When grapes turn
to wine, they long for our ability to change.
When stars wheel
around the North Pole,
they are longing for our growing consciousness.
Wine got drunk with us,
not the other way.
The body developed out of us, not we from it.
We are bees,
and our body is a honeycomb.
the body, cell by cell we made it.
–Rumi, translated by Robert Bly
At a recent celebration in honor of the legendary theatre and film director Peter Brook and his collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne (on the occasion of their new play Why?, hosted at the residence of Lee C. Bollinger, the president of Columbia University and organized by the remarkable Karen Brooks Hopkins), among other endless admirers and actors who have both enjoyed and performed in his plays, including Sir Patrick Stewart, Dianne Wiest, Julie Taymor, Brian Dennehy, the maestro extemporaneously delivered the following:
“We’re part of people, and people are part of us. And we find ways to contribute and encourage the best or the better to survive the worst in the world of humanity, and that’s what our work is about. So much can vibrate in one or two simple words, and for me, the word that is the most important in everything we do is touch. You can look it up in every dictionary what the word touch means. But in direct experience, everyone in any race in every part of the world of any age would know [when they experience] a moment [of], ‘Wow, Ah, Ah.’ It’s touch. That’s how a true memory is ingrained on us and becomes vibrant, and in the end useful.”
The word touch is defined as to move to sympathetic feeling, to be compassionate, poignant, affecting, heartening, stirring, exalting, but ultimately, the element of inspiration is the pathos that relates to the word touch. It’s true that every one of us has encountered at one time or another this feeling of being touched, be it by a work of art, a book we’ve just read, a poem read to us, a song we heard, a film or a play we saw, and so on—in some cases, the mere creation of something shared as a testament of and to human experience, or in others, a person we know (however brief or long the duration of acquaintance), our lives are forever enriched and deepened in either case by being touched. Every one of us will always relish this memory of being touched, and in some ways we either from the perspective of the creator or the observer often try to relive this experience as a necessity for self-nurture.
We can all recognize this necessity also as a common need of the individual for self-contemplation and free expression over social, political, or even economic matters. Artists are therefore free agents who follow their inner calling, guided by a miraculous inner freedom that serves as a conduit that is completely open and receptive to both the events of their surrounding environment and also the creative energy generating the fields of discipline of their time. Artists, as we have observed, never fail to translate their experiences through the works of art they make, ranging from as far back to the painted cave walls from the Stone Age, as those discovered in 2014 on Sulawesi island in Indonesia with images of stenciled hands and animals approximately made between 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, all the way to the present, as with Richard Serra’s three simultaneous and Herculean exhibits at Gagosian’s three locations in New York City—both emphatically share the aspirations of having the desire to comprehend, to mediate what lies between the visible and invisible world, and as the desire for authorship as a way to be remembered through the painted or made object. Which is to say both the anonymous cave painter and Serra aspire to communicate certain eternal human ideals in the noble and moving form. The great truths of religions, metaphysics, and ethics stemming from the ideas of Lao Tse, Buddha, Muhammed, Moses, Plato, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Blaise Pascal, Immanuel Kant, Hannah Arendt, and endless others are transmitted by art more forcefully than through any other means. Just as the unity of their thought in responding to the surrounding environment in relation to individuals being inseparable from one another, they reveal that the concept of humanity is therefore created by free individuals rather than institutions, states, classes, races, social and political ideologies, and so on.
This leads us to ask what and how being touched has anything to do with the human spirit, not to mention the differences between spirit and soul? Here, we’re reminded of three basic elements: body, soul, and spirit. While our bodies communicate with the material world through the five senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch, our spirit embodies our intellect and emotions, and the soul is our moral consciousness. Ultimately, touch evokes the power of our fullest capacity for making choices that are rooted in the personal searches for values rather than dictated by an external code. It’s only the essence of things that can appeal to our humanity.
P.S. This issue is dedicated to our beloved friend and mentor, the remarkable John Giorno (1936-2019) whose life and work touched many, and helped shape the spirit of the Rail’s living organism. We’re also thrilled to welcome our Madeleine Cravens to our team as our new Development Associate, as well as our friends Francesca Pietropaola (the co-curator of our Collateral Event at this year’s Venice Biennale, Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum) and Choghakate Karazian as our new Editors-at-large. Last but not least, I want to thank Nico Wheadon, who graciously accepted the duties of our Guest Critic and fulfilled them with a magnificent and timely consideration of what freedom can mean, inspired by her recent reading of an important book by Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. We also want to recognize her work as the Executive Director of Next Haven (NXTHVN), a vibrant organization that will undoubtedly help many young artists, and inspire countless others.