly Roman Catholic state, the New Mexican landscape is dotted with mission-style churches and the tenants of the religion often mix with and overshadow the native culture and spirituality. Many of these Roman Catholic missions reside on the pueblos, which are considered by law, and the people who have lived there for centuries, to be sovereign nations. Black Cross, New Mexico directly challenges and draws attention to this irony. For a person native to New Mexico, he may see O’Keeffe making a statement about the dominance of religion on the landscape and the Native American culture, anger at that culture for being compromised, and feel like tradition was lost along with the purity and self-determination of a people and individuals within their culture. From the same painting, a non-native person may see progress, triumph, and truth throughower or the power of truth when viewing one of O’Keeffe’s black cross paintings. Another person may see strength and wish to worship.
The contradictory reactions to the same painting don’t matter, but rather that people have observed, reflected, formed ideas and interpretations of their own, and allowed the painting to impact their life.
Likewise, Ansel Adams simultaneously draws attention away from the subject of Moonrise, Hernandez by filling the bulk of the photograph with indistinct mountains, shadows and sky. But he also emphasizes the adobe village in the bottom quarter of the photograph. The angular structure of the homes and especially the church, stand out against the white space created in the other three-quarters of the photograph. Adams creates a human connection by over emphasizing what is not human at all and then layers in the homes, the cemetery, the lights, the banners and ribbons.
“A photograph is usually looked at – seldom looked into,” said Adams.
Cormac McCarthy diverged from his Faulknerian, lyrical style in his most recent book The Road. McCarthy makes white space part of the book’s structure which creates an overall metaphor for drama even though his writing is terse and truncated.
To intensify the impact of the spare dialogue, character, and plot, McCarthy often ends the dialogue and the passage itself, prior to the section break, with a question that goes unanswered. Followed by a large amount of white space provided by the section break, McCarthy gives the reader pause to react or reflect on the possible answer to the question.
McCarthy uses dialogue sparingly throughout The Road in order to convey the limitations of the situation the man and the boy are in as they travel. This is white space.
What is it, Papa?
Morels. It’s morels.
They’re a kind of mushroom.
Can you eat them?
Yes. Take a bite.
Are they good?
Take a bite.
The boy smelled the mushroom and bit into it and stood chewing. He looked at his father. These are pretty good, he said.
Each line is short and comprised mostly of questions. Some lines repeat, such as, “Take a bite.” The space to the right of the words, as seen above, which causes the reader to pause before moving on to the next line of dialogue. In the context of the boy eating, this split second of time gives the reader unconscious time to reflect and surmise meaning, and the opportunity to feel or heighten emotion. Thus far in the novel, food is extremely scarce and never found naturally in the environment. Therefore, it is not surprising that a young boy would be skeptical about food growing in the charred land. The white space here draws the reader into his skepticism, wonder and the relief of the father who can now feed his child.
David Shields, author of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, asks, “How much can one remove and still have the composition be intelligible? This understanding, or its lack, divides those who can write from those who can really write. Chekhov removed the plot. Pinter, elaborating, removed the history, the narration; Beckett, the characterization. We hear it anyway. Omission is a form of creation.” However, McCarthy goes even further than the writers Shields mentions when he removes words from the page completely.
Through the white space and because of it, readers can feel the void and the fear of the unknown, and yet still understand why McCarthy’s main characters persevere on this journey of survival. If a reader does not heed these cues to slow down and feel, he or she will miss meaning, missing the unbearable emotion of the story and at the same time miss the author’s statements about humanity, its failings, and its enduring spirit.
When we fail to take time for nothing, everything becomes white noise without meaning or significance in our lives. If we take time out to find white space of our own – silence, space, wide open spaces, fasting – we can hear and see what is around us and in us, and therefore, decide what gives our lives meaning. We can then find and live as our better selves in an overwhelming world.
Bill’s / Defunct by E.E. Cummings
Buffalo Bill ‘s
defunct by E.E. Cummings
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
*** the run together words and the large spaces between lines and words is intentional
Silence or noise? Schweigen, 1954, Eugen Gomringer. “Schweigen” is a German word relating to silence.
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