“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” — Karl Marx
“Anybody can become angry—that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” — Aristotle
“You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.” — Buddha
Who could forget floods of images of Saigon on April 30, 1975, when swarms of desperate South Vietnamese scaled the walls of the American embassy, hoping to get to any helicopter that would carry them away from the North communist regime? Recently, in Kabul, on August 15, 2021, equally desperate Afghans mounted the walls of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, and filled the runways, hoping to do the same: escape from the Taliban. When President Biden announced a timeline for a withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan on July 8, with the military mission of 20 years ending on August 31, the comparison between these two disasters has been perpetually repeated on countless “Breaking News” segments on television networks as well as a sea of social media posts here in the US and across the world.
This is simply to say the US’s role in making and unmaking stable and reliable democracies through the leverage of world politics is more vulnerable than ever before in its history due to the following: One, the Vietnam War was a boiling point of the Cold War, the intense struggle between capitalism—led by the US—and communism, led by the Soviet Union following World War II. In addition to our current crises, from climate change to the rise of the Delta Variant at the heel of COVID-19, causing greater economic instability, and an imminent threat to global peace and security, especially in low-income countries, what is so alarming is how we’ve come to realize again and again the magnitude of the US’s failure in Afghanistan isn’t simply a failure of the Left or the Right, but rather a continuous failure of an American political culture that refuses to learn lessons from its past failures. We know too well a recurring impediment among policy makers is a profound lack of interest in understanding the local cultures which the US military occupies. This also explains the repeated failures among the US-backed dictators, installed through CIA’s orchestration in Latin America and Africa. Just as our political class and mass media feed each other various sound bites, directing blame on local corruption, they hold the people of poorer nations with the same contempt as the American elite does with America’s own poor population. It’s so comforting to know how artists, writers, poets, philosophers, filmmakers or dancers, musicians, among our other creatives, manage to find ways to make and advance their works in spite of the mentioned crises, among other personal hardships. Their ability to live and work under stressful situations, degrees of uncertainty and anxiety, without the need to appeal to reason or any other form of justification seems to elevate our human spirit above our own suffering.
In knowing no work of art, literature, music, dance, theater, or performance can resolve any human conflict, be it us against ourselves or us against nature, the history of the arts, humanities, and science has demonstrated since the beginning of time that human imagination is deeply tied to human creation as an innate condition to provide occasional joy, pleasure, healing from our other innate capacity for destruction. Ever since former President Trump declared COVID-19 as a national emergency on March 13, 2020, then three days later his 15-day quarantine along with “social distancing” plan on March 16, we’ve gone through various stages of mediating with the pandemic while learning quickly to accept how fragile both our experiment of democracy and our human lives are as a universal condition. We’re adapting ourselves to value the subtle differences of our basic human needs, be it food, shelter, be it wanting love and affection, or desiring a spiritual quest for something rather than material fulfilment. Those of us in the communities of the arts would appreciate Maurice Vlaminck’s witty remark, “Intelligence is international, stupidity is national, and art is local.” Likewise, Marsden Hartley in his essay What’s American Art, wrote, “The creative spirit is at home wherever that spirit finds its breath to draw. It is neither international or national.” We’ve all realized the urgency of the “slowness of culture” against the destructive deployment of any demagogue’s “speed.” In other words, we need to come to terms with how to moderate technology for the betterment of the lives of our fellow human beings rather than spoon-feeding endless misinformation that in turn attracts those who hunger for power and would likely exploit information for their own ends. How are we to mobilize the intelligence and wisdom of our mentors and friends in the academy (now regarded as the education industry, and is as big as the sports industry) with our other fellow human beings of the outside world? Let’s share what we know as “real” knowledge so we can overcome these dark times together, for the privilege of sharing and passing on the baton of culture does not, or should not, depend upon the two sides launching their own offenses on each other by exchanging new two or three word labels at the expense of distracting from real life’s crisis, as well as undermining the subtlety of our language; it’s rather a profound human pleasure, like a thing of beauty, that lasts forever.
Happy fall, onward and upward with solidarity, love and courage, as ever,
Phong H. Bui
P.S. This issue is dedicated to the remarkable life and work of our mentor and friend, the artist Chuck Close (1940–2021). Chuck’s generosity and dedication to his fellow artists was legendary. In addition to being an active trustee of various art foundations, Chuck was a co-founder of the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation Space Program, now the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program (a wondrous accomplishment under Chuck’s leadership and the benevolent landlord, namely David and his late wife Jane Walentas, hence prompting the merge in 2014 in return for a rent-free one whole year residency in 17 luminous studios). For life is an endless journey for us all to embrace, we’d like to send our gratitudes to both Sophia Pedlow (Managing Director extraordinaire), and Jess Chen (brilliant Events Assistant) whose commitments to our living organism steered us through the peak of the pandemic with poise and intelligence. We send our best wishes to Sophia and Jess in their next journeys. Lastly, we would like to welcome to our team Ann C. Collins as a new Editor-at-Large as well as Jake Thompson and Karenina Thebez, our two new Production Assistants.