OPINIONS: A Brief History of the Brooklyn Rail
When playwright Emily DeVoti named the Brooklyn Rail in the fall of 1998, our intent was to create a broadsheet containing a short series of slanted opinions designed to be read on the L train back and forth to Manhattan. Along with three other original editors (filmmaker Joe Maggio, art critic Christian Viveros-Faune, and writer Patrick Walsh), we started publishing a double-sided, Xeroxed sheet on a weekly basis. Five years hence, I defy anyone to read an entire issue of the current Rail on a single train ride, even on the F from Jamaica to Coney Island.
The original goal of the Rail was to provide an open forum for criticism of the arts, politics, and the world around us. Our cast has grown exponentially, as our masthead suggests and the paper’s content reflects. Phong Bui, one of the first to come aboard, has now taken on the role of publisher, and without his energy and talents as an artist and impresario we simply would not have a full publication to speak of. Here on the editorial side, I can say that even as the size of the paper has grown, our mission has remained the same: to provide an open forum for criticism and free expression.
All well and good, you say, but what of the pudding? Well, on the local, national, and international fronts, we’ve printed mini-manifestoes, hard-edged position pieces, and telling interviews. In our art and culture coverage, we’ve run extended critical treatments, in-depth analyses of the offbeat, as well as the occasional hatchet job. In so doing, we are clearly out-of-sync with PR-driven journalism.
But when one is surrounded by minds as lively and insightful as those of our Local editors Williams Cole and Meghan McDermott; or Express editors Christian Parenti and Heather Rogers; or Art editor Daniel Baird; or main Arts editors Emily DeVoti, Alan Lockwood, and Ellen Pearlman; or Fiction editor Donald Breckenridge; or Poetry Editor Monica de la Torre, one just doesn’t tell these people “to tone it down.” Nor does one ask them to share a singular artistic, political or, for that matter, world view.
This makes for a heady mélange of perspectives, which is our ideal, though by no means a universal one. Yet, personally, I find that criticism written in one voice becomes too predictable. The last time I checked, there were also several hundred magazines doing PR. As for any sort of specific agenda, aesthetically or politically, the Rail hasn’t one: the editors control the content of their sections as they please. The Rail covers arts and politics, but makes no demands that the twain must meet.
There are creative tensions that do arise for us, as they naturally should for any project of this size. In terms of models, Phong likes the mid-century Partisan Review, and the New York Review of Books; I prefer The Masses and the London Review of Books. We find common ground on the American Mercury and the early Village Voice, during its literary heyday. Lowbrow material, rest assured, also crosses our respective tables.
In terms of the politics of many of the Rail’s editors, sure, they do tend to lean leftward. Some readers may find this troubling. But we hardly apply a litmus test to prospective writers, as we’ve published work ranging across the political spectrum. We’ve run pieces critiquing major left intellectuals, and had as many pieces pro-development as con. Of course, very few people knock liberal or conservative publications for not publishing left writers; such rejections, after all, are based on a distaste for “didactic,” “doctrinaire,” or “dogmatic” viewpoints.
The Rail’s real commitment is less to a program than a place, or better yet, to a set of traditions that place represents. We originate from, and declare ourselves to be in some way representative of Brooklyn, and so we must pay homage to a more than estimable literary heritage. And often, though not always, that tradition has been sparked by unlikely matches of aesthetics and politics. Whitman was an anti-slavery newspaper editor as he began to chant democratically, and Marianne Moore, modernist that she was, eventually wrote odes to Muhammad Ali.
Though Brooklyn has indeed had its share of heavyweights, I’m by no means suggesting that the Rail is yet entitled to be thrown into the same ring. What I am pointing out is simply that we originate in a borough that has long been a “crucible” of artistic and political democracy, and that we are obliged to work in that tradition. Jackie Robinson, to be certain, never played for the Yankees.
My reason for saying these things is that our fate is not tied to the market. Our cover price is still nil. We are a non-profit organization, for the moment funded almost entirely by private donations. Unlike other non-profit publications, we do not have one particularly well-heeled investor greasing our wheels. This is starting to sound like a pledge break, so I’ll stop.
Caution: Here come my bottom lines. In the first, and last analysis, and in this, the last paragraph of this editorial, I suggest that the following remains the ideal to which the Rail aspires—slanted opinions, artfully delivered. Criticism is our way of life.
Editor’s NoteBy Will Chancellor
FEB 2021 | Fiction
This month were pleased to publish an excerpt from Vesna Marics The President Shop. The novels backdrop is an allegorical country, The Nation, steeped in tyranny, but the focus is on the human rather than the trappings of propaganda. I was struck by the young woman, Mona, decoding the timelessness thats always present, even as we pass through moments that are consciously historic. Symbology, by Betsy M. Narváez, abounds in images, meanings, dreams, and visions. Here, theres no official, waking world, little external at all. Narváez gives us resonant moments over coffee of a mother and a daughter unpuzzling the language of dreams. Were also tremendously fortunate to have Maisy Card stepping in as co-editor of the fiction section of the Brooklyn Rail. Her debut novel, These Ghosts are Family, masterfully courses through the history of a family while communicating the texture and hunger of life as it was lived.
Jayson Musson: His History of ArtBy Laurel V. McLaughlin
SEPT 2022 | ArtSeen
In the second video of three in Jayson Musson: His History of Art at The Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM), a russet-colored-corduroy-suited, yellow turtle-necked, and well-meaning but supercilious art collector Jay, aka Jayson Musson, gently explains to his roommate, a pot-smoking hare, Ollie: Art history isnt that complicated. Whatever man fucks it kills and whatever it kills it fucks.
Walter Corwin’s A Short History of NowBy Allison Green
OCT 2022 | Theater
Walter Corwin Invites us to Experience an Intimate and Revealing “Short History of Now”
Lisa Slominski’s Nonconformers: A New History of Self-Taught ArtistsBy Jo Lawson-Tancred
JUNE 2022 | Art Books
Building on the history of Outsider art dating back to the 1970s, this book dives into the implications, limits, and paradoxes of the popular and problematic label. Placing the emphasis on the artists themselves and the formal properties of their work, the book foregrounds their practices over excessive biographic detail.