A Note from the Publisher

by Phong Bui

“From the Crooked Timber of Humanity, nothing ever came out straight”

Immanuel Kant (From Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht. Idea For A Universal History With A Cosmopolitan Purpose, 1784).

The Rail, as many of us call it, was named by the playwright (and our theater editor) Emily Devoti in the fall of 1998. It was initially created as a weekly pamphlet for L-train riders, a Xeroxed broadsheet folded in half, with slanted opinions printed in four columns on the front and back. During the planning of this new publication, the four original editors, Ted (Theodore) Hamm, Joe Maggio, Christian Viveros-Fauné, and Patrick Walsh (all of whom I met at a local bar, The Brooklyn Ale House), invited me to write art criticism. Eventually they asked me to help shape the editorial content. I was a bit reluctant to contribute so much of my time and energy to an activity that would seem to interfere with my own ambition as an artist. However, they were such passionate and knowledgeable individuals, and the Rail was becoming such a singular critical voice in the arts, politics, and the world around us, that I soon found myself envisioning a “Promised Land” where artists and writers could meet, share ideas and collaborate, as they had so intensely, in this city, in the past.

The Rail therefore served as a conduit for the freedom of action. As one of my favorite philosophers, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, once said, “We do not act because we know. We know because we are called upon to act.” We may not be able to define the impetus that compels an individual to rise above his or her limitations and the wear and tear of everyday life, but we founding members all sensed that the Rail was the fire that sparked us. And somehow we knew that we were destined to have a collective voice.

In October 2000, I sold a painting for $2,000 to a friend and made the decision to spend the money, with an additional $500 from a friend of Ted’s, to launch the Rail as a real printed journal. Along with Fernanda Smith, who designed the Rail’s logo, Ted, Patrick and I agreed to carry out my proposal that the new format should be two inches longer than the Village Voice—a physical distinction that would highlight the differences in content. As a Vietnamese proverb says, “When you argue with an intelligent person, you can’t win. But when you argue with a stupid person, you can’t stop”: we came to a mutual agreement that by arguing with real passion, regardless of how divergent our viewpoints may be, as long as we could transform that energy into tangible action, we would find ourselves in a perpetual state of becoming. Having been brought up in a family where divided politics was always a source of conflict, especially after the Tet Offensive in 1968, I recognized the Rail as a place where these kinds of differences could be brought together onto the printed page.

The only way I could perceive achieving this goal was to conceptualize the Rail not as ephemeral printed matter but as a work of art. In other words, I like to think of it as a social sculpture (a Beuysian concept that was pointed out by one of our writers, the painter Chris Martin as early as the summer of 2000; Joan Waltemath, on the other hand, thought of it as a Family of Minds). This way of thinking implies that one can’t become a perfectly free human being so long as one is a three dimensional object in space because nature confines one in a thousand ways. In other words, since each individual spirit is imperfect because it is hemmed in by a particular body, the only possible free individual can only ever be realized is when he or she believes in something larger than him or herself. While we were working on putting the first Rail together, I remember reading Isaiah Berlin’s book Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas over in that same weekend. I was very taken with his insights into Herder’s notion of volksgeist­—the “spirit of the people”—which Herder conceived of as “people’s culture.” Except for its political amplifications which can be easily misread (as indeed it has), I came to identify with that belief that everything about an individual is to some extent the creation of others with whom he and she form an organic unity. An individual is made by education, by language, and language was not invented by one individual but by others. This therefore yields an organic process that resists any political or aesthetic dogma. As I wrote in my “Letter to the Artist” in the very first issue—a collective movement, based on a certain larger and governing intellectual premise. This idea has its roots in the rise of American bohemian life in 1930s and ’40s, when artists and writers supported each other in their struggle with and for the world, and to be an intellectual meant to be well-informed of each others’ fields of discipline. Yet, despite the disintegration of bohemia in the McCarthy Era, those individuals held on to their desire to be a part of the dialogue of American life, remaining at principled odds with conformity.

There is a stunning familiarity to this struggle in post-9/11 America. The pressures of conservatism and nationalism have the potential to breed a dispirited isolation among us while undercutting the ideology of liberal optimism. Such slow attrition can erode one’s resolution to stand firm alone, and can also affect the individual’s ability to stand with others. This is why the Rail refuses to fall into the predictability of a so-called overarching editorial vision, which reflects just one voice. Unlike many other journals whose sole purpose is to carry out a specific agenda (whether left, right, or anything else with a label attached), the Rail’s editors control the content of their sections as they please. We cover arts and politics, but make no demand that a common thread run through each section other than a preference for experimentation over complacency and lucidity over jargon. I like what Jonas Mekas said in his Anti–100 Years of Cinema Manifesto: “In the times when everybody wants to succeed and sell, I want to celebrate those who embrace social and daily failure to pursue the invisible, the personal things that bring no money and bread and make no contemporary history, art history or any other history. I am for art which we do for each others, as friends.”

Thus, we have made a commitment to keep the Rail free for our readers and open to the uncensored, diverse voices of creative men and women from every generation—currently, the Rail’s oldest member is film editor, Jonas Mekas, 86; the youngest is Roland Schwartz, a freshman at Bard College. We are as proud of our roster of distinguished consulting editors, such as Dore Ashton, Joseph Masheck, Paul Mattick, Katy Siegel, and David Levi Strauss, who contribute on a regular basis, as we are of the fact that 40 percent of what gets printed in our journal is by writers in their 20s.

Throughout the nearly eight years of the Rail’s history, there have been changes in our staff. Daniel Baird, the art editor from 2000 to 2003, has become the arts and literary editor of the Walrus; Monica de La Torre, the poetry editor from 2000 to 2007, is now the new senior editor of Bomb. While many other contributors and production assistants (the term internship doesn’t apply to our idiosyncratic operation) have gone back to school or furthered their career paths elsewhere, the Rail's continual process of reinvention has been eminently manageable. We’re thrilled with the critical rigor that our new art editor, John Yau, along with Tom Micchelli and Ben La Rocco as managing editors, have brought to the art section; Anselm Berrigan has given us a broad and exciting view of contemporary poetry; David Meyer is responsible for making the film section as lively as ever. The seasoned veterans John Reed, Williams Cole, Donald Breckenridge, Christian Parenti, Heather Rogers, Carley Petesh, Dave Mandl, Brian Carrera, and several others who work closely with me and Ted, have been steady and attentive to our monthly publication schedule—as busy as they all are with their own writings, teaching obligations, and other jobs.

We owe a great deal to those production assistants who station the Rail’s headquarters seven days a week, and we feel most fortunate to be blessed with the vision and dedication of our managing and advisory board members: Joe Amrhein, John Ashbery, Paul Auster, Shoja Azari, Carol Becker, Michael Brenson, Frank del Deo, Rackstraw Downes, John Hollander, Carroll Janis, Bill Jensen, Regina Bogat Jensen, Wolf Kahn, Margrit Lewzcuk, Emily Mason, Thomas Nozkowski, Shirin Neshat, Barbara Novak, Brian O’Doherty, Philip Pearlstein, Ellen Phelan, Joyce Robins, Michael Randazzo, Dorothea Rockburne, Michael Rubenstein, James Siena, Richard Serra, David Shapiro, Joel Shapiro, Dan Simon, Kiki Smith, Nancy Spero, Robert Storr, Merrill Wagner, Terry Winters, and John Yau.

We are also extremely grateful for the support of the various government organizations, public and private foundations, and friends who have consistently invested in our growth from the very beginning; and for the generosity of the countless artists who have donated their works to our last two silent auctions, in 2005 and 2006, which facilitated additional funds to keep the Rail and our book publishing arm The Brooklyn Rail/Black Square Editions afloat, along with our popular reading series otherwise known as Rant Rhapsody. Hence the Rail is less a corporate entity than a social sculpture-in-the-making, or, better yet, a social sculpture that involves a multitude of hands that cultivate the fertile soil of a “Promised Land.” However vastly different it is now from the days of Walt Whitman, we all know that culture has always been carried out by those who are devoted to the vocation of art.

Despite the common wisdom that “If it’s free, it can’t be that good,” or, “When one pays for something, one appreciates it more,” what we’re doing as a collective is entirely removed from any pragmatic notion of supply and demand. In fact, everything we’re making is absurdly impractical. And contrary to how it may appear—effortlessly in good rags, with 15 to 20 thousand copies on the street on Manhattan and Brooklyn—we do need all of your support. While none of us care about being paid for our work, we do care about keeping the Rail alive.

Onward my friends,

Phong Bui


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Postscript, November 28, 2014:

Since this note was originally written on the occasion of a benefit auction at Pace Gallery on September 19, 2008, the Rail has taken a new path that has resulted in a few changes. The Brooklyn Rail/Black Square Editions became Rail Editions that furnished The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology 2 and Texts on (Texts on) Art, among other new titles. In 2013 we initiated Rail Curatorial Projects, an ongoing curation team that collaborates with various galleries and institutions on the basis of timely and critical responses according to congenial thematic narratives. We organized Come Together: Surviving Sandy, Year One, Bloodflames Revisited, and Spaced Out: Migration to the Interior, among others. In February of 2012, we introduced a rotating guest editorship for our Critics Page section, sparking new critical conversations every month. After the departure of our co-founder and editor of the Local and Express sections, Theodore Hamm, in December, 2013, I assumed the role of Editor-in-Chief in an attempt to generate greater editorial balance whilst preserving the editors’ essential autonomy over their respective sections. And, as always, we have constantly evolving, new contributors, production assistants, and editors devoting their valuable time to our publication. While John Hollander (d. August, 2013), Regina Bogat Jensen, Michael Randazzo, Dorothea Rockburne, Michael Rubenstein, Dan Simon, and John Yau have left our managing and advisory boards, we have gained the insight and guidance of Chuck Close, Dan Desmond, Alex and Ada Katz, Michele Gerber Klein, David Novros, Joanna Pousette-Dart, John Thompson, Meghan Carlton, Tomas Vu, and Joe Zucker. Our unique organism and growing readership inspired the formation of the Third Rail and Miami Rail. We are excited to find out what’s next: The Philadelphia Rail? The Texas Rail? The L.A. Rail?


In solidarity,

Phong Bui

The Brooklyn Rail, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, distributes its journal free of charge, and our devoted staff, editors, and contributors work on an entirely voluntary basis. Any donation made to the Rail is tax-deductible. Please see our website at www.brooklynrail.org for the complete archives.