“Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent … All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality.” — John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice
“This grossly advertised wonder [Venice], this gold idol with clay feet, this trompe-l’oeil, this painted deception, this cliché—what intelligent iconoclast could fail to experience a destructive impulse in her presence?” — Mary McCarthy, Venice Observed
Anyone who has visited Venice will generally confess that it’s a city that is immune to the passing of time. Most of us still marvel at the illusive and fragile beauty which was built on a salt marsh at sea level, as Alexander Herzen exalted, “to build a city where it is impossible to build a city is a madness in itself, but to build there one of the most elegant and grandest of cities is the madness of genius.” In response to the 58th Venice Biennale curator Ralph Rugoff’s title—May You Live in Interesting Times—and the Rail Curatorial Project’s participation as a Collateral Event, we named our show after Lauren Bon’s neon work Artists Need to Create On the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy. To some extent, Rugoff has found an adaptive theme (without being literal and narrowing) that welcomes and embraces the creative genius of artists whose lives, since the cave walls of the Paleolithic period, have invested and depended on their ability to make works of art in response to the surrounding environment, and as documents of human activity, all with brilliant and astonishing subtlety (and drama!). This of course implies the freedom that stems from an uncompromised spirit of intention—an attribute that distinguishes the arts, sciences, and humanities from other human endeavors, particularly from politics (specifically its sinister rhetoric).
May You Live in Interesting Times, as Rugoff wrote,
will be formulated in the belief that human happiness depends on substantive conversations, because as social animals we are driven to both create and find meaning, and to connect with others. In this light, the exhibition will aim to underscore the idea that the meaning of artworks are not embedded principally in objects but in conversations—first between artist and artwork, and then between artwork and audience, and later between different publics.
Having just celebrated Earth Day and National Poetry Month in our April issue, we’re thrilled to join forces with Rugoff’s curatorial aspirations and the community of fellow artists in Venice. Together, as a gesture of shared sympathy, we’ll accentuate the significance of our communication with each other, with the audience over here (I’m writing from Venice), and with you (a responsibility we feel with duty and joy!). We also are reminded that the U.S. government has ceased participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation (announced June 1, 2017), although many mayors and their local communities across the country are treading forward. Being here in Venice, we’re acutely aware of the rise of sea levels—with the high tides (Acqua alta) that occur between October and January being particularly flood-prone; the lowest parts of the city flood nearly every day, and most of the city is inundated half a dozen times a year.
I find tremendous comfort in John Ruskin’s notion of beauty: he allegorized Venice in relation to the sea as an ecological meditation on nature, its variations of imperfection and fragility the ultimate guarantors of human value. We hence dedicate our Collateral Event Artists Need to Create On the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum at the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Penitenti to the remarkable people of Venice who have lived with this precarious beauty ever since the city was built in AD 421. Ruskin’s view of social reform still echoes among us strongly today:
We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.
In solidarity, with love, peace, and courage,
P.S. To a joined worldwide celebration of Leonardo da Vinci (who in addition to being a genius to everything else was also a brilliant geologist, evidenced by his depictions of mountains, rocks, and especially water that sculpted the largest features of our landscape) on the 500 year anniversary of his birth, our friend Nicholas Callaway (of Callaway Arts & Entertainment) has just in time produced an exquisite volume Leonardo by Leonardo with a critical text by the world-renowned art historian and leading scholar of da Vinci, Martin Kemp, in an English language format and an Italian edition. (Nicholas and his production staff were able to convince almost all of the museums and private owners to allow them to newly photograph the paintings in gigapixel digital capture, which in combination with a state-of-the-art prepress and 40 years of endeavoring to “make the pictures sing on the page” result in a new level of fidelity to the original works with regard to color, surface and tone.) A ground-breaking publication indeed! A panel discussion between Martin Kemp and Alexander Nagel, who is director of graduate studies, as well as a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, and the Rail’s former Al Held critical essay editor, will be announced in days to come.