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Dear friends and readers,

It was during his speech at a General Electric gas engine plant in Wisconsin on January 30th that President Obama made his off-the-cuff remark about art history being useless. However, two weeks later he announced his nomination of Jane Chu to lead the N.E.A. (National Endowment for the Arts), and wisely wrote a hand-written apology to Ann Collins Johns, a professor of art history at the University of Texas at Austin, who had written a letter to the White House reminding him that art history is an indispensible field of study through which we gain our comprehension of our world culture through the visual arts.

I will never forget the impact that E. H. Gombrich’s popular volume, The Story of Art, had on my appreciation of art after I read it at the beginning of my freshman year of college. I thought of sharing with you some of his words from the first chapter:

We do not know how art began any more than we know how language started. If we take art to mean such activities as building temples and houses, making pictures and sculptures, or weaving patterns, there is no people in all the world without art...We cannot hope to understand these strange beginnings of art unless we try to enter into the mind of the primitive peoples and find out what kind of experience it is which makes them think of pictures, not as something nice to look at, but as something powerful to use…All that is needed is the will to be absolutely honest with ourselves and see whether, we, too, do not retain something of the ‘primitive’ in us.

And from his introduction, which in this case makes better sense to follow the previous excerpt:

Actually I do not think there are any wrong reasons for liking a statue or a picture. Someone may like a landscape painting because it reminds him of home, or a portrait because it reminds him of a friend. There is nothing wrong with that. All of us, when we see a painting, are bound to be reminded of a hundred-and-one things which influence our likes and dislikes. As long as these memories help us to enjoy what we see, we need not worry. It is only when some irrelevant memory makes us prejudiced, when we instinctively turn away from a magnificent picture of an alpine scene because we dislike climbing, that we should search our mind for the reason of the aversion which spoils a pleasure we might otherwise have had. There are wrong reasons for disliking a work of art.

Meyer Schapiro wrote similarly in his essay, “The Fine Arts and the Unity of Mankind”: “The experience of art is, therefore, felt to be more than aesthetic delight. It contributes to the real fraternity and mutual understanding of mankind.”

We hope that the N.E.A. will become as vital and receptive as it was before the culture wars sadly distracted the organization from its mission via, among other actions, the cancellation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1989. (Not to mention more recent examples of politics undermining artistic expression such as in the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” from the landmark exhibit Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in America Portraiture at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in 2010; and Ai Weiwei’s arrest by the Chinese government in 2011.) We would hope that now our visual culture is globally accessible and popular, and certainly more than ever before, the demand of understanding its complexities is of utmost importance. (We need more writers, critics, and educators than ever before.) We would finally hope that every viewer should bring his or her honest experience before any work of art. It’s similar to doing one’s homework before going to class. Art, like other fields of the humanities, will not hand it to any of us like a Big Mac or other any product designed for public consumption.

Meanwhile, amidst preparations for the 77th Whitney Biennial; the Armory Show; NCAA March Madness for those who love college basketball as I do; and last but not least and not-to-be-missed, The Last Brucennial, I will end with a remark made by Willem de Kooning, “For milk to become yogurt, it needs culture,” and the below poem by Rumi:

Eating Poetry

My poems resemble the bread of Egypt
one night passes over them and you can’t eat them anymore.
So gobble them down now while they’re still fresh
Before the dust of the world settles on them.
Where a poem belongs is here, in the warmth of the chest.
Out in the world it dies of cold.
You’ve seen a fish: put him on dry land:
He quivers for a few moments and then he’s still.
And even if you eat these poems while they’re still fresh
You still have to bring forward many images yourself.
Actually my friend, what you’re eating is your own imagination.
These poems are not just a bunch of old proverbs!

Phong Bui

P.S. We would like to dedicate this issue to Terry Adkins, Nancy Holt, Hudson of Feature Inc., and René Ricard.


Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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