Mail Art East and West
Art as an Existentiall Sign
German, home, e-mail

(c)Friedhelm Schulz

Mail art, as something you receive privately, tacitly revives a phenomenon that has
been overlooked so far in art. It is the difference between two forms of contents as known
from private conversation and official speech. Perhaps the claim to truth and the expectation
of truth in a proclamation has traditionally been connected with an especially official form for
a very long time. Perhaps as only privileged, examined; chosen and elected people had been
allowed to pronounce or legitimize such proclamations they were mostly made in "elevated"
speech. On the one hand, when together with modern artists of his time Nietzsche speaks as a
psychologist of the "pathos of truth, " he hints at the false and pious little cloak with which
the pathos of truth tries to cover up uncertainties, anxiety, doubts, and often strategic
intentions and lies, too. On the other hand, as a philosopher he knows about and thinks of the
act of constituting any realized concept whatsoever as truth by which the naive and credulous
people may be easily cheated in the same way. In art, perhaps Michelangelo's "David" or
Picasso's "Guernica" would be examples of official proclamation, whereas the "Shoes" by
Vincent van Gogh or even the portraits by James McNeill Whistler could be compared to
private conversation. The difference between the two modes of speech cannot be determined
in any grammatical or terminological way, but only from the point of view of content; and in
art the two different forms cannot be perceived by any specific colors or forms, but at most
merely by format. Therefore it is very difficult to juxtapose clearly these two different modes
of expression, especially as they exist equaily in the realm of gesture, attitude and clothing, as
well as in architecture. This is probably the reason why the science of art has barely or only
marginally dealt with this phenomenon as a topic.
Mail Art Is Private under All Circumstances
Signs of attribution like language games, rhymes, stave rhymes and spells are another
formal element with a similar claim to truth, and of validity in every epoch of art and culture.
the private and subjective aspect of Mail Art was certainly the reason why this form of "West
Art" was not forbidden in the countries of the East. This art form is not very striking, and so
the ruling people were proud to be able to permit themselves the international flair of it as
local color. Even in the early eighties I was allowed to attach my poster to the Chinese Wall,
openly advertising copy and Mail Art action without being misunderstood or harassed. The
question arises of what the difference or the relationship is between the ideological aspect of
the private utterance and the existing official or general validities. Post-modern philosophy
regrets the loss of relationship as the end of any ideal, of any culture and of any human
identity, and as the beginning of chaos and non- involvement. Obviously, for Mail Art there is
no criterion of quality that exists outside the realm of the single art object. From the point of
view of art history, philosophy and even theology, the problem has not been solved yet and
reaches deeply down into the structures of our perception. While the second commandment
from the sixth century before Christ still had to forbid the adore of a sculpture - that puts us
back into a time when picture, number and even runic letters were transcendentally
significant signs - in the Renaissance and Humanism the individual began not only to deal
with Greek philosophy but also in a non-linguistic way with the above mentioned formal
phenomena of the antique world of gods and idols. And, finally, in modern times it is DADA
trying to tease and unmask the perhaps most embarrassing aberration of mankind as nonsense,
as if there were a medium a measure or a criterion of truth beyond Man and human
perception which we could know about.
Undoubtedly, the aim of DADA and also of today's Mail-Art is not religious, nor
moralistic and by no means aesthetic or arbitrary. Besides all other aspects still discussed
nowadays because of the First World War, DADA had a missionary trait, just as Mail Art had
it because of the ideological catastrophe after the Second World War. It is this missionary
trait which tacitly revives the relationship between form and truth.
As a matter of fact, it only appears that the speaker's desk makes the orator's speech
true; it guarantees the truth as little as officiousness when it is style of speech. The saying "He
lies as if it were printed, " however, shows that in general printed publication is used to
falsely legitimize what is printed, just as the modern pathos of truth serves to cover up what is
untrue. In most cases these manoeuvres are recognized as betrayal and temptation. In the
course of the Renaissance and emerging science it was basically the same phenomenon that
appeared in another style. From then on it was harder to recognize, and therefore more
malicious. Now truth and consistency are produced or legitimized by the object represented,
that is by its congruency with the object or an "objective" idea or even a formula, as if the
object or the idea could be proof of the rightness and consistency of concrete or ideological
perception or representation. Finally, both can only lead to kitsch and pretence. While it is
only by intuition that Modernism gradually eliminates such empiricism as concreteness, and
of such Platonism as idealism and ideology, the proclamations of DADA have already
reached collective consciousness. Thus DADA has grasped the problem of form and truth by
ridiculing all ideals and "isms " as euphemistic pretence, and as totally unjustified claims to
truth or as the prosthesis of truth, and this includes even those it announces itself together
with all that is proclamatory, officious and objective.
Mail Art as an Existential Sign
It is difficult to recognize this as evil and to understand clearly its gradual conquest
merely as development. The reason for this is that the formal aspect of the officious or of the
declarative on the one hand, but also of the conceptual in general, has to be distinguished
from the similarly formal aspect of a private statement on the other hand. But even then one
could or should not simply judge the officious form as wrong, untrue or false, and the private
form as the only true and right one, or as being more true and right than the other one; just as
Mail Art cannot and must not be considered as exclusively right in contrast to all other art
forms as basically wrong. That would be a relapse into a state that has just been overcome,
and where one clings to given standards of truth; a cheap, normative state, which is especially
seductive because of the highly proclamative character of Mail Art. Normally, such
judgement should likewise be true the other way round, just as the proclamative trait of
Michelangelo's "David" and the declarative trait of Picasso's "Guernica " do not represent
something that is wrong or inappropiate, but, on the contrary, as statements they provide the
reality of perception as well as of the perceived, and at the same time equally the
consciousness of it all. Only today with the help of Gerold Prauss philosophy can these forms
be understood as structures of perception; and only today can they be retraced in their right
and possibly wrong relationship to each other. As a matter of fact, a charlatan will always be
able to use this or that form of disguise for betrayal. But modernism intuitively overcomes the
naive dependency on these forms of perception and expression.
This holds equally true for the language and language games of which Robert Rehfeldt
in East Berlin had gathered a fine collection from the era of the GDR. They show the great
achievements of the GDR for Mail Art, increasing the wealth of its reflexion. In this case, too,
the great grandfathers of DADA are masters of unmasking when ridiculing the idea that
pathos and forms of rhyme or stave rhyme could guarantee truth or produce truth. Or the idea
that, inversely, they could or would have the right to legitimize lies as truth, or change error
into truth by mere confirmation We do not fear for our culture in spite of all the clever and
nonsensical sayings which appear in whatever form with so-called postmodernism as they
did, and as they were possible during DADA times and in Mail Art, too. For DADA as a name
is equally a confession of infantile speechlessness, and at the same time a hint at the pre-
conceptual of perception, just as Modernism as a name is a hint at the fashionableness of
validities, and just as in Mail Art the idea is not the end. Just as Modernism cannot be the end
of modernists or of DADA and Mail Art. Just as Impressionism - and any -ism at all - was not
the end of Impressionists. But up to now self-discovery and representation has only been an
alchemical search for and testing of what perception, consciousness, freedom and culture is or
may be. Thus the ancestor of our Mail Art, DADA, calls any flashy utterance a pure and
original sign of existence. As such, it is not only a baby's claim to attention, but an essential
sign of any concept and statement, be it in music, art or culture in general. Since the early,
pre-historic rock drawings we have experienced every work of art as a sign of existence. We
are still hardly aware of the fact that this is exactly what we are looking for as legitimation.
In the process of man's secularization, soon splitting up into almost six billion single
validities, Mail Art is not at all the high school of communication with only one address and a
friendly and open-minded sender. But as a quasi ornament, as a stamp and sticker, each form,
each content and each -ism rather submits to this origin of communication which that sign of
existence is. This has never been more obvious than when mail came from the Soviet Union,
from Hungary, Bulgaria, Romani from China or the GDR.
You may object that the above mentioned aspect is only partly and accidentally visible
in DADA's flashy attitude and that Mail Art's manipulations of what can be formed find their
limitations in the conditions set by a small envelope and the postal fee for the copy. It is
obvious that the mode of appearance is thus influenced and restricted.
But Mail Art's affinity and basic parental relationship with the new medium Internet -
where storage capacities and transmission techniques change data quantities of some hundred
or thousand pages of theory or philosophy into the ornament of a personal E-mail message
without the possibility of deriving or legitimizing a bugbear of dignity or a claim to truth from
this fact - this shows the trend as the logical and right development. It is by no means an end
of our culture. The first whimpers of DADA were just the first notes of a new beginning.
Friedhelm Schulz, 1996
beginning, German, home,