Wednesday, April 14, 2010

IN THE BEGINNING IS THE WORD: An Anthropological History of Correspondence Art, Marilyn Ekdahl Ravicz

The doctrine of divine revelation could perhaps be nominated as the first instance of correspondence art – air mail and on a cosmological scale. If one is not religiously inclined, wait for the first faint scratchings of the famous featherless biped, man, for examples of this art. While it is likely that at least some of the Paleolithic cave paintings included messages of this-kind-of-mastodon-went-thataway variety one must however admit that a loose definition of the role of the postal service is intrinsic to these examples. In the case of the cave painting, for example, the message was only received if the receiver traveled to the site of the correspondence. This as efficient, considering the status of the postal service in that period, and perhaps catalyzed the socializing impulses as well.

Other examples of “correspondence art” also occur in the Paleolithic period. Anthropologists are generally fond of explaining real systems by referring to unreal or past ones. This practice can be peculiarly enlightening. Paleolithic man, the Great Hunter par excellence, was fond of recording messages on bits of bone and stone lying about the cave. Contemporary research utilizing careful microscopic analyses reveals that what appeared at the casual glance to be mere scratches, are in fact careful notational systems. These analyses validate a longstanding anthropological precept that human cognition and perception evolved concomitantly with the need to communicate. The structural patterns of early human cognition are revealed through the messages, computations and symbols employed by Paleolithic man. These notations were at the same time are and codified computation – portable packages recording information based on the myriad inductive insights that a small but brainy creature needed to survive in a world that was cold, bizarre, and full of huge animals.

Artful delineations have thus been a medium of message exchange for at least 35,000 years. The delicate tracery of Paleolithic circles and scratches has been analyzed to show that it represents not idles doodles, but calendrical and notational systems of a ritual and practical nature!

By the time of the Mesolithic period and later, the world population of hunters and gatherers had begun to increase. Group interrelationships evolved as the concept of meaningful territoriality gained economic credence. The “us” and “them” ideology contributed enormously to the increased use of correspondence. The natural physical environment had become imbued with extractive, practical, and symbolic significance. The need for artful communication and exchange among groups stationed through space and time grew with the new uses of territory.

As all of these early populations were still hunters and gatherers, much of the same imagery in messages was perhaps understood across communities and groups. Man’s exploratory nature, itself a product of human evolution, manifested itself then as now through a search and appreciation of new media and cleaver ways to package messages. Special materials like shell, pigments, or bits of flavored obsidian came only from outside one’s present territory. Journeys of trade and exchange were made to negotiate for these scarce items. In those days, god, economics, and the need to create a better tool were still integrated in cognitive orientation. The exchange of economic and symbolic messages was ritualized and protected by sanction.

The reason for bothering to consider all this is simply because such examples illustrate that the essence of social recognition itself is tied to the sending of messages. The need to send a message or code a memory for one’s group is intimately tied to the experience of Self and Other, of Mine and Yours. Communication is a prerequisite for the creation of harmony and order in the real or symbolic manipulation and management of space, exchange, or resources. The ultimate in correspondence art -which becomes a kind of lifelong Project Piece – is the exchange of individuals between groups, often through exogamous marriage. Undoubtedly aesthetics played some role in this type of econosymbolic exchange as well. While it is not actually know whether gentlemen preferred blondes then (if ever), it is probable that a good strong pair of arms and legs were much admired. Art and life were inseparable, because a well-turned message or limb was more apt to be remembered and readily accepted.

Economic exchanges were realized as basic to survival and safety. The flourish of ritual often made this process sacred and helped to maintain an equilibrium during the dangerous aspects of exchange. Art historians, psychologists, and anthropologists have written reams intimating that the artist and the shaman were once the same individual and role, oftentimes with only a kind of dim recognition ritualized manipulations of messages were and are integers of the whole communication spectrum as it structures communitas.

Modern History and Correspondence Art

Myriad examples could be included in an extended history of mail art, but for the sake of brevity let us move on to the modern period. For some time now we have been living in what has noxiously been referred to as “complex societies” and in “urban conglomerates.” The postal service has advanced apace. Now it depends infrequently on domesticated animals, and encompasses the latest in aeronautical engineering and radio technology. Has this meant the death of correspondence art? On the contrary, even more imaginative efforts have recently been expended in that direction, since the need to communicate is still universal. This small review will not document examples of modern correspondence art, since the reader is probably aware of their amazing variety. Rather we shall turn to another anthropological number, the structural-functional analysis of the phenomena under investigation. In other words, the who, how, when, where, and why of mail art. In good contemporary scholastic style, we shall wander about unabashedly through the interdisciplinary fields of psychology, anthropology, and, briefly, neurophysiological dynamics. There is something here for everyone.

Who is Involved with Correspondence Art?

A definitive cross-cultural survey of this phenomenon would properly have to include a wide selection of practitioners ranging from the Kula Ring in Northern Melanesia to Sears, Roebuck & Company in America. In the former instance, the practitioners have already been subjected to a searching ethnographic study which revealed their vast complex of trade, magic, and pleasurable overseas travel with ceremonial exchange. The framework in which the message is expressed is the ritual exchange of handsome white shell armbands (mwali) and long red shell necklaces (soulava). Exchange is intertribal and interisland, and the rules of the correspondence game are rigid. Soulava move clockwise, and mwali are sent counterclockwise. No exceptions are permitted, because along with these much admired items, prized for their beauty and power, goes the exchange of economically scarce items and utilities (Malinowski, 1922).

In the second instance it must be at least considered that Sears, Roebuck & Company has consistently produced a good deal of Early American mail art, especially if one takes into consideration the sheer scope and frequency of aesthetic longings they incited in the hearts and minds of the pre-Skira, Abrams, and Braziller population.

Children have often sent mail art. Alone or in groups they send sidewalk messages in chalk, hand decorated May baskets, and spray paint communications (an art form especially highly developed among certain adolescent urban populations) to whomever and without the benefit of stamps. Children do make a calendric ritual use of the postal service when they send letters decorated with plaintive texts and Dubuffet-like depictions of toys which they hope the recipients, Mr. and Mrs. Claus, will shower upon them in a return exchange.

An international network of adults has recently inititated an unusual use of the postal system, which is to communicate messages of a non-utilitarian nature for the delight, intellectual stimulation, and appreciation of a select audience of recipients. This observations leads us to our next consideration.

What is Mail/Correspondence Art?

The slash (/) is a wonderful symbol created to cover contingencies implicating ambivalences, ambiguous inclusion, and/or sloppy thinking. In this case it pertains perhaps to all these. Yet, there is an intrinsic confusion as to whether or not correspondence art and mail art are the same phenomemon. As an anthropologist, the author would be in exceedingly bad form to take the narrow view. The Anthropological Forefathers fought and died for the Sacred Right of silencing chauvinistic arguments, often by referring to a perhaps exotic but undeniable instance among some outré group which would countermand any obviously distasteful view. The writer is exercising these rights of the initiate, but not without pointing out that even among contemporary semanticists this problem in definition is ambiguous.

The dictionary was selected as an impartial reference. Webster’s New World Dictionary, Elementary Edition, 1966, was chosen due to the unusual verve of its illustrations. Note the following:

mail, n. 1. letters, packages, etc. carried and delivered by a post office 2. the system of picking up and delivering letters, etc., postal system [Send it by mail.]

mail, n. armor for the body, made of small metal rings or overlapping plates so that it will bend easily.

Compare this with the following definition:

correspondence, n. 1. the fact of corresponding; agreement or sameness. 2. the
writing and receiving of letters [to engage in correspondence]. 3. the letters written or received [the correspondence on the Acme contract].

In the first example, “mail” is defined as something to wear or to send. In the second, both the fact of agreement or the sending and receiving of letters is mentioned. There you have it. It is obvious that in this paper the widest definition of the subject matter has been selected. This was done not because the author wished to play fast and loose with the subject, but rather as this approach seemed consistent with the discipline imposed upon the data.

(1) So the “what” of correspondence art has been seen to include a variety of media and activities from bits of stone, bone, shells, varieties of paper and cloth, paint, mud, ink, shouts, prayers, painted lines and images, as well as postal systems. In the beginning was the word, and the word was also line and picture.

(2) There is a second aspect to this category: namely art. There’s the rub; a rub which must include the rub of a paintbrush across parchment as well as the rubber stamp on a Xerox copy. Perhaps the Anthropology Game will guide us to develop an understanding of the problem of definition in this instance.

In the first place, a comparison of probable instances of “art” across cultures will illustrate the implausibility of “Art is…” Yet the frequency with which this form of definition is tried is amazing. It appears that “art” is actually an open category, and this calls for an extensive definition depending upon the situation at hand. One man’s art is another man’s kitsch. If you think the author is making all this up willy-nilly, a quick perusal of Wittgenstein should alert on to the seriousness of this problem (Wittgenstein, 1953: no. 65ff.). To stop here with a definition of art would leave us with an endless list of denotations in the definiendum, which is intellectually painful. This state often leads to a bad case of what noted psychologists have analyzed as “cognitive dissonance.”

Such related concepts as “taste,” “style,” “friend,” and “game” are difficult in the same way that art is problematic. Aesthetic-like ethical concepts are not purely descriptive or verifiable as are scientific terms. To define art is like defining “friend.” You must include an open-ended list of qualities and not seek closure, for that would distort the reality of the original phenomena under consideration our for special or honorific attention. This act implies a kind of value statement or appraisal of the object or phenomenon.

Such considerations lead us into deep water, but the trip may be worth the effort. Another curious thing is that concepts such as these are articulated or constituted out of the various qualities which themselves serve as criteria for the application of the concept in the first place. Please read that sentence twice. That is, one justifies the use of the appraisal “artful” by citing examples of qualities such as those which comprise the definition in one’s own thinking. These reasons form the rationale for and make the aesthetic judgment something other than an emotional statement. If you say to me that mail art is artful, you should not merely add, “because I like it.” You should be able – if called upon – to tell me which qualities justify this appraisal.

Furthermore, one can always contest your appraisal, and only the persuasiveness of the criteria which you summon could close down the debate. Art is a risky business, and art criticism the most esoteric of semantic skills and insight.

Assume that you assert that mail art is artful. If it were possible to ask each of you to reveal the criteria of your judgment about the artful qualities of mail art, your answers would structure a more objective understanding of the community of experience which you actually share. This exercise would also help us to learn which kinds of visual phenomena intrinsic to many examples of mail art are more successful in widely eliciting aesthetic responses; and the art form itself might presumably be improved by incorporating these criteria as suggested. If questions could be sent in a clockwise motion, and answers in a clockwise motion, and answers in a counterclockwise motion, a kind of Kula Ring or International Mail Art Expertise Exchange Bank could be established.

To avoid the Scylla of limiting definitions as well as the Charybdis of trying endlessly to list examples of what is considered as artful in categorizing the aesthetic, we might take a different stance. Let us try to activate the concept by pointing to what art does. Art communicates and arouses aesthetic experiences at the same time. That is, the artful must include some system of stimuli by object of phenomenon which elicits aesthetic responses in the receiver. For a long time in the Occident, thinkers about art were insistent upon defining art as “expression.” This may involve a kind of truism, and at the same time allows one to forget about the other end of the continuum which is the receiver or spectator. If one thinks about art as a kind of communication, then the sender, the message, and the receiver are necessarily included in on systemic relationship.

The author has dealt in greater with some of these issues elsewhere and will be brief here (Ravicz, 1974: passim). Across time and space art has raised man’s awareness of his physical, social, and psychological environment in a special way. It is man’s way of saying to himself, “look at this and consider its meaning.”

Art succeeds in raising man’s awareness by (1) selecting a medium and a message about some aspect of the environment (perceptive as well as proprioceptive); and (2) phrasing or structuring stimuli in such a way that their reception is special, that is, aesthetic.

What arouses aesthetic experiences in the percipient varies as to content and style. This is why an anthropological or art historical attempt to compare the formal aspect of art creations across societies, without placing them carefully in their cultural context, is doomed to triviality or failure. Yet some of the same structural characteristics may be present cross-culturally. Research seems to indicate that aesthetic-arousing stimuli rest on being perceived novel, surprising, interesting, complex, and perhaps ambiguous, either singly or in combination (Berlyne, 1971). Color, sound, form, symbolic imagery, movement, words, and texture are ecological variables which are manipulated by artists to become the kind of stimuli which will elicit aesthetic experiences in those who attend to them. Since the background experience in part defines what is novel or interesting, not all set of stimuli as packaged by an artist will be equally stimulating or arousing to all percipients. The work of the artist is, on one hand, like play (to which art has sometimes been compared, as an imaginative manipulation of the self and the environment), and one the other hand like that of the ritual practitioner (who calls attention to social and psychological needs or imbalances, and ceremoniously works to their resolution through dramaturgical means) (Ravicz, 1974, loc. cit.).

Much of the success or failure of correspondence art depends then first upon the quality of its manipulation of the formal elements of a visual nature. Secondly, it depends upon the quality of the actual message of the communication itself. These are interrelated inextricably in this art form.

This directive must also entail a brief discussion of what is meant by the communication or message part of mail art. The literature on communication theory and semantics cannot be reviewed here, although like the driest of British novels, it contains the best dully writing in the world. Communication is a kind of ultimate element in social acts. Indeed, the prehistory in this article was meant to intimate that it is the social act par excellence upon which community itself is built. The prerequisites of successful communication are eidetic to the ground rules for human interrelationships.

Since all interaction depends upon predictability and planning, communication facilitates this through sharing a fund of meaning learned from past experience. Communication requires some balance between the predictable and the unpredictable. If the receiver can always predict what the next signal will be a state of redundancy obtains, and the receiver tunes out. A signal with no surprise will cease to be meaningful. A total absence of redundancy will leave the receiver without any power of predictability, however, and it will be impossible to establish the difference between noise and potential information.

Communication is the sending and receiving of information, and this requires some balance between the predictable and the unpredictable, that is, the stability of equilibrium. The balance between order and disorder is a prerequisite for communication and human behavior, or there would be no predictability and planning on the one hand, nor the possibility of change on the other.

Correspondence art as communication suddenly can be seen to be very complex social phenomenon. It has a double level of meaning and multi-level connotations. As communication, it must be comprised of messages, whether of symbols or words, striking a balance between redundancy and noise, and carrying real information. As art, it must be comprised of formal visual aspects which become stimuli capable of eliciting an aesthetic response. Formal visual elements and such aspects as color, form, texture, and kinesthetic involvement (opening, folding, or feeling), are as important as the semantic considerations of the words and images therein. This implies a complex packaging of cognitive and perceptual characteristics carefully selected and conjoined.

What is the When of Correspondence Art?

The answer here is remarkably and mercifully simple. Anytime the delivery systems and creative impulses of sender/receiver are operational.

What is the Where of Correspondence Art?

The answer here too is terse. The strictures of financial and geographical considerations and temporal limitations, along with the vagaries of the postal or other delivery systems must be considered to define the parameters of this category.

What is the Why of Correspondence Art?

Here we shall not escape so lightly, “why” being one of the favorite bastions of an author in he face of a semi-captive audience.

To a social scientist, nothing which is patterned in human can be considered as accidental or spurious. Social patterns incite abstruse investigations for precedents and concomitants of the patterned activity, hoping o gain a better understanding of its meaning by analyzing its context. How does this come to bear on the contemporary manifestations of correspondence art?

(1) Correspondence has always entailed a call to communication, to shared discourse and experience. Man the Humner and Man the Technologue have some of the same fears and needs regarding human relationships and communication. Man has a fewer approaching dread of venturing too far from the known order of things, and delights in rearranging the familiar aspects of his ecological niche. The more predictable man’s environment becomes, the more free time he has to spend on non-essentials. But just let the environment become experientially redundant, and man is off on an exploratory frenzy: pushing, pulling, inventing, creating, rearranging, sending messages, thinking, dreaming, and communicating the results to his peers.

It seems that these two behavioral trends are reflected in the biological organization of the nervous system itself. The brain itself evolved attending to the delicate balance of nuances in the environment, whether of visual, aural or textural import. Indeed, man’s life depended upon his success in perceiving and interpreting environmental cues. The entire central nervous system is structured to cope with the sending and receiving of messages so that their perceptual, conceptual, and kinesthetic implications can be handled in almost infinite numbers. The brain itself is analogous to a communication network, the cybernetic nature of which utilizes computer-like processes for storing and maintaining coded units ready for retrieval and transmission. The ability to compare the stored and coded units first on the neurological level and then on the psychological level is basic to memory and learning. And, of course, learning is basic to prediction and making one’s way in the world.

When man moves toward a control and understanding of his environment, the trend toward an appreciation of organization and predictability predominates. When control over some aspect of the environment of oneself is lost, new methods are sought to change it or readapt. Old habits must be eliminated and/or the ecological niche redesigned. Man constantly reaffirms his biological and social values since they are intrinsic to survival on all levels. The work of art has long been one important way of dealing with the affirmation of the environment, or the creative change and destruction of it as well.

For example, during World War I and recently, the call to discourse represented in some art–centered activities appears similar in some respects. Although they are not the same, some correspondence art activities are reminiscent of the early data and lettriste use of form, word, and deliberate shock to create novel and surprising reactions. The data messages especially were full of the hatred of bourgeois pomposity, warmongering, and the negative aspects of technological profiteering. They also reacted against the widespread complicity among academics, politicians, and the wealthy to control the art world, and to restrict art to the sheltered environments which they considered as suitable. Culture had become Kultur. These dada and other artists selected the printed word a variety of media to communicate their messages. Among these media were: the printed word in a variety of publications; drama; performance; and a good deal of raucous pamphleteering. Messages were couched to epater le bourgeois, or to gain arousal –even disgust – through humor, satire, or the nonsensical. They attempted to create a community and a climate for reform.

Some similar motivations and characteristics live on in correspondence/mail art today. This is not to say that these analogies represent the same phenomena, however. Correspondence art of today is less a series of guidebook manifestos in negation, and more a multifaceted attempt to invoke this sense of distance by using the familiar in unfamiliar ways. The use of the entire postal system in a kind of gigantic subversion of its bureaucratic capabilities is also as stake. To deal with the replicable and impersonal in an aesthetic and personal way is one important method and goal of correspondence art. To communicate new ideas for consideration through the novel use of words and images is another. The ideas are often of a sociotropic or a critical nature.

(2) Correspondence art represents a call to creativity; a throwing down of the gauntlet to innovate with the givens of the urban environment in a time when the logistics of personal communication have become monumental problems in time a when the and geography. It calls to the person through a personal touch of line and form. It tries to hurl a message across miles and to shape the intervening space into a path of conscious appreciative energy. Through the work of concepts and imagination, it creates a community, not of contiguous habitats in the traditional sense, nor of true believers in the religious sense, but of cohorts in the literal sense of groups moving and working together.

(3) Sometimes it seems as if correspondence art is like a ritual call to game or play. It embodies the impetus to innovate, to toy with the shared meanings and the formal aspects of visual stimuli. Mail art may embody a system of suggestions, commands, or ideas about ideal comportment in a world of urban networks and media noise. It may deal predominantly with humor or fanciful narrative. By focusing creative energy on the redundancies of contemporary life, mail art seeks to claim noise and transform it into meaningful information.

(4) And finally, correspondence/mail art is also a part of contemporary awareness that the artist and the recipient are acting in a kind of complicity to erase the distance between life and art. It is a call to deal with everyday language and the common image. Inasmuch as it deals with words to be seen and images to be read, it is unusual in the western tradition of art. It stands as its own visual metaphor. Mail art is open to anyone. It is consistent with a wider human tradition of art which is close to community and a part of daily life.

When art and life art separate, it would seem to signify the real or symbolic death of each. The fullest exercise of man’s perceptual and conceptual capabilities is consistent with the innovativeness and creativeness of art as communication.

Since the earliest scratches on bone and painting in caves, art was usually a community matter, a structuring of stimuli calculated to raise man’s awareness of his environment so that is could be reappraised and valued. Rather than being distant from life and reality, art functioned to call attention to it.

Throughout must of the world, the artist is also a farmer, curer, trader, wife, mother, fisherman, and so on. What art no longer represented a reality which was basic, art retaliated. In this case, art retaliated by taking the environment of empty words and images and the invisible impersonal network of postal systems and reshaping them to the communication needs of a group which enjoys them.

In the beginning was the word, and the word is still with us as our basic medium of exchange. Correspondence art endows this medium with visual concreteness and dimensions which make an aesthetic appreciation of their meaning imperative. Long live correspondence art!

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