The Responsibility of the Mail Art "Critic". An Interview with John Held, Jr. by Mark Bloch
The Responsibility of the Mail Art “Critic”. An Interview with John Held, Jr. by Mark Bloch, self published and circulated in the Network, 1990
On August 10, 1990, in my New York City apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I spoke with John Held, Jr. of Dallas, Texas, about the responsibility of the person who writes and lectures about mail art. Our conversation follows:
Mark Bloch (MB): What I want to discuss with you is this idea: Why write about mail art? Who is the audience for writings about mail art?
John Held (JH): Alot of people write to me and tell me how much they appreciate what I'm trying to do. Because it's new to a lot of people. They are not hooked into alot of the history that we are into. You know Crane's Correspondence Art is out of print now, so there's nothing available now on mail art. Or Cracker Jack's (Chuck Welch) Networking Currents. He told me there's only a dozen left of those that he has. So pretty soon there's not going to be any written source- book anyway- on mail art. So alot of these people tell me that they appreciate it. "Now I can give something to a friend so he can understand what I'm doing." To me, the thing is that when something is new, you don’t want to write about it because somehow it spoils it. It takes away from the freshness of it.
To me, mail art's not new anymore. Personally, I've been doing it for 15 years or so and it's been going on for 35 years since 1955, so we're not talking about really an avant garde activity anymore. I really don't consider mail art avant garde anymore. When I first got involved in 1975, it was just kind of the tail end of the avant garde stage. Ray Johnson got me involved and he would hook me up with alot of interesting cutting edge artists and everything but now its not just artists that are involved in mail art. It's people from all kinds of stages of life.
For instance, the first person who comes to mind is FaGaGa. This is not an avant garde artist. This is some guy who's out in Youngstown, Ohio, who's real clever, who's interested in art and developed a postcard format for his ideas and it's real interesting, it's real good. I don't think it's an avant garde strategy. So to me I don't feel like I'm ruining the freshness of mail art. I think at this point alot of people want to know how this whole structure developed and I'm willing to tell them from my perspective, which is a perspective of being in the network for 15 years and making a point of finding out what went on in the time before I got involved. And too, I don't consider myself like a critic.
MB: That's what I want to talk about. Number one: Let me say I totally appreciate what you write too. It's not like I don't appreciate it and I've tried to express the positive things about it. But to me what is potentially- not negative, but just something worth discussing- is why I bring up the audience. To me, the audience has to do with helping to define who it is that's writing. Based on what your audience is sort of defines if you're a critic or not. In the true sense of the word, I don't think you are. Like your thing at the Franklin Furnace (New York City, February 13, 1990)- that was just some art world heavyweights and I'm glad that they know something about mail art. So what's the goal then? Is it to establish the legitiomacy of mail art to those people; or is it to talk to your fellow networkers; is it to find new people to join the network? What is the actual goal of a talk like that?
JH: Really for me I don't think it's so much a strategy as much as it is just a sharing of whatever interest and information that I have. These are kind of colleagues of mine and they're aware of mail art but I dont think they have any real interest in it but they're willing to show up. MB: So are you trying to change that? Do you want them to be more interested in it?
JH: No, not really. I don't consider myself to have a strategy. All I have is a knowledge about a specific field and a desire to talk about it I can't see for what purpose I would try to push mail art to librarians, because I think its going to be incorporated into art histroy anyway, if it's not already.
MB: That, to me, is the interesting aspect. I mean, how will that happen? I agree. I think it will too. I think it's good that we are writing the history of mail art and not some third person; and I applaud your efforts in that way but it's when you start to give talks directly to those people then you are starting to become a kind of critic in the sense that any critique or any art history is a lie. You can’t tell everything. So this is these people's only way of getting information and they get it from you. It is based on your experience but they might not understand that. Then you might end up with a situation like what happened to Cracker in Calgary- "you’re not in Crane's book so you're not a mail artist." In the future could that sort of thing calicify mail art and say "OK, this is the gospel on mail art"? Can the FaGaGa's of the future continue to jump in and participate in in it and be accepted as equal to an Anna Banana or Buster Cleveland or General Idea, and the people who started it? Do you know what I'm saying?
MB: That's really my only concern: in the future, can mail art continue to exist if it becomes part of art history? When it becomes part of art history will the network end somehow?
JH: Well, this is how it's going to end I think: I think right now you've got the standard mail art show strategy- all work accepted, no fees to enter and documentation. That presents a structure where everyone can jump into an be equal and that's great. The open structure is going to end if there becomes mail art shows by invitation only- and really thank God there haven't been too many of those. There's been a couple of instances. Like a five man show- Guy Bleus, Mark Bloch John Held, you know. Like that. So it excludes other mail artists. That's one thing I think mail artists are gonna have to fight against if you're invited to be in an art show with 3 other people. That's a nice ego stroke...
MB: ...and I think it's legitimate. But it's not mail art. It's something else. That's the direction Jurgen has gone- Jurgen Olbrich- he started to have things- people he met through the network, people he didn't- then he invites them and they do their thing. But it's not mail art.
But as far as the Network goes, isn't there a danger that it will become exclusive if its too well documented for the art world?
JH: I don't think so, because alot of people were upset that they weren't in Michael Crane’s book, but there'll be another book down the line. There was another book. Chuck Welch's Networking Currents. More people were in that. No book can overview everything.
MB: What do you think about the art world?
JH: You mean the big art world like Jeff Koons types?
MB: And everything on down. Which is now admitting for membership Fluxus and the Situationists.
JH: To me that's just typical and expected. While a thing is going on, it's never appreciated for what it is, but down the road you're able to get a perspective on it and that thing that the mainstream wasn't paying attention to had an effect on younger artists and that younger artists' work was reflecting not what was mainstream back then but what was kind of cutting edge back then. So the cutting edge becomes the important thing and becomes mainstream and the thing that was mainstream back there bcomes peripheral.
MB: Right. So how do you see yourself? Do you see yourself in that role as somehow bridging it as a underground activity to the mainstream?
JH: In a way I do because most mainstream critics will say that... well, the general lie on mail art seems to be that mail art was important in the late sixties and early seventies and had some relevance to the art world then but now it's passe. That back then it had this connection to Conceptual Art and was reflecting the concepts of the time. But I think that's so wrong. But they would never know. It's not really their fault because they don't do it. To criticize and get a perspective on mail art you have to know what's going on in mail art and keep up on almost a daily basis because it changes so fast.
MB: So why don't just appreciate that for what it is rather than turn them on to it?
JH: Because I feel I have certain skills that just sort of run that way. I have a good sense of design and that type of thing but I don't really consider myself an artist in the sense of someone who makes things. Like a collage let's say. Collages are a composite of different design elements or graphic elements. My sense of being an artist is to sort of collage art information and my strength, I think, is I'm able to relate to artists and to what they're thinking but I'm also able to relate to the general populus so I can translate. Some artists can't do that. They just go ahead and do their thing: "Whatever people want to think about it, that's what people think about it" sort of thing. And that's fine. It's not their role to translate it to the public. But I just think I have certain skills that allow me to do that. Like research skills. I'm one of the few mail art people that are both an active participant in networking and a professional librarian. So I see that as placing a responsibility on myself that if I don't document certain things, nobody else is going to do it and it’s lost. I mean somebody will do it twenty or thirty years from now but they'll never get it all. I don't get it all.
MB: Well, that's the issue for me. There was definitley more that motivated me besides being left out of your talk. But let's just say I was totally motivated by that. Don't I have a legitimate right to feel that way? I've put in my time as a mail artist and now you're coilaging the network and you left me out. That's fine, because that’s your point of view on the network, but now you've talked to a room full of people and I'm not included. That makes me feel bad. Just like when people felt bad being left out Crane's book. And if you do include me there's going to be a thousand other people that you don't include.
JH: I know. This is the price you pay.
MB: Well, all I would ask you is this: You say you don't have a strategy for it. In a way, I'm asking you to have a strategy. I think it is a big responsibility and it could have positive implications and it could have negative implications and I think that if you're clever it can have only positive implications. You and anyone else who want so to do what you're doing- I mean we all do it a little bit- reaching out to people- I mean I'm doing it with this thing (Panscan Computer Teleconferencing Project). If you do it in a clever way, you can make sure that mail art will go into art history the way that we want it to. All I'm saying is that when you are showing all this stuff you have to stress- you have to really, really stress- that this isn't everything. This isn't what mail art's about. When you read the letter from the kid that people were laughing at- I laugh at these letters too- but you have to really stress is "Yes, this is a goofy letter, right, but what's beautiful about it is that the letter can be written in the network." And don't just focus on the fact that it's naive. Focus on the fact that that this is something special: that a kid can write a letter to Carl Andre or Christo or John Held or Mark Bloch or anyone. It's like you almost have to overdo it so they really understand that it's open and that your not just replacing the old superstar system with a new superstar system, that's all.
JH: The thing that I've come to is you're damned if you do and if you don't, you damn yourself. If I didn t do anything. I'd feel bad about myself because I'm being inactive. I'm not sharing things I know I have to share. Every time you do share something there's always somebody who takes offense at something because every time you delineate something you exclude something as well.
MB: But isn't that what mail art is fighting against? That's why mail art is open. It's an alternative to that system where everything has to be calcified into The Great Lie. It's like it all just exists and whatever comes to your mailbox you hear about. So by starting to talk about it to the outside world, you're sort of joining in exactly what it is mail art is supposed to be opposed to.
JH: Yeah, but I think mail art can take it. I just think there's room for everything. There’s room for people who are talking just to mail art people and there's room for people who are talking to people outside the network, too.
MB: But what if the people who are talking to the people who are not in mail art somehow inhibit the ability of the people who are only talking within the network to do their thing? That's why I’m taking issue with you. I want you to have a strategy. I think you're doing a real heavy thing and I think its good. But I think you shouldn't take your responsibility lightly.
JH: No, because if I take it too seriously then I'd never get it done. That would inhibit me. If I can just sit down at my word processor and type what comes into my head I can get by that way. But if I have to think, "Well if I say that, that does this. I'd better put Mark in there, too." It just doesn't get done that way.
MB: I m talking theory. I'm not talking about including me. I'm talking about really hammering home the points of the openness. JH: I always try to do that.
MB: It’s like the disclaimer has to be that "These are 27 slides that I've selected to show you but I can show you a thousand more." You almost have to say that before, during, and after so that the people really understand that's the great thing about the network.
MB: And the last thing you showed was Fricker's book and you said, "This is the direction mail art is going." And I wondered about that just because there is a certain slickness to mail art, but what will that do to the kid who wrote you the letter? Does that mean that it's moving toward a place where there's no space for that kid?
JH: Well, let’s put it this way: by singling out Fricker's book, that way, I think I was trying to say how far it's come, for better or for worse. "Here's reproductions of mail art works, in context." I'm hoping that it paves the way in the future that someone's gonna publish a book of Baroni's work or Maggi's or yourself or even myself but that was the first time that kind of a mainstream publisher focused in on a specific mail artist and really showed you his body of work. But it didn't do Fricker any good because that kind of thing really inhibits you and puts a thing at an end more than driving you onward. Formula.
MB: Yeah it's like Rauschenberg getting famous or something, now he's doing the same thing, the same thing.MB: Well what happens is it's exactly what I'm talking about. It calcifies it, now. It becomes enbalmed because its been documented and everyone can see it. And I don't think that's what mail art is about. I mean, what happened to the "good old days" when it was - I realize this is simplistic but- "the good old days when the art world was bad and mail art was good. And we are an alternative to the art world" and I think lots of mail artists still have that feeling: Clemente Padin, or (Andre) Tisma or people who are just continuing to do their own thing and are thankful to have the network as an audience.
JH: I'm the same way. Although the reason I do it is because I like to get mail. I like to feel that I'm in touch with people that's why I've been able to do it steady for 15 years- because I'm a mail junkie and you need something like that to continue. You can't do it for a strategy like "if I do mail I'll get famous." It doesn't work that way. You have to do it because you have a need, not to get famous, but just to keep in touch with people.
MB: Yeah, I think that's what we're all doing. That's what's so beautiful about it. I guess that's my fear. I think you have a huge responsibility, John. I think you do have those skills that you described...
MB: ...and if youre going to make use of them I would say, on behalf of the network, just really try to keep the thing alive, not somehow end up with it embalmed. That's all. That's my only hope for mail art: that it continues as an alternative.
JH: Yeah, but you know I don't like to set myself up and give myself the responsibility because like I said, I get inhibited that way. Then I can't write at all. I just have to be loose about it. But I understand what you're saying.
MB: Yeah, I'm just saying it's a big responsibility and if you're going to represent us, you gotta make sure that the people who hear what you have to say don't get the wrong idea.
For more information or to continue the dialogue, write:
Mark Bloch, Panpost, PO Box 1500, New York, NY 10009 USA John Held, Jr. 1903 McMillan Avenue, Dallas Texas 75206 USA