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While I was in Wynwood, Miami for the opening reception of a friend’s one-person exhibit at Nina Johnson’s Gallery Diet, Nina’s husband, the artist Daniel Milewski, invited me to give a reading at his venue Lester’s (the neighborhood’s equivalent of fin-de-siècle Paris’s Deux Magot or, for that matter, mid-’90s Williamsburg’s L Train Café).

For the last few years, I’ve been preoccupied with the notion of art produced merely through rationality and reason versus art generated from inspiration. Magnificently apropos of a discussion of how sensory experiences are prone to be in extreme contrast to emotional ones are French philosopher and critic Denis Diderot’s numerous letters to Sophie Volland. The thirty-year correspondence, which lasted until both of their deaths in 1784, offers many demonstrations of the opposing sensibilities (reasoned versus impassioned) that more or less characterized the Age of Enlightenment. In one letter, Diderot relates the story of President de Montesquieu and Lord Chesterfield, each of whom, during their travels in Italy, argued incessantly for the superiority of his own nation: English common sense versus French esprit. In another he retells Abbe Galiani’s fable of the ass, the cuckoo, and the nightingale, in which the ass, asked to judge a singing contest, must choose between the cuckoo’s metho­dical verse and the nightingale’s spontaneous improvisation. These letters were very much on my mind as I entered Lester’s.

The reading was casual, but focused and energetic. I even brought Isaiah Berlin’s landmark essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” into the mix in order to relate to William James’s remark, “You’re either born tough minded or tender minded.” This all, essentially, was a preamble to another subject: the history and purpose behind the Rail. I spoke with great pleasure about the collective passion that kept the Rail growing steadily all of these years; how the journal’s embrace of uncertainty and anxiety mirrors the process of art-making itself; and how the Rail has welcomed multitudes of voices as part of its family of mind. A few dozen writers, poets, and artists in attendance identified a similar desire to unify their passions with their intellect. Toward the end of the Q&A, the subject turned to Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s epistemology and view of the self. I found myself quoting Isaiah Berlin’s paraphrase of Fichte: “Food is not what I hunger for, it is made food by my hunger […] I do not hunger because food is before me, it is because of my hunger the object becomes food.” The sentiment in the room became clear: could they create a collective similar to the Brooklyn Rail? At that point, I suggested that with our support they could self-organize their own collective. In other words, The Miami Rail could be made like a work of art in which the process is as, if not more, valued than the end result.

A year later, Nina and her colleagues, with the Knight Foundation’s support, conceived the Miami Rail. Like the Brooklyn Rail, the journal values the creative struggle and sees no need for editorial uniformity. The Miami Rail seeks to showcase voices to constitute a critical dialogue which oscillates between the profound lamentation of history with its natural tendency to repeat itself (as Edward Young once stated, “We were all born originals. Why is it that so many die copies?”), and the renewed optimism of Apollinaire’s avant-gardesque attitude, where “even if nothing is new under the sun the new spirit does not refrain from discovering new profundities in all this that is not new under the sun.” As my late friend Hank (Henry Luce III) once wrote in a blurb for the Rail soon after I met him in May 2002: “Years ago the most famous newspaper in Brooklyn was the Brooklyn Eagle. The rail is also a bird, and so it is fitting that the Eagle’s successor is the Brooklyn Rail. It is a splendid publication that covers the arts, politics, and culture. I heartily recommend it.” Now it’s my turn to commend the addition of the Miami Rail.

Ever since Art Basel Miami Beach made its debut in December 2002, cultural life in Miami has been gradually changing. Unlike many other cities that have long artistic roots, Miami has seen a very recent arrival of an art scene, which it has welcomed with a unique sense of urgency: the city has received the burgeoning scene with the same gusto with which it has always embraced its dynamic Latin heritage and the exotic beauty of its urban scape. The rise in profile of Miami’s cultural and artistic production necessitates a forum for critical discourse on the city’s art, literature, dance, and music, as well as local politics.

I like what the painter Willem de Kooning said: “For milk to become yoghurt it needs culture.” And as I wrote in my “Letter to the Artist,” published in the first issue of the Rail, October 2000, “Great art is never isolated as a product. The concept is of an ideological community — a collective movement, based on a certain larger and governing intellectual premise.” Similarly, it’s always the artists and writers who are dedicated to the vocation of art whom we most admire. Their works, which undoubtedly appeal to our sense of hard-won freedom, result from having been receptive to life experience without succumbing to the dangers of obedience and adherence to dogma. They never fail to invoke with great subtlety the soul of the era in which they were made. What with art’s increasing globalization, where boundaries are constantly being broken down along with constant distraction from technological spectacles rising, critical responses are ever more invaluable. The function of criticism — in addition to ennobling the spirit and elevating the mind — was expressed most eloquently by Paul Valery:

“All the arts live by words. Each work of art demands its response; and the urge that drives man to create–like the creations that result from this strange instinct–is inseparable from a form of ‘literature,’ whether written or not, whether immediate or premeditated. May not be the prime motive of any work be the wish to give rise to discussion, if only between the mind and itself?”

Onward my friends,
Phong Bui