“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
“Tyranny is always better organized than freedom.”
“The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.”
“Freedom of opinion can only exist when the government thinks itself secure.”
Political affairs in the United States are like a pendulum. If it swings too far to the left it’s bound to swing to the right. If it swings too far to the right, it’s expected to swing back to the left. This is how we remember, for example, the 1960s being the decade that reacted explosively to the repressive measures of Joseph McCarthy’s infamous censorship apparatus that was imposed on individual freedom, especially those of a creative nature. The war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Rights movement—a decade of sociopolitical turbulence was immortalized in literature, music, and the visual arts.
As I write this editorial before putting the March issue to bed, I think of the “Super Tuesday” primaries coming up on March 1—a day that could solidify Donald Trump’s chance of becoming the Republican Party’s presidential nominee. (Meanwhile, Marco Rubio has taken to Trump-like language to appeal to his voters. Some things that used to exist only in political cartoons have turned into real life.) Feeding on people’s increasing fear of terror threats, worry of the erosion of the country’s infrastructure, economy, education, constant wars abroad, and the “inconvenient truth” of global warming and climate change, both candidates have become reality TV personalities rather than political leaders who elevate their people. Whatever one thinks prior to the big winner-take-all contest on March 15, if the GOP has not found “anybody but Trump,” Trump will be well on his way to a nomination at the Republican National Convention.
What has happened to language in our political affairs is its own symptomatic response to our time; the question is where and how the U.S. stands in the relation to the rest of the world in which the notion of the global citizen is in its most fragile condition. (Similarly, technology, while offering a greater comfort and connectivity to human lives, has created a horrific confusion between information and self-knowledge.) My whole family had to learn to speak and write English upon arriving to the U.S. in the winter of 1979. Like all immigrants, we were intensely aware of how the language would enable us to build a new life from scratch. And like them, we all understood, along with hard work and self-sacrifice, the sooner we can deploy the language the better chance we have to communicate with others, hence lead us to better opportunities.
Meanwhile, the timing of a two exhibits,,Verba Volant Scripta Manent, (“Spoken words fly (away), written words remain”), of Mel Bochner and Alighiero Boetti, an inaugural two-person exhibit at Totah Gallery; and Nicky Nodjoumi: You and Me, at Taymour Grahne Gallery couldn’t have been more poised to offer once again how works of art reveal to us that we are more alike than we would admit. In the former, Boetti deploys manually stitched and patched embroidery to create colorful writings that coexists in between poetry and slogan, aphorism and gnomic phrase and fit into the square grids of fabric, while Bochner explores the subtexts of language that lies between the formal and the colloquial, the elegant and the crude, through his surrender to the result of the hydraulic-pressed words, many-colored, onto velvet. Both occupy a realm between writing and image. Boetti’s Entre Chien et Loup, (1984), suggests a time of the day—dusk—where the difference between the domestic and the wild, the familiar and the dangerous, hope and fear, are impossible to distinguish. In Bochner’s “Blah, Blah, Blah” (2015) paintings, one is capable of subverting, through the mere act of repeating remade slang, its common association with boredom to something that is at once majestic and scornful. Nodjoumi’s latest incarnation of subtle yet assertive narrations are of dramatis personae political, religious, and business generating endless violence for the thrill of absurdity and perversion. Through the collision of political/social satire and surrealism his images have never appeared so prescient and prophetic. Nodjoumi’s vision evokes Leon Golub’s, a profound kinship.
As I thought of how all aspects of language—the spoken, written, and painted—have to be continually nourished and cultivated, even at the risk of being torn apart and abused, I also thought of the rarity and importance of leaders who are capable of inspiring people to find their inner courage. Alas.
For those who follow NCAA men’s and women’s basketball, March Madness is a guarantee of a good distraction ahead.
P.S. This issue is dedicated to Umberto Eco, Charles Garabedian, and Harper Lee for their long and lasting contributions. (It’s been a long and arduous struggle since the publication of Lee’s enduring 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird. The issue of race is like an old habit that needs to be overcome. What Chris Rock, in his ingenious intelligence and humor, managed to deliver in his monologue on the subject of race in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards ceremony was both necessary and courageous.)
PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.