“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
– T. S. Eliot
Soon after we met each other and became friends at a holiday party at his Manhattan home in 2003, I distinctly remember the late Hank [Henry] Luce III’s advice for making the Rail more visible and profitable. During a long weekend spent at his place on Fisher Island, I asked Hank to send a letter with a to-do list of changes that he thought would help the Rail. When I received it, I saw that his idea was that of an American success story, like the magazines that his father Henry Luce II created including Time, Life, and Fortune:
- Remove the word ‘Brooklyn’ to make the title simply The Rail.
- Remove the Local/Express (now Field Notes) and Fiction sections.
- Reviews in the Book, Dance, Theater, and Music sections should all be short and concise so there can be more coverage in each month’s cycle.
- The circulation must be between 150,000 to 200,000 monthly copies, and each should cost $5 at the newsstand.
- Begin an aggressive campaign to solicit advertisements from entertainment and fashion industries, etc.
I’ll never forget Hank’s postscript, “there’s no such thing as free in America. It’s only when people pay for something that they appreciate it.” Although I immensely appreciated his thoughts, I did not want to take up a single point of advice.
At another dinner, I remember telling Hank, “Remember being a child, playing games? Easy games got boring quickly, whereas difficult games stayed fun.” Hank shook his head and said, “Only artists and creative folks can revel in childishness. You can’t in the world of business and politics.” Then he concluded, “As unusual and good as the Rail is, it may not survive as a free publication more than seven or eight years.”
Hank and I bonded primarily over our mutual love of art, especially Alfred Jensen, but also because we were honest with each other about our differences in thought and life choices. In light of the Rail’s recent change in its board of directors and operating staff, I feel compelled to re-publish the following segments of “A Note from the Publisher,” which I wrote in September 2008 as an effort to share the Rail’s brief history and its intention.
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 endure 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 think of it as equivalent to 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, one of our earliest Art Editors, thought of it as a Family of Minds. While we were working on putting the first Rail together, I remember I had been reading Isaiah Berlin’s book Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas. I was very taken with his insights into Herder’s notion of volksgeist—the “spirit of the people”—which Herder related to “people’s culture.” I take from that concept the idea that everything about an individual is to some extent a creation of the others with whom he or she forms an organic unity. An individual is made by education, by language—and language was not invented by one individual, but by many. This concept therefore highlights an organic process that resists any political or aesthetic dogma. As I wrote in my “Letter to the Artist” in the very first issue, I see the Rail as “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, a time when artists and writers supported each other in their struggle with and for the world, a time when being an intellectual meant being 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 dispirited isolation while undercutting the ideology of liberal optimism. Such slow attrition can erode one’s resolution to stand firm alone, and can also affect one’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 where specific agendas (whether left, right, or any other label) are raison d’êtres, the Rail’s editors control the content of their respective sections. We cover both arts and politics, but make no demands for common threads to run through the entire paper other than a healthy preference for experimentation over complacency and for lucidity over jargon. However different from the days of Walt Whitman, culture is still perpetuated by those who are devoted to the vocation of art.
This issue is dedicated to the Rail’s former board members and exceptional staff, including Chris Apgar, Meghan Carleton, John Koegel, Abby Leigh, Will Ryman, Merrill Wagner, Darragh McNicholas, Sara Christoph, Laila Pedro, Maggie Barrett, Amy Ontiveros, Stephanie Skaff, Vanessa Thrill, Maya Harakawa, Don Leistman, Greg Lindquist, and Sarah Mendelsohn. Without their hard work and dedication, the Rail wouldn’t be where it is today. I’m personally grateful for their gracious commitment to pass on the baton to their successors, Daniel Desmond, Scott Lynn, Michael Straus, Charles Schultz, Thyrza Goodeve, Cy Morgan, Yasaman Alipour, Dani Dobkin, Rocio Olivares, Maggie Goldstone, Ana Rivera, Nick Heskes, Will Fenstermaker, Cal McKeever, Marc Straus, Anna Lee, William Whitney, Erik Freer, and Lauren Francescone.
Onward my friends,
PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.