“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” — Albert Einstein
“War is what happens when language fails.” — Margaret Atwood
“Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of the river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?” — Blaise Pascal
As we enter the second month of the Russian war against Ukraine, the death toll has surpassed 1,100, with nearly 1,800 wounded among civilians, 1,300 among Ukrainian soldiers, and between 7,000 to 15,000 Russian soldiers. Many of us are reminded also of what the Spanish philosopher George Santayana once observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Many of us indeed took notice of the tactics or behaviors that dictators or would-be dictators share in common, especially in regards to photo-ops, carefully crafted by both Donald J. Trump and Vladimir Putin to make themselves appear as the ultimate strong-man under God: Be it Putin taking a dip in icy waters, riding shirtless on horseback, throwing opponents on the judo mat, or say swimming butterfly stroke in the river, etc., etc.; be it Trump descending the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his run for president, Trump walking behind Hillary Clinton like a hyena smelling blood during the second presidential debate, Trump staging his stoic appearance from the Truman Balcony (upon his return to the White House from Walter Reed Medical Center where he underwent treatment for COVID-19) as though it was a reenactment of Benito Mussolini’s famous balcony speech at the Palazzo Venezia (as a declaration of the Italian Empire, on May, 6th 1936), and so on and so forth. The most egregious tactic they seem to share in common is the exploitation of religion as means to justify their political agendas, for Trump to hold up the Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church (after police and National Guard troops physically cleared out peaceful demonstrators from Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020) is not that dissimilar to Putin posing with the Russian Patriarch Kirill on many occasions in fact. Both appear therefore as defenders of whatever are regarded as traditional values through their effective deployments of technology and social media. As tyrants are known for drawing lessons from the past and from one another, those who oppose them must do the same. It’s the latter that what we’ve been witnessing consistently from Ukraine throughout the war: Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, sharing a live video with his iPhone with the front camera pointing at himself in a selfie-style along with his senior officials while they were standing outside Kyiv's government quarter declaring “We are all here,” days after Putin sent Russian tanks across the border. Or a Ukrainian woman telling Russian soldiers to put sunflower seeds in their pockets so that something useful will grow from their bodies when they die.
As democracies rise and fall globally, so have endless crises of economic and social inequalities, ecological catastrophes, and forms of corruption as a result of personal greed and self-interest (not well-understood), which have allowed national conversations to be exploited by tyrants. Ours is no exception. Given the complacency of our politicians and judges on both sides (at least since the end of the Cold War in 1991) who are most likely to concede to all kinds of empty legalism or extreme technical rigidity of the bureaucratic machine, we can appeal to our creative friends and colleagues in the arts, humanities, and sciences to come together as our collective effort to amplify the art of joining—to borrow Alexis de Tocqueville’s term. We’re indeed reminded of what he famously shared, that “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all minds” have learned from the beginning how to be mindful of the tyranny of the majority, the stifling regulations of administrative centralization, among other democratic perils as excessive individualism, by constantly joining in groups to advocate for freedom in the space that exists between the individual and the state. As we remind ourselves repeatedly, freedom thrives upon the unique differences among ourselves as individuals. In associative pluralism, freedom blooms on the fertile ground of cultural diversity. Above all, freedom feeds in the diversification of power.
Lastly, as we welcome our poet friend Luigi Ballerini as the guest critic of the April issue (our annual celebration of April being the national poetry month), we’re thrilled to update you all on our forthcoming and most exciting curatorial project, Singing in Unison: Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy. While slowly emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, this timely exhibition is a celebration of hope for the future. It will take place from May to October 2022 in numerous locations including: Ricco/Maresca, Below Grand, Sean Scully Studio, Vito Schnabel Gallery, Art Cake, Totah Gallery, Miguel Abreu Gallery, and Industry City. (Plus a few more to be added to the list in days and weeks to come!) We remain inspired by the underlying philosophy that runs through American history and which advocates for the art of joining.
In solidarity, onward and upward, with love and courage, as ever,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. I’m so delighted to share the following news: The Terra Foundation for American Art has given a grant of $250,000 over two years to support our daily New Social Environment lunchtime conversations series. Sharon Corwin, the foundation’s President and CEO said, “the board members were excited about ways this platform could serve as a model for other convenings and noted the importance of archives these conversations for future artists and scholars. They also appreciate the opportunity to connect conversations about historical American art and art histories with contemporary practices.” As our beloved friend Scott Lynn has become a new advisory board member, he has offered to sponsor a new section The Sandler Essays on Visual Art (a bi-monthly commissioned essay named after the legendary art historian and critic Irving Sandler) to be edited by our consulting editor Alexander Nagel. We’re equally delighted to welcome Erroll McDonald (Vice President and Executive Editor of the Knopf Doubleday Division of Penguin Random House) and Dr. Elizabeth Broun (Former Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. for twenty-seven years, from 1989 until December 2016) to our board. Lastly, while Tyhe Cooper has joined our production team as our new Editorial Assistant, we’ve finally reached 100 distribution locations across New York City and its five boroughs: The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens—we’re working on a few locations in Staten Island.