“You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.”
—George Bernard Shaw
“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.”
A poet, an artist of any art is an individual who in the process of making his or her work comes to understand complex emotion, which in part derives—the complexity that is—from one’s family and cultural background, and tends to take time to sort out. In part it also stems from the present environment, the outside world that demands one’s immediate response. This complex emotion requires constant mediation between the interior and external worlds, which constitute self-knowledge. And this self-knowledge, while being endlessly “cultivated,” will inevitably still leave him or her unable to fully master the emotion; from this predicament thrives the elevation of one’s art. Even at the expense of the work being misunderstood in the eyes of critics and audiences alike, it has over time proven to be important and impactful. What is so admirable and compelling about the life of the artist is this dedication to be truthful to self-knowledge, in the breadth of his or her many selves.
In the wake of total domination by the world’s technology, through which our privacy is nearly annihilated, the popularity of art has exponentially increased and is escalating in its universal appeal. Through works of art, be it a made-image or a made-object, we can escape the wear-and-tear of everyday life, enter into a gallery or museum for a moment of contemplation, think of the power of the imagination while feeling the body. As art embodies its own time and all time, our time seems to be most troubled and dark, exacerbated by a President who can’t master his emotions and whose ambition is to aggressively exploit the vulnerable and angered working class on the issue of racism, among other social and political atrocities, for his own gain. He, who is not even worthy of being referred to as having made a Faustian bargain—partly because we haven’t seen much evidence of a soul to begin with—has above all destroyed the beauty of subtlety in every dimension, through the barbarism and vulgarity of his language, in form and deployment.
What are we to do as poets, and artists of all stripes and colors? I think we must substantiate, elevate, and intensify the beauty of subtlety in all stripes and colors. From multiculturalism, identity politics, to Black Lives Matter; from feminism, LGBT to Earth Day, among others, the need to speak directly and with nuance is more urgent than ever. One of our great art historians Linda Nochlin has sadly passed away today (October 29, 2017), and her memory marks how long it has taken to move the needle of public discourse on feminism in art: Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? was published in 1971 and we still have a long way to go. Carolee Schneemann’s retrospective just opened at MoMA PS1, a monumental presentation, though exceedingly overdue. Her life work has forever evaded easy categorization, mostly because her exploration of hybrid artistic forms—paint- ing, assemblage, performance, film, photography, installation, writing, and so on—have been front and center on social and political topics of the day. She also celebrates female sexuality and pleasure, with such sensuality, poetry, and sharp intelligence, working as “both image and the image-maker,” to the benefit of all of our opened minds.
As the world is now global, the notion of the East being far different than the West is not true, as it had been decades ago. How prophetic that, for example, Ad Reinhardt was able to conceive his black paintings (1960–1966) as a synthesis of Eastern and Western art. Recently, at the opening reception of the exhibit of the great Uruguayan sculptor Gonzalo Fonseca at the Noguchi Museum, I was taken by the exceptional mastery and ease with which the artist transfigured stones into monumental rapports with Pre- Columbian art using human scale. His work was and is distinct as a free individual’s, beyond the confines of national identity. How remarkable of the artist to trust his struggle to reconcile and transcend his multiplicities and the extreme polarities of sensual indulgence and self-mortification; no wonder William Blake thought of Christ, Buddha, and Muhammad, among other prophets, as artists! Though always relevant, we seem to recognize now particularly that ARTISTS NEED TO CREATE ON THE SAME SCALE THAT SOCIETY HAS THE CAPACITY TO DESTROY.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases: it will never
Pass into nothingness
—from Endymion, by John Keats
This issue is dedicated to our wholly committed board members, our remarkable staff, and all our friends and supporters who came to celebrate the Rail’s 17-year anniversary. Thank you for keeping our beloved journal as a counter-culture rag free to the public.
In solidarity, and onward my friends,
P.S. Please visit the latest of Rail Curatorial Projects: Occupy Mana, a two-part exhibit:
Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy and Friends in Solidarity at the main building at Mana Contemporary, On view through Friday, December 15, 2017
Glass Gallery (10 Senate Place). Open Saturday and Sunday: 12–6 pm. Main Building (888 Newark Ave). Guided tours daily at 3pm, Monday through Friday.
PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.