“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” — Rumi
“Pessimism of the spirit; optimism of the will.” — Antonio Gramsci
“Our own life has to be our message.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
What a year 2022 has been, and what have we learned? Should we ask again how fragile the nature of being human is? For we’re as capable of the seven capital sins as we are of their corresponding capital virtues and extremes. Many of us who have been to Siena, a small and beautiful city in Tuscany, remember that it is known for many exquisite works of art and architecture. I’d share, given our present circumstances, Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government frescoes at the Palazzo Pubblico, which were unusual in that, unlike most art commissioned at the time, the subject of these cycles of frescoes is civic rather than religious.
We remember the virtues of good government are firmly represented by six stately paintings with crowned female figures: Peace, Fortitude, and Prudence on the left, Magnanimity, Temperance, and Justice on the right. The Effects of Bad Government on the other hand has in the middle of its composition Tyrammides (Tyranny), who sits enthroned, resting his feet upon a goat (symbolic of luxury) while holding a dagger. Below him the captive figure of Justice lies bound, while the figures of Cruelty, Deceit, Fraud, Fury, Division, and War flank him. Above float the figures of Avarice, Pride, and Vainglory. At the same time, we’re also astonished by the magnificent Piazza del Campo, the main public square, upon which an imposing shadow of Torre del Mangia, the tall civic tower of Palazzo Comunale casting over.
If we consider the good and bad governments in the context of Piazza del Campo as a place where casual, informal networking among people takes place, be it mere sociability, conducting businesses or conspiring political coups, and so on, as opposed to Torre del Mangia—the tower, a symbol of a vertical system—wherein hierarchical power resides, we should ask ourselves: can the idea of participatory democracy or civil discourse be reactivated in the square so coherent voices of dissent and criticism can be heard in the tower? Can the hierarchy of power in the tower be mindful of what transpires in the square? In truth, without a working relationship between them, divisions are easily amplified, and give advantage to demagogue personalities and so-called strongmen who seek to upset the balance of society.
In other words, if the art of joining is non-existent, the rise of despotism is inevitable. As many historians have acknowledged, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is among the best books ever written about America. A reference to Niccolò Machiavelli occurs in the twenty-sixth chapter of the third part of the second volume, which also refers to the twenty-six chapters of his timeless political treatise The Prince. So, on one hand, twenty-six is Machiavelli’s number. It is twice thirteen, as thirteen stands for chance—evil chance in one hand, good chance in the other. What we came to realize during the Trump presidency is that neither the left nor the right can be called Machiavellian. For what they represent vertically as the top of the tower has been overstated, while the horizontal influence of social networking down in the square has been underestimated.
Even though at this point we’ve come to realize that what digital technology means in today’s world is identical to what the Gutenberg press meant for the printing revolution in mid-fifteenth-century Europe, ushering in an era wherein a knowledge-based economy, along with other desires, could be spread to the masses (some aspects of which we now attribute to Martin Luther) we also know Silicon Valley does not seem to have a historical memory, since it did not invent the idea of social network. Should those who invented this technology, along with whoever wishes to exploit it, be referred to as entrepreneurial opportunists?
In his infamous Mein Kampf, Hitler described the process by which he became antisemitic, along with the clear outlines of his political ideology and future plans for Germany. He achieved his abominable goals by carrying out his messages with the deployment of millions of cheap radios, which were given away to every household across Germany. Similarly, Trump has undertaken Twitter for the same reason, namely deploying technology through speed, a far more effective tool for communication than expecting people to read thoughtful articles printed in local newspapers. In essence, as the technology of communication changes its form and content, so must we in our willingness and ability to spread real knowledge, not just information or misinformation. For what we need to do at the moment is subvert speed by being constantly mindful of our agility through slowness of culture. The need for balance is indispensable.
Happy holidays with love, courage, and cosmic optimism as ever,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. This issue is dedicated to the extraordinary lives and works of Brian O’Doherty (1928–2022), Lee Bontecou (1931–2022), Ashley Bickerton (1959–2022), and Bernadette Mayer (1945–2022) all of who made profound contributions to our culture. We send our deep condolences to their family members and endless admirers here and across the world. On behalf of the Rail, I’d like to thank Helen Lee, who has served as the most generous, active, and productive board member ever since she joined us in 2020. We send Helen our best wishes on her next journey. We are delighted to have Madison Ford, Joel Danilewitz, and Patrick Hill as our brilliant roster of Production Assistants. We also welcome Andrew Woolbright as our new Editor-at-Large, whose contribution to our living organism will be as multifaceted as he has already been. Lastly, we’re thrilled to share one more piece of good news: by popular demand, our exhibit Singing in Unison, Part 7 has been extended till January 21, 2023!