Dear Friends and Readers,by Phong Bui
On Saturday night (May 28), I finished the three portraits of Joanne Greenbaum, Bettina Pousttchi, and B. Wurtz—the featured artists in this issue—and took a much-needed break. I walked over to a local bar with my partner (it’s a blessing that she occasionally indulges my craving for such activity) to watch Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals between the defending champions, the Golden State Warriors, and the Oklahoma City Thunder over a burger and a beer. With impending pressure to force Game 7 after being down until the last few minutes in the fourth quarter, Klay Thompson rose to the occasion, scoring a career playoff high of 41 points and setting an NBA postseason record with 11 3-pointers, rallying his team to one of the most impressive wins in the recent history of the game. I woke up this morning realizing it was a necessary distraction (though one I limit to playoff games). We’re all familiar with the fan’s sense of belonging;the way a victory can bring the sensation of a world conquered and a defeat can lead to social withdrawl, inarticulate emotional outbursts, or obsessive analyses about what went wrong (the last of which I am most guilty).
We all need this sense of belonging in one way or another. Some find it among family members, friends, or colleagues, but it is an essential aspect of our growth and self-knowledge. I can’t help but think of J.G. Herder (a major thinker who Isaiah Berlin catagorized as a member of the “Counter-Enlightenment”) and his concepts of patriotism and nationality. Both have roots in Herder’s notion of Volksgeist—the “spirit of the people” or “people’s culture”—which holds that an individual is a product of education and language (both creations of culture). Hence individuals are, to some extent, the creations of the many others with whom they form an organic unity. The separation between an individual and a larger culture is simultaneously vast, and as thin as a strand of hair. Patriotism, wrote George Orwell in his 1945 essay“Notes on Nationalism,” involves “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people,” while the aim of the nationalist is to “secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his individuality.” There is apparent virtue in Orwell’s notion of patriotism, but history is full of examples of people sacrificing themselves to the latter cause of nationalism, the strange and self-defeating project of losing one’s individuality to deny another’s. It’s hard to imagine German nationalism without the Nazism that arose partly in response to the severe conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, which John Maynard Keynes referred to as “Carthaginian peace.”
As our world becomes more economically and technologically interconnected, issues of national and cultural diversity become more complicated. We have come to recognize many difficulties and dangers that surround psychologies of belonging, and the many political dogmas that can arise from them. Still, I can attest that the Rail provides its own sense of belonging for many who love art, culture, and self-expression. We’ve created a fluid community that is constantly nourished through collaborations with other like-minded communities.
Just last week, on the occasion of the Luciano Benetton Collection’s traveling exhibition Imago Mundi: The Art of Humanity, I moderated a panel discussion with the esteemed critic Eleanor Heartney and brilliant artist Shahzia Sikander about art and globalization: how cultural identities, political boundaries, and other socio-political considerations have affected the practices and work of contemporary artists.
This week, we’re putting final touches on the latest Rail Curatorial Project, Hallway Hijack, in collaboration with the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies at Columbia University. Nineteen artists of diverse backgrounds (including seventeen current and former Neiman Fellows) have created permanent, site-specific installations in eighteen hallways of the building at 66 Rockwell in downtown Brooklyn. Our longtime assistant art editor, Taylor Dafoe, played an integral role in the project. I’d like to commend him for this and all his work for the Rail on a number of different fronts: working with our two field marshals Sara Christoph and Laila Pedro, and with our art director Maggie Barrett at Rail HQ; taking photographs of artists, critics, art historians, and curators for my portrait drawings; and setting up Rail events in different locations, among other activities. As Taylor moves on to new projects, he will be missed, although we hope his next journey will not be too far from the Rail.
PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.