“Our world does not need tepid souls. It needs burning hearts, men who know the proper place of moderation.” — Albert Camus
“Humanity is driven by an unknown force which we can hope to moderate, but not to defeat.” — Alexis de Tocqueville
Do we remember enough to remind ourselves that the word philosophy means to love wisdom? Do we remember enough to remind ourselves that the word philanthropy means to love people? Then from time to time, especially when we get ourselves in the most discomforting situations, or say even desperate circumstances, we may ask ourselves: how did we get here? What brought us here to this particular time and space? It’s only then we are forced to confront and respect—or choose to ignore—the gravity of such discomfort and desperation.
We have met many of our other fellow beings, who loved the labor of their work in varieties of professions, from running businesses to teaching young children or adults; from paving our roads and fixing our automobiles to volunteering in museums or hospices, among other public institutions; from caring for our physical well-being to creating works of art, be it an essay, poem, novel, painting, sculpture, or say a play, a dance, piece of music, and so on, all of which are essential sustenance to our imagination.
In the short term we are thinking of how and when the party of liberty and the party of equality will come together to redeploy George F. Kennan’s policy of containment, hopefully with new revisions, with focus at this point in time on the Communist Party of China in place of the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In the long term we must think of how to remedy endless unchecked greed, like that which led to the global crisis in 2008, and which is now hardly even seen as a vice. As many of us witnessed during the Trump Presidency, greed is irrelevant to many while for some, it’s even perceived as a virtue. We have seen both parties surrender to the powers of greed’s seduction, for neither have been talking directly to their voters since 1991, after the disintegration of communism in Russia. Still, those of us who believe democracy was created with a brilliant self-corrective mechanism know the unbridled passion will prevail over our space of civic values and common decency, every time it feels that liberty and equality are at extreme odds. We’ve seen this in Trumpian America of 2016–2020 just as the country saw it in Jacksonian America of 1829–1837. We are indeed aware that equality is our natural human antidote to the detriments of instant gratification and to the countless forms of materialism that lead us towards selfishness and apathy—the negative effects of our society which shepherd us towards acceptance of the centralization of our government, followed inevitably by despotism. We know also in our hearts that the fruits of liberty are hard-won and require patience and colossal effort to achieve. We have falsely accepted that it is inevitable for us to lose our liberty as equality prevails—that liberty (the core tenet of the right) and equality (the core tenet of the left) are mutually exclusive. How have we forgotten the wisdom of the most insightful and visionary observer of America's experimentation in democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America? What would entail the assurance of our constant mindfulness of the unique American wisdom and public spirit of what de Tocqueville refers to as voluntary association or civic association in every locale across the country, which we now can readapt it for our current need as the “art of joining.”
In considering the past voluntary associations, from the American Home Missionary Society (1826), American Temperance Society (1826), American Anti-Slavery Society (1833) to the American Sunday School Union (1834); from YMCA (1851), Salvation Army (1865), American Red Cross (1881) to the Rotary Club (1905), Convoy of Hope (1994), among others, which have been essential to the preservation of liberty in America, we recognize that it is the people in every local community who come together that solve problems, be it changes in social equality, public policy, and so on—these changes are made by the people themselves instead of relying on federal government support. These are what have kept social capital in America thriving and alive for the longest time. It was from 1965 to 1991, and through to this day, due to the pressure of work and double-career families, suburbanization and commuting, the individualization of media, rapid generation change, among other social causes, our civic engagement has been increasingly eroding. We at the Rail believe our “art of joining” is a new adaptation of those civic associations as a philosophy of moderation, a form of social and economic empowerment through the activation of the arts and humanities. For having kept our beloved journal free in print and online for 22 years with cross-pollination of the seven arts along with our social and political meditations, and with the ever-increasing popular platforms such as our daily NSE (New Social Environment lunchtime conversation), we’re thrilled to actualize what appears in our journal as live public events at every site of our Rail Curatorial Projects. From Industry City and Art Cake in Sunset Park, Brooklyn to the five other sites (The Scully Tomasko Foundation, Below Grand, Ricco/Maresca Gallery, Totah, Miguel Abreu Gallery) in Manhattan, our ongoing exhibition series Singing in Unison has amassed over 250,000 visitors, who have come to see not only the displayed works of art but have also enjoyed countless public events on each site, including poetry readings, dance and music performances, panel discussion, and above all the multiple cooking performances of Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tomas Vu, and their graduate students at Columbia University. May our “art of joining” extend to every locale in America. The Brooklyn Rail can be readapted in every city, for local philanthropists and local cultural workers should aspire to what Maurice Vlaminck once remarked, “Intelligence is international, stupidity is national, and art is local.”
Happy Lunar New Year with love, courage, and cosmic optimism as ever,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. This issue is dedicated to the remarkable lives of our friends, legendary gallerist Ronald Feldman (1938–2022), phenomenal artist John Sims (1968–2022), visionary polymath Michael Snow (1928–2023), and musician extraordinaire David Crosby (1941–2023). The fearless pursuit to fulfill in their visions, concretely materialized in their respective works, has profoundly enriched our culture. We send our deep condolences to the immediate members of their families, and admirers here in the US and across the world.