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Thursday, August 30, 2012

=mail art: a justification=

Something I've taken to doing lately is decorating envelopes that I send through the U.S. Postal Service. Mail art, in other words, which has been a more-or-less established (if you can call a practice so determinedly anti-establishment "established") art form since the 1960s.

Mail art originated in large part as a reaction to and an antidote against art world commercialism as well as a tactic to circumvent the art community's sanctioned keyholders, who effectively control who and what can be seen as "art" by the general public.

The Postal Service, by comparison, offers a democratic means of artistic exposure and distribution: anyone who can afford the price of a stamp can circulate a piece of mail-art and the number of people who might view a piece of mail as it travels from sender to intended receiver is limited only by circumstance. Once a piece of mail-art is delivered, it's intended recipient has the option of displaying it, using it to decorate a wall or a refrigerator, furthering its exposure. It may end up in the trash, too, of course, but chances are, it won't. People tend to hang onto curious things, and a decorated envelope or postcard is a curious thing indeed. Either way, whether it is trashed or preserved, the piece has had its effect, or, at least, "an" effect. Its ultimate fate is unknown and irrelevant to me once I consign it to the corner mailbox. Standing at the curbstone, I lean over the blue mailbox with the same hopeless hope as the lone occupant of a desert island leans down to set her bottled message into the great anonymous sea. In the very act of consigning my message to the world, read or unread, I am saved.

Whereas most of the practitioners of mail-art have traditionally sent their work by pre-arrangement with like-minded artists or collectors, I often prefer to send my work at random, often to unknown recipients whose reactions I can't anticipate or even guess at. I'll send back my electric bill or the envelope containing my driver's license renewal covered in drawings and small painted scenes. Sometimes my mail art is carefully conceived and an envelope might take days even a week or two to complete. Other times, it's a spur-of-the-moment affair, a few hastily drawn comics or caricatures doodled while my boyfriend drives us around the neighborhood in search of a mailbox.

What I like to imagine is that whoever's stultifying job it is to sort and open such deadeningly desultory, monotonous, impersonal correspondence day after day might have at least one day, even momentarily, enlivened by receiving even one such communication, bearing as it does the unmistakable sign that it came from a real live human being, even if it's quite possibly a deranged one. I can hardly think of a better, nobler, purer goal in creating an art-work.

On at least one occasion, quite by accident, I learned from an employee of a storage facility that my envelopes were on display in their office kitchen. No, it is not a wall at the Museum of Modern Art, but, then again, my work isn't folded away between the pages of an old portfolio shoved to the back of my closet where it would otherwise be, unseen, unappreciated, uncommunicative. The pieces are on public display, even if this "public" is confined to a half-dozen bored minimum-wage workers staring up distractedly at the coffee-room bulletin board, stirring artificial sweetener into their styrofoam cups during their daily break.

Perhaps, who knows, having nothing else to distract them, between sips of coffee, these otherwise bored-to-death office workers might even afford my humble doodled-on envelopes more attention than the average museum goer hustling through one room after another of the Great Masters accords a Renoir.

A good hub of information on the history of mail art is provided by Wikipedia:

Some examples of my own mail-art are in the post below this one.

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