The most radical artists’ products of the 1970s turn out to have been prophetic. Such phenomena as artists’ books, artists’ records, video art and mail art, which turned common, widely reproduced modes of communication into art forms, actually anticipated the effect that the computer, and the Internet, are now having on such modes. Just as photography “liberated” painting to become a self-referential artistic format, digital technology is now liberating once-common information structures from their roles as lexical and sonic repositories. The LP is art, the CD (and even DVD) will soon be art, and ultimately books will not exist to be read, but to be looked at for their own sake.
The postal service, for its part, will subsume into the Internet entirely, except for the delivery of goods – and of art. Mail art will become a redundant term; all mail will be art. We see this already beginning to manifest as postal services allow clients to create and customize their own postage stamps (over the Internet, of course). Like the album cover today, and the book cover tomorrow, the postage stamp will be rendered archaic.
But it will not be rendered extinct. In fact, the stamp will metamorphose, perhaps fantastically. Like so much mail art of the last several decades, the postage stamp will merge with the mail it franks. Where small countries like Tonga and San Marino once created unusual postage stamps as a source of offshore revenue, they and similar entities (sovereign or otherwise) will enable the sender/artist to formulate artistic objects that contain their own government-issued tariff marks.
Does this mean that the collection presented here, compiled by Artpool over four decades of continual innovation and revolution in art and in life, is headed for the junk heap of history? Not at all. In fact, the spectacularly vibrant and varied visual and conceptual activity documented in this collection demonstrates that history is not a junk heap, and art is indeed long. Nobody paints frescoes anymore, but Fra Angelico’s are no less wondrous for that. Similarly, the graphic wit and lyricism of stamps by Donald Evans or Robert Watts make them classic artworks, not just classic stampworks. The artistamp genre is well documented in the Artpool collection, even as it fades into history – all the more reason the genre should be so well documented.
Should we mourn the passing of the postage stamp, artist-made or otherwise? Perhaps we should regret the disappearance of the format. Like the LP sleeve or book cover – or, more to the point, like those other endangered species, coins and banknotes – the postage stamp was one of the most pervasive sources of sophisticated visual design and content in the world. Perhaps it was the most pervasive, given its size and purpose – a size and purpose that gave any one stamp potential currency worldwide. It was the global fluency of the postage stamp that most attracted artists to it. Its scale posed a challenge, of course, and its association with governmental taxation invited subversion. But back when telephone calls could cost more than rent and the televised transmission of pictures was a rare and intricate process, sending images cheaply and effectively to an antipodal destination was a matter of making those images compact. If those images were not official, it was also a matter of disguising the true nature of those images, so that they might piggyback on an existing network of postal commerce. Indeed, a typical postage stamp, rife with patriotic signs and historical inferences, could serve as provocative or persuasive propaganda when sent over the border – and an artist’s stamp, full of signs and inferences that questioned patriotism and history, could serve as provocation of another type, a call to a supra-national spirit binding all humans through art and thought.
The postage stamp will vanish, and with it will vanish one kind of artistamp, the kind dependent on letters, small packages, and other first class mail. By the end of this century, certainly, such an artistamp will be no more current than a wax seal. But the artistamp genre itself will not vanish. It will transform, exploiting rather than succumbing to the changing definition of “mail”. The artistamp genre will fold into – or fold into it – the larger, and growing, genre of parodic – or, if you would, parasitic – art forms that depend on host formats for their character and purpose. The artistamp already falls under this rubric of parody/parasitism, and it influences and infects its fellow parodic/parasitic genres just as they influence and infect it. The artistamp will merge with graffiti art, it will merge with comic-book art, it will merge with toy art, it will merge with map art, it will even merge with architecture. And of course it will merge with the new electronic forms of parodic/parasitic art – clip art, blog art, iPod art, MP3 art, cellphone art (including texting, video, photo, and ring-tone art), and so forth.
The 1960s and '70s saw an explosion of new media in the arts. The last two decades have seen an explosion of new media in ordinary life. The first explosion anticipated, and in certain ways helped set off, the second, far larger explosion. That second explosion now amplifies, not muffles, the reverberations of the first. It is making art available to everyone, on every level. Everyone will be able to become an artist, a gallerist, a critic, a curator, a collector. (Not everyone will be able to become a good artist, gallerist, critic, curator, or collector, but that is a different matter.) And at the same time, as mentioned, everyone will be able to make their own postage stamps – or make whatever comes after postage stamps.
Postage stamps will no longer exist, but everything will be artistamps.