Dear Friends and Readers,
“In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”
“Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow
Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead
Walk beside me and be my friend”
Standing in front of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels, Max J. Friedländer’s haiku-like description of the artist’s distinct style and sensibility echoed in my one ear, “is [Brueghel], historically speaking, an end or a beginning . . . [his] style is not inherited, it is wrested from his personal way of looking . . . Strongly rooted in his native soil and therefore a stranger to his own age, which pushed out from his homeland, he stands there isolated with what is essential in his work.” And in the other ear, my own impression of Brueghel’s painting, how his worldview is essentially a demonstration of man’s insignificance in relation to nature. The painting orchestrates remarkable obstacles, from strange formations of tall mountains to islands with unfriendly reefs, with the narrow, impossible passages welded in the foreground where figures, almost exclusively working people are portrayed in their natural, transitory state and rarely depicted frontally. I can’t help but think of classical Chinese scroll painting of the 11th century, say Hsü Tao-ning as one example, in which successive elements of the painted scenery are revealed through multiple points of view and treated with equal worth. As I prolong my viewing pleasure, I also feel the presence of Auden standing by my side contemplating the nature of suffering amidst those who are oblivious. It’s as though the wise poet, while knowing that suffering will undoubtedly befall all of us at some point in our lives, likewise refers to its habit of being ignored, lived with until it needs to be confronted, if at all.
Here, I think of my conversation with a new friend Wolfgang Laib, who gave up his medical study to be an artist, with his work as the healing agent. We both found ourselves concurring that suffering is caused by the tremendous emphasis of thinking of ourselves as separate, independent “I”s that need constant feeding to quench the craving. Wolfgang shared a story: During a reception for his work at a German Embassy (during the production of his wax chamber work, Wax Room (Where have you gone—where are you going?) in 2013 at The Phillips Collection), an ambassador said, “Mr. Laib, normally we have only receptions for politicians, economists, or businessmen from the big German companies, etc. Culture is only considered our hobby.” The curator Klaus Ottmann, who stood next to Wolfgang, was afraid that he would take a taxi and leave, but he didn’t. Klaus, in response to the ambassador, said, “Listen, culture is not a hobby. This wax chamber will survive Barack Obama (who was just sworn in January of that year) and many presidents after him.”
Auden’s poem was written before the Second World War as many countries were shoring up their militaries and preparing for conflict—not that unlike the terrible events happening in our current time, including the bombing in Syria, which intensifies the tension between the U.S. and Russia, the escalation of the Iran-Israel conflict, among mass shootings, suicide bombings, and other forms of attacks on civilians, etc. In addition to culture, as we remember, the accessibility of libraries in the forty-eight states helped to ease economic hardship during the Great Depression. Books and librarians were sent by the WPA to areas where there were none, be it bookmobiles, the so-called “pack-horse” librarians, or tiny log cabin libraries, or even small libraries in general stores and other public places. As Trump mischaracterizes the arts and humanities as activities of the elite, one doubts if he is aware of the cause that precipitated the May 1968 revolt, the autocratic and hierarchical French society that resisted “youth culture” and their demands for freedom.
We’re extremely grateful to last month’s guest critic Ann Lauterbach and her friends who were the ardent defenders of the subtle power of language. In her words:
As we see now every day, the abuse and misuse of language corrupts and corrodes the complex syntax of our mutual human enterprise, our goodwill conscripted into episodes of polemical screed and critique, our democratic imagination impoverished by the vocabulary of commerce and strategic self-interest. Poems are not strategies, but ways to discover how language might think what we feel and feel what we think.
As the baton is passed on to this month’s guest critic Octavio Zaya, we welcome with great enthusiasm Octavio and his friends undertaking the subject of fleeing memory in relation to the dividing issue of migration and immigration–a perpetual social and political condition we must confront with clear conscience and immense compassion today.
In solidarity, in the spirit of May ’68, Phong Bui
This issue is dedicated to the passing of our three friends, Robert T. Buck Jr. (1939-2018) for his great contributions to the Brooklyn Museum as a former director and Anthology Film Archives as a trustee; Marcia Hafif (1929-2018) whose ascetic monochrome abstract paintings have long been esteemed by her peers and continue to be consequential and inspiring; Dorothy Cantor Pearlstein (1928-2018), who came from Pittsburgh to New York City to be a painter along with her husband Philip Pearlstein and classmate Andy Warhol (Andrew Warhola) – her inquisitive mind and generous spirit won her love and admiration from her community of friends. They all will be missed.
PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.