Dear Friends and Readers,by Phong Bui
“ Wisdom, compassion, and courage are the three universally recognized moral qualities of men.”
As we’ve come to the end of 2018, it’s impossible to ignore what we’ve gone through in the last two years under the Trump administration. Since we’ve had time to digress and reflect upon what has happened to our liberal democracy, I myself was reminded of Harry Frankfurt’s 2005 classic book On Bullshit. In a CBC radio interview with Michael Enright (first aired in November of 2012, and re-aired on The Enright Files, April 3, 2018) when Frankfurt was asked what the difference was between bullshit and lying, he said:
“Lying is a matter of knowing the facts but reporting them otherwise. It’s a deliberate misrepresentation of reality. Bullshit . . . is a matter [of] not really caring what the facts are but just speaking in order to achieve a certain effect, in order to manipulate the beliefs or attitudes, or opinions of the audience without regard to what is true or what is false.” “You actually think it’s worse than lying!” Enright proclaimed. Frankfurt, “It is worse than lying. . . . The liar is concerned with the truth. He knows what the truth is and it’s important to him what the truth is because he wants to conceal it. He deliberately misrepresents it and therefore he has to know what it is in order to do that. The liar and the truth teller are playing the same game but they’re just on different sides. The bullshitter isn’t in that game at all. He’s not in the business of reporting reality or describing the way things really are. He’s in the business of [. . .] manipulating the mind of the audience. The most obvious place to find it is in marketing; the advertiser, the marketer doesn’t really care whether what he says is true or false, at least it’s not his primary concern. His primary concern is whether he can sell his product. I think that it’s probably more prominent in democratic societies than in non-democratic ones. The reason being that in democratic societies it’s important for the government to mold and guide public opinion whereas in a monarchy or even a dictatorship you can get away with a lot of lying.”
Secondly, if one thinks of Trump as neither a liar nor a bullshitter, but rather both, one then would recognize how he deploys incessant lies in the service of bullshitting to hide the truth of his intentions—namely, to get rich(er). Or to look at it another way, his bullshit is the truth he knows, and knowingly acts to conceal.
In medieval art, profile and frontal representations of heads and bodies were depicted symbolically: the devil is usually portrayed in profile, his transitory body evokes suspicious, fraudulent action, hidden from the viewer; a frontal position, usually associates with Jesus Christ, signifies a majestic, regal, nothing-to-hide, face-to-face engagement with the viewer—Trump has, sad but true, mastered both. A perfect opportunist, his frontal, stage-like presentation is trained like a marketer in disguise of the devil, or a beast creeping, awaiting his moment to ambush his prey.
Lastly, as we’ve come to realize that what has arisen from the 2016 election was the populist movement and its two essential variations: one based on resentment of immigrants in their full spectrum of differences in race, in ethnicity, language, and religion, and skillfully exploited by Trump, in all its madness of crowd psychology (as Charles MacKay wrote in his 1841 book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, “We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”), as well as the anger directed at the established political elites of both parties and their financial constituents who contributed to the creation of a neo-liberal globalization. These two variations were temporarily remedied by the so-called “technocratic liberalism,” which offers an efficient/public policy that includes, for example, a shared worldview based on mainstream media, broadly-similar economic growth, and social homogeneity, all of which tend to narrow open public debate, especially to those who don’t meet those prescribed criterions.
Perhaps now more than ever we’re grateful to John Keats’s “negative capability,” the capability to “[be] in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (as written in a letter to his brothers). Perhaps it is again important to understand and re-embrace the critical roles of artists—from all genres and forms—and counter-culturalists who, together perpetually critique reason, which we find time and again throughout history, as in the late 18th and early 19th centuries against the Age of Enlightenment when science and rationalism were the predominant force. Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, William Blake, Henrich Heine, Friedrich Hölderlin, Novalis, and Goethe were among Keats’s comrades-in-arms. We indeed appreciate the artists’ access to truth (subjective though it may be) without the danger of conforming to the pressure and framework of logic and reason (molded from the predominant systems of belief). Also, artists admire the sheer physical allure of ordinary objects, whether mass-produced or handmade, and prefer making things to making money. This sensibility connects to the populist discontent, which isn’t just about limited job prospects and wage stagnation but also about the dignity of the work and being stripped of that dignity, and respect. When people feel devalued they tend to vote for things even against their interests, out of fury, desperation, hope, or delusion. Politics, after all, is more than just about the economics of self-interest. It’s about identity, self-respect, pride, and community.
The Rail is pleased to announce the birth of our new section Artonic, sponsored by Agnes Gund, which will feature commissioned profiles on nonprofits and artist foundations which focus on supporting the seven arts (architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, music, film, and all forms of performance) as well as art education. Jessica Holmes will edit the section, and it will be published bi-monthly as a Web feature.
We’d like to welcome David Anfam, Charles Duncan, Eleanor Heartney, and Toby Kamps as Editors-at-Large, and Mary Ann Caws and Susan Harris as Consulting Editors. We’d also like to send our monumental salutes to the brilliant accomplishments of Kyle Jacques, Alexander Johns, and Mckenzie Ursch, the dynamic trio of the legendary Signal Gallery (2012 – 2018); the same goes to the remarkable ensemble of Ben Alper, Scott Avery, Stephanie Black, Nicholas Calcott, Greg Gentert, Nikki Graziano, Patrice Helmar, Matt Taber, Oliver Lee Terry, Trang Tran, Sophie Lvoff, Cy Morgan, Alex Nelson, Sam Richardson, Sophie Rise, Rachel Stern, Katie Ward, Nat Ward and Bryan Wilson who directed and managed this lively though short-lived artist run-project space Secret Dungeon (2016 – 2018). May their next journeys be filled with “negative capability.” Lastly, congratulations to Matt Moravec and Eleonore Hugendubel on their recent marriage, and happy belated birthdays to Chris Apgar and Michael Straus.
This issue is dedicated to the extraordinary life and work of one of our community’s most influential artists/writers/teachers Robert Morris (1931 – 2018).
Happy holidays with love, peace, and courage,
Phong Bui & the Rail
PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.