One of the chief virtues discovered in the fine arts is their exceptional power of unifying mankind [ … ] The minds of all the peoples of the world are brought to us through their visual arts.
What a privilege it is to live in a city where every subway ride is filled with people from every ethnic and cultural background! This is especially true during rush hours, when civic manners are critically important in the sardine-packed cars. The experience always makes me feel profound joy to be part of such a diverse slice of humankind..
As Thoreau says, in Civil Disobedience:
If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.
The proliferation of technology, unrest, and warfare has turned greater numbers of people to art. With the countless waves of violence in recent months, one feels an urgent need for the kind of equilibrium and solace that art works can provide. Just as some seek refuge in religion, and others in different realms of social and political life, artists choose to live and work according to an inner necessity. The question is and has been: how can one maintain a critical balance between impulse and reason, freedom and responsibility? How can one find or stay on the path of “becoming free” instead of simply stoking the desire to “be free”? The real tests are the moments in one’s life that offer opportunities to change one’s vulnerabilities into strengths, even as those moments threaten monumental failure.
In the fall of 2008, at Giorgio Morandi’s retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum, I made a telephone call to Bob (Robert) Ryman’s studio. It was a rare day when the museum was closed to the public, and I thought it was the perfect chance to experience such subtle works of art. I remember clearly that Bob appreciated my invitation but declined in his matter-of-fact style, confessing that he had seen a few Morandi paintings when he was working at MoMA as a guard (from 1953 to 1960), and that that encounter had sufficed. I still remember insisting with my more beat-around-the-bush style: “But of most, if not all the artists I’ve come to know in NYC, I would expect you, Bob, to be the most sympathetic to Morandi’s sensibility. Are you sure you wouldn’t want to see more of his paintings?”
Bob responded emphatically: “His work makes me very anxious.” I remember being so moved by these words, which reaffirmed that I must always be sensitive to the world of art, and of artists, as it teaches me not to judge things according to my limited criteria but rather constantly learn to see things in their minute subtleties. I’m reminded of D. H. Lawrence’s observation that Cézanne’s apple is like the moon because it has an unseen side.
Meanwhile, as the year 2015 comes to an end and we look back, we’re faced again with human tragedies; from the Baga massacre, the expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the earthquakes in Nepal, India, China, and Bangladesh, the Greek debt crisis, the Mina stampede, the protracted civil war in Syria, and the most recent Paris attacks, to the passing of many of our beloved figures, including Chantal Akerman, Yogi Berra, Chris Burden, Ornette Coleman, Günter Grass, Maureen O’Hara, B. B. King, Maya Plisetskaya, Oliver Sacks, Omar Sharif, and Clark Terry.
We also marveled at many remarkable achievements, like the visit of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s discovery of proof of liquid water on Mars. At the same time, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while artists continued to provide brilliant examples of cultural exchange: Richard Serra in the Qatari Desert, Doris Salcedo and Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian at the Guggenheim, Ai Weiwei in Alcatraz, Alexander Calder at Museo Jumex in Mexico City, Alex Katz at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Rirkrit Tiravanija at Gavin Brown, and, most recently, Zeng Fanzhi at Gagosian.
May we all continue our labors of love, have the strength to cultivate our compassion and understanding of other humans’ suffering, and above all, continue our work to facilitate art and culture so they can provide a counterpoint to the intense human vices stemming from the world of money and power.
Lastly, on be half of our colleagues at the Rail, I’d like to send our deepest gratitude to all of our friends and supporters, without whom the Rail could not continue its undogmatic project. 2015 has marked our 15th anniversary, as well as our most essential and productive year to date. We all feel that it’s the very beginning.
Happy Holidays with love and peace,
P.S. This issue is dedicated to those who lost their lives in the Paris and Beirut attacks, as well as those who lives were ended by force elsewhere in the world.
Phong H. Bui is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.