Let’s Be Nothing Burgers
Recently I was watching a guy on TikTok gently freak out about all the revelations coming back from the James Webb Space Telescope. His panic was so relatable because the images returning from deep space only reinforce how utterly minute we Earthlings are in the cosmos. The JWST is so powerful that, looking from Earth, it can sense the heat signature of a single bumblebee on the moon. And, of course, faced with this, he just shrugged helplessly and said, “We’re a total nothing burger.”
And it made me laugh because, yes, in the grand scheme of things, we are but nothing burgers.
And also, because I’d never heard that phrase before. A quick Google search revealed that people have been bemoaning their nothing burger status (or accusing others of having it) since the 1950s when gossip columnist Louella Parsons coined it. The term is used to describe something with a lot of hype but that turns out to be a whole lot of nothing. Although this doesn’t sound like the kind of concept that is particularly motivational, it ended up helping me feel better at a time when I had been feeling like a straggler from the art world herd – destined for nothingness myself.
For example, sometimes thinking of our work as important and “Art” with a capital “A” can cause our egos to short-circuit and sound the alarm that we’re not successful enough or that our career isn’t yet where we think it should be. Mid-life especially provides a fertile loam for this kind of anxiety, but any age will do. If we could just call our egos from our Doctor Who telephones and inform them that we are just nothing burgers (teeny motes of dust on a speck, winking in the dark of an infinite universe), we could hang up the receivers and sink into the bliss of knowing that no one even cares. We’d finally give ourselves permission to simply enjoy making work again.
For eight years, I’ve been hoarding and savoring this quote by painter Charles Garabedian in an August 2015 interview with Jennifer Samet in her Beer with a Painter column for Hyperallergic. It soothes my nerves when they start to spiral into a Little-Orphan-Annie-it’s-a-hard-knock-life-and-we’re-never-gonna-make-it pit of despair:
“When you first start, you think you are going to be a great artist. You get older, and it just doesn’t happen. And then you calm yourself by saying, “Rembrandt didn’t care either.” You just keep going. I’m stuck with who I am, and I do the best I can. I do have hopes that it hasn’t all been a waste of time. And I don’t think it has been. But it is not for me to worry about.”
We’re all stuck inside our fleshy bodies and given sentience from a long line of apes that once beget slightly more intelligent apes. Then Rembrandt [or insert another artistic hero of your choice] came along and kind of smashed it for all of time. And so, we’re kind of free. Free-to-be- nothing burgers: beautiful golden-brown poppyseed-encrusted empty buns. We are just a minuscule bunch of bee-sized carbon heat signatures, making our short time on this equally minuscule planet count in the only way we can – by creating despite it all.
In every way that matters, that’s what being an artist is all about. Thinking one is inconsequential to the history of art is incredibly liberating. It leaves us able to work to satisfy ourselves and let go of the endless quest for outside validation that feeds only our pride.
As a kid, I had a children’s book that featured an enormous nothing burger called Mother Rabbit’s Son Tom by Dick Gackenbach. In the story, young Tom Rabbit thumbs his nose up at his mother’s lovely rabbit-friendly vegetarian meals and demands a hamburger “with onions and ketchup and pickles on a poppy seed bun.” Fed up, his parents jokingly warn that if he doesn’t stop his constant requests, one day his head will fill with ketchup and plump up like a poppy seed roll until he finally becomes his dream food, a hamburger. Later, Tom plays a trick on them and stuffs his bed covers with an enormous hamburger with two fake bunny ears. His parents roll their eyes and laugh, and we spy young Tom giggling at his joke behind the headboard.
Even though Tom never got what he wanted (a hamburger dinner), he turned into a big old nothing burger anyway and frolicked happily off into the sunset. That spirit of giddy play in the face of disappointment, and reveling in the futility of it all and doing it anyway, sums up the nothing burger approach for me.
This essay is a bit short because, practically, how long can someone really talk about nothing? But I’ll leave you with two quotes from two best friends, Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt.
“I would like the work to be non-work. This means that it would find its way beyond my preconceptions. It is the unknown quantity from which and where I want to go. As a thing, an object, it accedes to its non-logical self. It is something; it is nothing.” (1968)
“You belong in the most secret part of you. Don’t worry about cool; make your own uncool. Make your own, your world. If you fear, make it work for you. Draw and paint your fears and anxieties.” (1965)
“Your work isn’t a high stakes, nail-biting professional challenge. It’s a form of play. Lighten up and have fun with it.”
Don’t those two write the most beautiful things? Just a couple of burgs, not afraid to jettison their patties and slather on the uncool, illogical, and playful unknown.
And maybe add just a squirt of ketchup.
About the writer: Amy Talluto is a multimedia artist working in painting, sculpture and collage who lives in Upstate NY and hosts a podcast called “Pep Talks for Artists.” This written piece can be listened to as an audio essay in podcast form, as well as many others on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or anywhere you get your podcasts. Amy Talluto’s monthly column “Whisperings from the Wormhole” will bring you artist-to-artist pep talks with topics ranging from self-doubt to artists who make work in their kitchens.