Mail-Art and Money

"Mail-Art and Money don't Mix" is what Lon Spiegelman wrote in the 80-ies. Are these views still shared by the current generation of mail-artists?

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Samples of Mail-Art for sale

Started by Ruud Janssen. Last reply by Ruud Janssen Apr 28, 2017. 4 Replies

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Cavellini for sale via Catawiki. What do you think?

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I came across…Continue

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Comment by Gik Juri on November 3, 2009 at 3:51pm
Found this in the dissertation "Clashing and Converging: Effects of the Internet on the Correspondence Art Network" by Madelyn Kim Starbuck (she is member of this site under nick Honoria), all text of the dissertation is available to download (after short free registration) at, on the page 111 (129 in real pdf):

"In the mid-1980s Lon Spiegelman declared that "mail art and money don't mix," and the statement has become a standard aphorism in mail art. It is considered the basis of one of the three recognized mail art rules: 1) mail art is not to be sold, 2) there are no juries to an exhibition, and 3) documentation is always sent to all participants. Many mail artists believe that the no-money rule is one of the foundational precepts of the movement and should never be violated."

Probably, it will be useful here.

Comment by Gik Juri on November 2, 2009 at 8:36pm
As I understood situation, Ruud must decide who will explain problem of money in mail art, why several years ago a lot of people struggle for this thesis. May be, he'll explain it here. I can explain it only at Your page if You wish.
Comment by Gik Juri on November 2, 2009 at 3:24pm
It seems to me, people don't understand problem. Who will explain, dear Ruud?
Comment by Jenn Grosso on November 2, 2009 at 3:06pm
i find it so interesting that etegami is an art form specifically for the postal system, how fabulous! but with anything that hasn't usually generated a revenue, people will find a way to make some money from it... ie as deborah mentioned with the japan etegami society selling etegami supplies.
Comment by Jenn Grosso on November 2, 2009 at 3:02pm
wow, really good discussion here and good points made. i found it really interesting that ruud said that mail art isn't really mail art until it is sent out. i believe this as well, because if it is created but not sent out, then isn't it just art? if it is sold and not sent out - isn't it just art work that was sold as art work? well to me anyways it is the act of sending out to someone my artwork, that exchange, that makes it mail art.

as far as money and mail art, if we are talking about mail art as that exchange of art through the mail system, if there is a cost or price involved... doesn't that perhaps lessen the spirit of exchange?

but with the cost of stamps and shipping rising, is it going to come to an exchange of art and money? i certainly hope not. but I do think that we will see more and more art calls that might ask for money in order to participate. not necessarily to make money but to offset the cost of organizing, shipping and printed materials… as everything these days cost $$$.

the big question in the end, does mail art and money go together… i think my answer lies in the spirit of the exchange. if that spirit of exchange is intact and all parties involved are ok with any monies involved, then why not?
Comment by RJ - Moderator on November 2, 2009 at 7:45am
Seems like only two people are reacting to the theme. For me it isn't so easily closed. What do others think about "Mail-Art and money don't mix?
Comment by RJ - Moderator on November 1, 2009 at 6:16pm
RJ: This story about "Fluxus syndrome," is quite interesting when Icompare it to mail art. There is the difference that in mail art mostartist try to avoid the traditional art-world, and there is even the phrase"mail art and money don't mix" by Lon Spiegelman, that is used byothers too. There are on the other hand also artists who say to organizea mail art show and then start to use entrance-fees and ask for moneyfor catalogues ; try to 'con' people in the mail art network. What do youthink of "mail art and money don't mix"? I know it's not an easyquestion to answer.

Reply on 11-11-1995 (internet)
DH: Money and mail art? Money and Fluxus? Mixing? You are right, Ican't answer that one easily. Certainly if somebody got into mail art (orFluxus) as a means of advancing his or her career- "Gee," says the dork,"ya gotta get inta as many shows as possible, I was in thirty-two last yearand here's the catalogs to prove it," -he or she would swiftly learn thatis not what the field is for. Rather, its purpose is to combat alienation,and that is only in some respects an economic problem. Mail art hastremendous disruptive potential (and even some constructive socialpotential), as I described in my story about Polish mail artists and theEast German bureaucrat. And it has great community-building power -even my hypothetical dork can say "Wow, I got friends all over, fromArgentina to Tooneesia." But I must make a confession: I have probablyseen forty or fifty actual exhibitions of mail art, and NOT ONE OFTHEM was interesting to see. There were good things in each of themof course, but the effect of looking at them was weak. Why? Becausethey did not reflect the function - they always treated the sendings asfinal artifacts (sometimes ranked according to the prestige of theartist). But mail art pieces are virtually never final artifacts - they areconveyors of a process of rethinking, community-building andpsychological and intellectual extension. Thus it is, I think, a distortionto think, of mail art as a commercial commodity of any kind. Because itis typically modest in scale usually and it is usually technically simple,the finest piece may come from the greenest, newest or the least skilledartist. There is no rank in mail art so long as the artist thinks and seesclearly.

Nevertheless, the issue of money is one which must be faced. Lack of itcan ruin your capability for making mail art, for one thing. When theheat is gone and you can't afford to the doctor, it is very hard tofocus on making this collage to send away, even though one knows thatdo so would bring great satisfaction and comfort. Yet the mail art itselfis not usually salable, and nobody gets a career in mail art. One is freeto be capricious, as I was circa twenty-odd years ago when I spent twomonths corresponding only with people whose last names began with M.It is not, then, so much that mail art and money do not mix but that mailart simply cannot be used to produce money, at least not directly, -which is not to say that one mail artist cannot help another. Obviouslywe can and do. I remember when Geoffrey Cook, a San Francisco mailartist, undertook a campaign through the mail art circuit to freeClemente Padín, the Uruguayan mail artist (among other things) whohad been jailed by the military junta for subversion. It worked. Andmany is the mail artist who, wanting to see his or her correspondent,finds some money somewhere to help defray travel costs and such-like.

With Fluxus, the issue is different. Fluxart has in common with mail artits primary function as a conveyor of meaning and impact. ButFluxworks are not usually mail art and do not usually depend on anetwork of recepients. Some are enormously large. Some take largeamounts of time to construct, some are expensive to build and so on.Given this, issues of professionalism arise which are not appropriate tomail art. If I insist on making my Fluxart amateur and to support myselfby other means, I may not be able to realize my piece. I am thus forcedat a certain point in my evolution to attempt to live form my art, sinceanything else would be a distraction. I must commercialize the un-commercializable in order to extend it to its maximum potential. Whatan irony! It is, I fancy (having been in Korea but not Japan), like theexpensive tranquillity of a Zen temple in contrast to the maniacalfrenzy of Japanese commercial life outside it. Peace becomes soexpensive one might imagine it is a luxury, which I hope it is not. So oneis compelled to support it.

The difference is, I think, that commercial art supports the world ofcommodity; Fluxus and other serious art of their sort draws on theworld of commerce for its sustenance but its aim lies elsewhere - itpoints in other directions, not at the prestige of the artist as such (oncesomeone once tried to swap, for a book by Gertrude Stein which hewanted, two cookies which Stein had baked, then about twenty-two yearsbefore) and certainly not at his or her ego in any personal sense (JohnCage musing at the hill behind his then home, "I don't think I have doneanything remarkable, anything which that rock out there could not do ifit were active"). One must take one's work seriously, must follow itsdemands and be an obedient servant to them: nobody else will, right? Ifthe demands are great and require that one wear a shirt and tie and golight people's cigars, then out of storage come the shirt and tie and outcomes the cigar-lighter. That is what we must do. But we do not belongto the world of cigars; we are only visitors there. It is a liminalexperience, like the shaman visiting the world of evil spirits. We caneven be amused by the process. Anyway, that's my opinion.

from an interview with Dick Higgins and Ruud Janssen

Comment by RJ - Moderator on November 1, 2009 at 6:13pm
(written 12 years ago - in 1997)

As some will have noticed, I do sometimes ask IRC's or money to cover printing & sending for the publications. This is out of neccesity. Too many people asked in the past for publications, and I can't finance the free sending of publications. The price I ask however is always very low, in fact I loose money on it even with the things I ask. I just have to do it like this to keep TAM-publications alive.

Also I exchange a lot of publications, and send them out to mail artists I know will appreciate them. But I too often get these simple postcards or notes in which a mail artists askes a lot of things. There has to be a balance in what you ask and what you send. e.g. If you ask for a mail-interview, than this is a booklet with 15 to 25 pages, colored cover, and that costs 2 IRC's for sending at least. If someone sends something similar, than it is exchange, and I must say I still prefer that.

Some "older" mail artists probably know the saying by Lon Spiegelman from USA: "Mail art & money don't mix". It is a discussion started in the beginning of the 80's. In the perfect exchange there is no need for the exchanging of money in the mail art network. Somehow I transferred this statement into my statement: "Mail art has to do with the exchange of energy, the more energy you send out into the network, the more you will receive back".

It has already happened often that someone did a mail art project and promissed a document to all participants, but after finishing the project he/she just sends everybody a small document about the project and mentions the possibility to order the complete catalogue of the project for a certain amount of money. If these things aren't stated in advance, than it is mis-using the mail art network. I can understand that someone wants to make a very nice catalogue, but if you want the participants to pay for this, just say so in advance. Than the mail artists can judge for themself if they wants to participate. Most mail artists probably won't.

Of course the publishing of documents is a costly undertaking, so it is better to find another way to find the money. Some examples. Some mail artists want to publish a book and ask people to order it in advance. The mail artists that write articles for the book could get a free copy, and the others who want to read it can order the book. If you want to keep the mail artists free from paying money, there is always the possibility to get subsidies. Lots of organisations (commercial and/or art- wise) out there with budgets waiting to bet spent.

But do mail art & money mix? Every mail artists I know is only spending money on this mail art. I have never met someone that is making a profit on the mail art. That is, the active mail artists. Of course it is possible to sell mail art. Some people oppose to this, others just do it to get rid of "their collection". There are examples of "archives" that have been sold. Normally then the collection gets destroyed because the buyer mostly is looking for mail from artists know in the "traditional art-world". I heard from Crackerjack kid that some early Ray Johnson letters are being offered for big money.

Well, the mail artists that sends out a lot gets back a lot. It is his burden to decide what to do with it. He/She can decide at one moment to sell his/her whole collection. Another decision could be to donate or trade the collection to an official archive/museum. Already lots of archives/museums have such collections, but they than aren't that accesible for the other mail artists. It seems that mail art gradually being seen by museums/collectors as art, with a value. There is good and bad mail art, and good mail art has a price. Like it or not, but it has happened to all the art that has been made before (just visit any museum in your own surroundings). The good things are preserved and the bad ones get into boxes untill someone decides that its time to trow it away, or suddenly finds that wonderfull piece of mail art that someone sent out before.

The essence of this is quite simple. Mail art is the exchange. After the sender and receiver are done with the piece, and it is "archived", that it is just the end of it. The mail art is a lively thing.

In the last years museums have tried to do mail art exhibitions. If they don't start a project and ask mail artists to send in their work for the exhibition it mostly fails (as a mail art exhibition that is). The exhibition of an older project, a selection from someone's archive, etc. probably looks better in a museum than the results of an actually held mail art project for the museum, but it will never capture the spirit of mail art. I have had already several questions from museums for a small selection of my "archive" for a specific exhibition, but somehow it never felt right. They only want the "good mail art" that looks nice or is from a well known person.

Mail art doesn't fit in the real art-world, because the money aspect comes in. In the real art world Good art sells, and has a value. And the best mail art is the piece of mail that makes my day start wonderful, that makes me active and lets me do things, sometimes lets me discover new things. Exhibiting mail art at places where people always come (pubs, restaurants, offices, etc.) is probably a better place than the gallery or museum.

Like always, feel free to react to these thoughts. But I hope you understand that I am not always able to answer to all those letters I get. If you think that your thoughts are interesting to read for others, why not start your own writings, and spread them into the network. TAM-Publications is nothing more like that. The need to share thoughts (mine and others) with others, to make communication possible between so many people that live on our planet.
date of printing WWW-version: 28-6-1997
Comment by Gik Juri on November 1, 2009 at 6:02pm
You are not purist, I am not purist, almost nobody here is not purist = nothing to discuss, everybody will agree now that MAIL ART AND MONEY DO MIX.
Comment by Gik Juri on November 1, 2009 at 5:58pm
10 hours ago You wrote: "I am wondering if I am the only purist here. " - so I decided that You are purist.

A lot of interesting details.
You write: "I was in contact with John Held dring that period and know better how that went. " Yes, it was not mail art project, agree. I asked John about this and heard from him that there were problems I wrote. And I know at least one mail artist (Michael Lumb, real purist) who was against selling this book by John. This are facts.

I did not want discuss Your life. I'm sure You have job and have different kids of activities (as me and any other normal human of our age). No problem in writing books or paintings for money, it's not theme of discussion here.

Yes, I agree that mail art projects have rules, one of them is NO PROFIT (nothing to sell). But mail art network consists from not only mail art projects. You already agree that mail art exhibitions are part of mail art (network). I don't understand why books about mail art then are out of mail art (not project, but network), it's at least strange.

Mail art and money do mix, in fact, it's not my only opinion, it's fact, I wrote about last Minden. I have no problem to sell my artistamps or disks or printed matters, but have big problems with buyers (they are almost absent), so my sales of mail art related matters are insignificant. But for me important principle itself.

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