I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.–Langston Hughes
What have we all learned in the last five years as we’ve been getting through a slow recovery process from two profound ruptures: one being the pandemic that has taken thus far over 800,000 lives in the US and 5.6 million worldwide, and the other being the near collapse of our democracy that led to the infamous Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021, which most of us would agree was a result of post Cold-War complacency in Washington. Will the US be able to recreate new foreign policies that advocate for multilateral cooperation or lessen trade barriers while adopting market principles among allies instead of repeatedly mounting military deterrence and economic sanctions, especially now with the escalation of Russian-Ukraine crisis and the steady rise of China, which has already reshaped global politics? This is not to say by any means the Biden administration should redeploy some form or shape of the positive elements rather than the negative ones of George F. Kennan’s policy of containment without calling it as such, for the term “containment” evokes a long history of malignant association with both Russia and China. However, it would be impossible to apply strength and diplomacy abroad when things are unstable at home.
Abraham Lincoln once forewarned us, as though he was practicing his statecraft, “If once you forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem.” We now find ourselves at the moment confronting again the monstrosity of our racial prejudice along with an intense discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots, while at the same time our education system has turned itself into a bureaucratic machine like sports or the military industrial complex. We wonder what happened to Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous Great Society—a set of domestic programs launched in 1964–65 with the purpose of eliminating poverty and racial injustice through federal spending on initiatives such as education, medicare, welfare, rural poverty, transportation, in addition to the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a string of environmental courses of action, including the Land and Water Fund Conservation Act, Clean Air Act, and so on—when the war in Vietnam ended in 1975? We wonder what has gone wrong with the Higher Education Act through the gradual changes in curricula that accommodate whatever education bureaucrats consider as models of replicability according to political and social science’s analyses. In other words, while our students dream of being taught rich and complex issues of history, which is a long-term pursuit at the highest level to further our nation’s best interests, they are instead pushed into insular practices of highly specialized fields of study, hence leading to the poverty of knowledge, the so-called “small thinking” at home while the world at large is getting larger and more enigmatic in its scope. Is there not an undeniable disconnect between the head of Washington and the body of the people? Can we argue at this moment in time that this disconnection is the result of not having a neck attaching the head and the body as one functioning organism?
It’s true that these urgent questions demand our attention to reflect seriously on how we can look to the past history of the US in relation to world’s history in order to move forward with ever greater clarity and commitment. As we recall how the arts and humanities through Federal Project Number One of the Works Progress Administration had economically and spiritually helped to restore the stability of the country and the faith among its people from the Great Depression in the 1930s, we can also recall Walt Whitman’s 1871 epic and enduring work of literature, Democratic Vistas, written six years after the end of the Civil War (1861–65)—in the middle of the Reconstruction era (1861–77)—during which time the country was deeply divided along political and racial lines, while greed and corruption among politicians and businessmen were in rampage bilaterally. Despite lacking coherence or even structural logic, Democratic Vistas embodies an immersive transcendental optimism, and its buoyant spirit is infused with the radiant energy of American society while inclusively embracing both the high aspirations and low realities of everyday life. Here, we acknowledge that nationalism and the national character of a nation, any nation, are matters of emotional association with national pride that stands for a similar sense of self-respect for every individual. For Whitman, America and democracy, despite their endless flaws and imperfections, are one unified entity. And the reason why his Democratic Vistas remains one of our nation’s most poignant political sermons is simply because his belief in democratic values, including individual liberty and self-governance or collective governance, are integral parts of a perpetually self-correcting democracy, akin to nature in its cosmic manifestations of growth and decay, life and death; what lies in between is otherwise known as eternal becoming. Similar to Alexis de Tocqueville’s notion of “self-interest well understood” which by nature is apolitical, Whitman’s Democratic Vistas is at once a penetrating analysis of democracy’s failures and an expression of ecstatic optimism for the vastness of possibilities of Democracy as an ongoing experiment, and is therefore to be seen beyond a political process. It’s both a social and cultural process, which can be mobilized through the learning of literature by our modern poets and writers. Thinking in today’s context—when our visual culture has publicly reached its greatest popularity of appreciation—I should therefore include our artist friends and colleagues to this inspiring frontline of cultural workers.
May 2022 bring us all good health, lots of love, tons of strength and courage to restore the fragility of democracy as well as healing ourselves through the arts, humanities, and sciences.
Onwards and upwards,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. We’re so excited to share with you all that through this year 2022, in celebration the Rail’s 22 year anniversary and our ongoing $10 million endowment campaign, we’ll be working on how to bring our friends and colleagues from various creative communities together through fruitful collaborations: from Studio in a School, Studio Institute, Art for Justice Fund to Fountain House, from Monira Foundation, Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program, The Third Rail to the Second Shift Studio Program, from Denniston Hill, Artfare to Mildred’s Lane and Floating Forest residency. We’re equally excited to welcome several new members to our living organism: Robert Banat as the Rail’s official photographer, Elinor Krichmar as our Events Assistant, and Alex Glauber as our new board member. We’d like to send our huge congratulations on behalf of the births of Luna Florio and Wilhelmina (Willa) Glauber, to their respective parents Dominick Florio and Nicole Bennett, Alex and Mackie Healy. Lastly, being inspired by Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas and the philosophy of pragmatism, we’ll be curating a large exhibition called Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: The Taught and the Self-Taught in Democratic Vistas this May in multiple locations, TBA.