Negative space was a topic of discussion around the household of my youth. My parents are both artists; my mother was a late bloomer (she didn’t start painting until she was 340) but my father hasn’t held a legitimate job since the Johnson Administration. He’s been a working artist as long as I can remember (last Wednesday). Negative space is the space around a viewed object. The idea of negative space turns out to be especially important right now: it’s the only way to understand what’s happening in the news.
The perfect negative space is a hole: the material around the hole defines it. Without the dirt around the hole (it’s a hole in the ground, or possibly an especially foul Axminster carpet) you have no hole at all, probably a level lot. But the dirt defines the hole.
That dirt if the negative space. There is negative space around everything you see, from a grand piano to a lard sculpture of Yngwie Malmsteen. It’s the sky between the branches of a tree. It’s the good news coming from Washington. If you sit down with charcoal and foolscap you can sketch the negative space around anything. This is what the news media have been doing with the Iraq war with regards to the luckiest president in history and his whackjob myrmidions.
A television pundit, for example, recently referred to the “now famous Downing Street Memo”, the peculiar part being that prior to the moment he mentioned it, the network for which this pundit shills hadn’t mentioned the memo once. This was in fact the first time this document was mentioned on any of the networks.
Famous? For those benighted souls that get their news from news outlets, I’d better explain that the memo (called ‘the Downing Street Memo’ because Tony Blair, the British PM, opened a brothel in the street of the same name) is the first of a raft of absolutely damning documents that prove without any possible doubt that the Bush Bunch was being less than candid– disassembling, in fact– about its designs upon Iraq. They lied us into war. Pretty big story, back in the day. But not these days. The now famous Downing Street Memo got famous through sheer word of mouth, not reportage.
And then, finally, the major media deigned to acknowledge it. Almost. What the pundit did, and what the entire panoply of commercial news outlets is still doing to this day, was to trace the margins of the ‘Memogate’ story but never venture into an actual description of its features. Negative space in action. This bizarre mode of coverage was commonplace in the Soviet Union whenever there was bad news for the ginks running the show that just couldn’t be denied. When the Chernobyl nukular plant in the Soviet Union blew up, spewing 100 tons of radioactive fuel into the upper atmosphere, the official Soviet newspaper Izvestia remarked that doctors were as busy dispelling irrational fear as they were treating the effects of radiation. Maybe I’m just a know-nothing rube from the sticks, but if doctors are treating the effects of radiation, is the fear irrational?
The trick to negative space is you can define anything you want that surrounds the subject, but you can’t venture inside the subject, no matter what. Talk about the potential unpropitious economic impacts of Mad Cow disease (named after Barbara Bush) but don’t talk about the advance of the disease within US borders. Iraq: a quagmire? Fair question for the news media, because you’re not talking about the war, you’re talking about a derivation from ‘Quabbe’ (M.E., marsh or bog), and whether it is an appropriate metaphor to describe the situation in Iraq when after all waaaay more soldiers died in Vietnam, our definitive quagmire, besides which they had jungles there and only date palms in Iraq. Whether or not the war was founded on a lethal compote of hubris, lies, and innuendo is not to be addressed; John Keats’ ‘Negative Capability’ (the ability to be “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”) meets negative space.
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The only good news about negative space is most reasonably alert people, or in other words one in a thousand, can eventually figure out what’s missing in a picture just by looking at the outline. As the media daubs away around the edges of the story, a telling shape begins to emerge: it is the negative space around the truth.
BEN TRIPP is an independent filmmaker and all-around swine.
His book, Square In The Nuts, may be purchased here, with other outlets to follow: http://www.lulu.com/Squareinthenuts . Swag is available as always from http://www.cafeshops/tarantulabros. Mr. Tripp may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.