“Water is the driving force of all nature.”
“[W]e might say that the earth has a spirit of growth; that its flesh is the soil, its bones the arrangement and connection of the rocks of which the mountains are composed, its cartilage the tufa, and its blood the springs of water.” — Leonardo da Vinci
As it took us a good two weeks to adapt to the rhythm of the city of Venice (half of the Rail’s staff rotates every month from our headquarters at Industry City in Sunset Park, Brooklyn to Venice, Italy) we were able to create our own communion with this city’s extreme contrasts in almost everything, especially between the magnificent architecture and the natural beauty of the Venetian Lagoon, as with the contrast between old and new art. During our morning walks from our apartment near Santa Maria dei Miracoli, we noticed the late 15th century church’s single nave, its pilasters rising from the water along one side of the canal. Most windows have open-air shutters, which evoke the balance between the inner and outer world, kind of like eyelids. We walked through countless variations of narrow alleyways beneath equally varying perspectives of oblong sky, which opened onto the immense atmosphere of the large campi. Our sense of compression and release in this urban environment set the tone for our visit to Giorgione’s La Tempesta (1506–1508) at Gallerie dell’Accademia: seeing three figures appear to be calm and self-sufficient in spite of the unfriendly nature in the background (unpruned trees, shaggy bushes, broken columns, a precarious bridge, and a cluttered village in the distance below the low storm cloud with bolting lightning) put us at relative ease, in the sense of being at home in the world.
It is not easy, however, to be in Venice walking around, seeing art during the Biennale Arte, without being reminded of the eminent American sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s famous term “conspicuous consumption.” We’re perpetually aware of Venice as a city whose roots in spectacle and entertainment have been an integral part of the rise of mass tourism, which in the last decade has intensified, even as the status of Venice in international trade and politics has been in decline since the late 18th century. The tension between mass tourism, especially with large cruise ships floating in the Lagoon, and rising sea levels (due to global warming) is more pronounced than ever. Still, having had the pleasure to experience our daily simultaneity of seeing old and new art, we felt more likely to respond with some degree of optimism.
It’s true that today our global communities of artists enjoy greater attention in general than in the past. We can even say now artists have greater social and political leverage, especially if they decide to come together with other creative individuals from different fields of discipline for any cause that is directly linked against the Trump administration’s relentless attack on our culture, climate, and liberty. This is not to say I expect an artist to die in the arms of a king, queen, or president—like Leonardo did in the arms of Francis I (I still treasure Ingres’s small painting The Death of Leonardo da Vinci, painted in 1818)—or listen to a legendary poet publicly represent our country as Robert Frost did with his reading The Gift Outright at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration (actually I have high hopes for this yet). Nevertheless, from our countercultural perspective as bohemians, immigrants, outsiders, workers, and rebels, we continue advocating for artists, writers, poets, musicians, dancers, and scientists to exchange ideas, share mutual enthusiasms, and aspire continuously for art and life.
In the time distributed between the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Penitenti (for our Collateral Event Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum) and our Brooklyn headquarters, the impulse of activating our social environment is more urgent than ever; at both sites the Rail is hosting poetry readings, film screenings, and panel discussions with artists, scientists, and philosophers (we recently organized multiple panels with such luminous speakers as Lauren Bon, Fabio Cian, Emanuele Coccia, Enrica De Cian, Silvio Gualdi, Justin Brice Guariglia, Newton Harrison, Jaroslav Mysiak, and Pietro del Soldà, moderated by our old friend, the remarkable Robert Storr). Perhaps, just as Renaissance humanism tried to revive the knowledge passed down from Antiquity by fostering the human capacity for self-development, it’s our time to cultivate a Renaissance sensibility once again.
Onwards and upwards,
P.S. This issue is dedicated to the loss of our two artists friends, Tom (Thomas) Nozkowski and Allan Graham. As human beings, they were examples of kindness, generosity, and above all vital roles in their communities of friends. As artists, they exerted fierce commitment to the vision of their art, which in turn inspired endless among their peers and the younger generations of artists. They shall be missed terribly. We’d like to send our deep condolences to Joyce Robins, Casimir Nozkowski, Hannah Bos, Tom’s beloved grandson Rocket Nozkowski, and Gloria Graham, and the extended families and admirers on both sides. Lastly, we send our belated happy birthday wishes to our two close friends Lawrence Benenson and Aleksandar Duravcevic.