Dear Friends and Readers,by Phong Bui
“It’s easier to change your worldview than the way you hold your spoon.”
– Max J. Friedlander
“A Hair perhaps divides the False and True –
And upon what, prithee, does Life depend?”
– Omar Khayyám
As anxious as we are in the lead up to the midterm elections on November 6, 2018, we’re constantly reminded that politics exists between culture and economics, as it always has. While the visual culture specifically seems to be thriving beyond other disciplines of the humanities, with the increase of graduate schools for to-be-artists, curators, museum administrators; and the proliferation of private museums, traveling exhibits, and international art fairs, we still take pleasure in noticing how works of art offer uncompromised testaments of human spirit.
In Western art history, class and power are tied to art: the patronage of the church in the Renaissance was the patronage of the aristocracy; the Northern Renaissance is connected to a rise of the merchant class and the emergence of a bourgeoisie; both utilized the excessive appeal to the senses, a form of early capitalism in disguise, most evident in the Baroque. If Romanticism is construed as a middle-class rebellion against monarchies, our 19th and 20th century aesthetics are to some extent related to social and political revolution. Abstraction became the reluctant norm as more global perspectives on art spread, and now in the 21st century—especially at the expense of how freely abstraction can explore independently or infuses freely with representation—endless inventions are being explored at all time. As our visual culture attempts to recognize many ignored makers of art (women, people of color1, etc.), some other individuals feel the need to protect, react, or do whatever else they must according to an ideological ground of belief, be it religious, nationalist, or anything and everything in-between. Like stretching space, it makes for taut times.
This is to say that while world politics is predicated on pundits who shape the outcome of winners and losers; the same can be said for the world of business where success and failure are the only two options. None of these extreme polarities apply to art, even with the current and remarkable demand for art as an autonomous object of personal contemplation against the constant and rapid spoon-feeding of technological distraction.
For Americans the colors red and blue are unconditionally linked to the Republican and Democratic parties. A distinction that only occurred in 1972 when the network television stations ABC, CBS, and NBC broadcast election coverage in color. CBS created the first color election map on which the state of Alabama was colored blue as Richard Nixon won his 1972 landslide victory. The color blue had hitherto been associated with the Union army led by the Republican Abraham Lincoln. Red, on the other hand, generally referred to left-leaning parties until ABC decided to choose red. I was reminded by a friend later that it was David Brinkley who announced “the red states are the states we have projected having gone for Mr. Reagan. Red are Reagan. That’s why we choose red.” By 1996, NBC and CBS had followed ABC and adapted Democratic blue states and Republican red states on their maps. None of us, however, forget that it was in the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore that the political term “red state” vs. “blue state” became permanently carved into the American psyche.
Just as “red state” vs. “blue state” was created by television networks to divide two distinct cultural values identified with American electoral geography, most of us would imagine Donald J. Trump not only remembered the 2000 Bush vs. Gore election, but following the fictional world of his television series The Apprentice would have felt driven by natural extension to inhabit a similar fiction in the world of politics that are no-longer business as usual. Quite similar to a Ponzi scheme in the world of business, the illusion sustains the capital, until it doesn’t. Trump created the illusion of a successful businessman on television, who eliminated historical facts and replaced them with constant and consistent lies that, like a mantra, thrust people into submission to their own instinctive, tribal behavior. By defining who the enemy is through repetition or chanting as a form of ritual as Trump has—“Lock her up!” “Build a wall!” or “It’s a witch hunt!”—we’re at once reminded of how in Fascism or any formation of National Socialism individual human beings are no longer capable of having personal thoughts and self-reflections. The Fascists knew how to mobilize their goal through fiction, not unlike Trump’s own fiction. It’s time to get out the vote.
As a first-generation Vietnamese American who survived the war in Vietnam and its aftermath under communism, I, like most refugees (and immigrants) have come to the United States for better opportunity, and don’t take freedom for granted. While knowing full well the likelihood that what I do as a creative individual would not be possible in the old country, I share among friends, colleagues, and with you the serious concerns of history repeating itself without our awareness. We’re at the threshold of urgency to see as clearly as we can where we are in this moment and to embrace our responsibility to share what we know from the past, advocate for individual freedom of expression, and not relent to conformity and group mentality. In a recent screening of Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari’s second feature film Looking for Oum Kulthum at BAM, a member of the audience during the Q&A segment criticized their portrayal of the legendary Egyptian singer, as they themselves were not Egyptians (but Iranians); usually the epitome of politeness, Shirin brilliantly replied, “Give me a break! Oum Kulthum belongs to the whole Arab world, and the rest of the world, not just Egypt. And I am telling my story.” Hallelujah!
Love, peace, and courage to us all,
P.S. We send our profound thanks to the brilliant vision of Leo Goldsmith who, ever since he undertook the co-editorship of the Film Section in 2011, has shaped its form, content, scholarship, and magic (for many years with the esteemed curator Rachael Rakes). Leo has just passed the baton to the knowledgeable and exciting filmmaker and writer Gina Telaroli who will be working as our new Co-Editor with the essential Dan Sullivan. We send also our great thanks to this summer’s Production Assistants extraordinaire Sophia Cook and Cal McKeever who brought order to our unruly archives, among other related tasks. They have relayed their work to three new members of production team: Erin Carden, Taylor Geu, and Danilo Machado. Welcome! All of us at the Rail HQ send our very best wishes to Leo, Sophia, and Cal in their new journeys. Lastly, we welcome our good friends Lawrence B. and Elyse Benenson’s new son Walter Bradley Benenson to the world! Energy is restored with new life's force.
- Notably, in the Whitney Museum’s recent exhibition An Incomplete History of Protest: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1940 – 2017, David Hammons was quoted, about a 1969 Melvin Edwards work titled Pyramid Up and Down Pyramid: “That was the first abstract piece of art that I saw that had cultural value for Black people. I couldn’t believe that piece when I saw it because I didn’t think you could make abstract art with a message.”
PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.