Paul Mattick

Pm16@nyu.edu

 

Postcards

 

                  Between Fall 1941 and Spring 1942, at a time when Munich’s Jews were beginning to be deported to the East, a real-estate broker named Benno Neuburger deposited 14 postcards in mailboxes in the “Jewish area” to which he had been forced to move. Leaving them unaddressed but affixing Adolf Hitler stamps, Neuburger wrote messages like “Terror regime,” “Murderer of 5,000,000,” “Never in the history of the world has such an idiot existed,” “The eternal mass-murderer Hitler—ugh.” The postal clerks who encountered the cards when they were collected and sorted reacted by bringing them to the police; a card bearing the stamp of his old firm gave him away. Aged 71, a dignified man whose mug shot shows him in bow tie and white mustache, Neuburger was condemned to death for “high treason,” his intention to destroy “the staff of a Reich office essential to the war.” According to the report of the Berlin tribunal before which he was brought for judgment in 1942, “As he took an open struggle to be hopeless, he decided to fight the Führer through anonymous malicious agitation.”[1]

                  Benno Neuburger was not an artist, but a person who found it simply no longer bearable not to express himself in the face of an overwhelming force that he found disgusting and that was, in fact, preparing to kill him. His reaction to his situation, however, followed the outline of artistic activity, at least as the artist has been configured under modern conditions: an individual, at odds with social convention, driven to put an inner truth in a material form, potentially communicating to others. Neuburger mailed his messages with the intention that they would be received and read, directed not to anyone in particular but to whoever handled the mail. But they were not instrumental in inspiration; it can’t be that Neuburger thought his postcards would lead to the overthrow of the National Socialist regime. They had the autonomy of art in relation of political practicality; their sense lies in what they might mean to their readers, and of what they in fact meant to Neuburger.[2]

                  At nearly the same moment—to be precise, in January and February 1941—a German artist held in an internment camp in France was making his own postage stamps in celebration  of a lost liberty, equality, and fraternity. Karl Schwesig, already imprisoned in his homeland in 1933, had fled to Belgium before the war, but after the German invasion was held in a series of internment camps in unoccupied Vichy France. During 1940-41 he was in the Gurs camp, in the Basse-Pyrénées, where he made numerous drawings and paintings of camp life. Getting hold of the blank perforated margins from a stamp sheet, he used colored ink to draw 27 stamps, featuring personae and scenes of camp life.

Karl Schwesig was an artist and he made his stamps as artworks, at least by the minimum definition that he sold them as such. Schwesig made “very much money” from them—at least by camp standards—which he used for the black-market purchase of subsistence goods for himself and his camp comrades.[3] Yet, as a commentator has it, “Schwesig used paintbrush, ink, and pencil not as means to return to “art” but as instruments of a war against the gruesome and gloomy conditions of war.”[4] In this he was, one might say, continuing his earlier activities as a member of the “junge Rheinland” group of oppositional artists; his camp works were not dissimilar to the work of many German artists in the interwar period, for whom art was not an autonomous enterprise but a mode of intervention in social life.

Schwesig’s stamps in particular involved a striking element: Where Neuburger used the stamps of the Nazi regime to frank his protest against that regime, Schwesig, in making his own, played at setting up a counter-post:

These stamps were all connected by perforations. I stuck them neatly in a little booklet, cut the censor’s stamp of the Sureté nationale from a letter, glued it underneath, making it the stamp of the Gurs Post Office, and wrote underneath: “Le directeur des postes Karl Schwesig.” That was a coup, that was fun.”[5]

As Jean-NoĎl Laszlo has noted, Schwesig’s stamps provided a counterpoint to the official stamps issued by the Vichy regime during the same year, which by honoring the Secours National referred back to the “National Revolution” launched by Maréchal Philippe Pétain.[6] Reversing the normal terms of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, Schwesig’s stamps are handmade displacements of the official product, echoed down to the correlation of different denominations for different subjects (a beautiful girl’s head for 2.50 francs, an old Jew’s for 1). They both mock the lies of the official representations and assert an independent engagement with reality.

                  An assertion of this sort took the form of a fully realized action when, in 1959, Yves Klein overpainted French stamps with International Klein Blue and used them to send gallery announcements through the mail. This gesture, made within an art world context, can be counted as political only in an extremely refined or etiolated way. Yet Klein’s assertion of the artist’s right to produce value on a par with that created by government fiat has an importance of its own, as an actualization of the idea embodied in Karl Schwesig’s denomination of himself as postmaster of Gurs.

                  Rainer Ganahl was not aware of the acts of Benno Neuburger and Karl Schwesig when he began the postcard works with whch he responded to the American attack on Afghanistan, in response to the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, and the invasion, two years later, of Iraq. It is a testament to his intelligence and inventiveness that in his effort to make an active response to these American actions he found his way to a procedure that can claim these pioneers of postal politics as antecedents. Where Neuburger used the Hitler stamp as the sign of the force he cried out against, Ganahl used now-obsolete postcards of the New York skyline, with the twin towers dominating “New York’s Financial District.” Like Schwesig, he made his own stamps, marked “USA” and featuring slogans of the day against colored backgrounds: “Homeland Security,” “Al Qaeda,” “Shock and Awe,” “Operation Enduring Freedom.” He put these stamps on the cards and addressed them to friends or artworld people—gallerists, critics—with a message, usually combining the personal and the political. Further extensions of this idea included addressing cards to artworld types—“Dear Collector”—and to political figures (Donald Rumsfeld, for instance), care of art institutions. Amazingly, very many of them were delivered by the U.S. Post Office. This probably testifies as much to the postal workers’ lack of interest in their work as to the fact that the stamps look as though they could be actual commemorative issues. No postal clerk, so far as we know, took a Ganahl stamp to the police. In fact, they are not illegal—they are not forgeries of official stamps. They are simply stamp-like enough to be delivered.

                  And that is the point. Ganahl’s art has worked here to move a message. Like all mail, one of these cards invites a reply. Like all postcards, his are open to anyone—postal worker, neighbor, or friend—who happens to handle them. They are thus at once private and open to an indeterminate public. Like Benno Neuburger’s cards (and like Barnett Newman’s abstract paintings) they combine intimacy of address with indeterminacy of addressee, and make a statement that invites a response.

This is a general characteristic of Ganahl’s work, which has long had as one of its central axes communication (and not in the vague sense in which all art is supposed to be communicative) by in virtue of its attention to particulars, with respect both to subject-matter and to the means, media, and the social structures of communication. In his 1998 project exhibited at the Kunsthaus Bregenz, Ortsprache—Local Language, Ganahl investigated the tensions between local dialect and global linguistic (and cultural and commercial) transactions, taking as example the Voralberg dialect that he grew up speaking.[7] Similar concerns have been expressed in his decade-long efforts to learn a variety of languages, Russian, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese, as well as the English and European languages expected of a globe-trotting contemporary artist. His attempt to grapple with the latest Road to War has led Ganahl to study Arabic; a recent set of postcards features the monument to Saladin in Damascus and the request, in English and Arabic, “Please, teach me Arabic.”

During 1993-96 his “reading seminar,” IMPORTED, involved traveling to universities, museums, and art centers in six countries in Asia, Europe, and the United States to organize one- and two-month group discussions of 25 books Ganahl selected as suitable for a traveling library.[8] The “Reading Karl Marx” project with which he ended the twentieth century and started off the twenty-first focused more closely on the particulars of a classic text, again with the goal not of imposing his reading of it but of opening it up for discussion. “I came to understand that reading line-by-line, word-by-word, enabled a more precise discussion. In depth textual analysis also exposed divergent interpretations and at times our common limits of understanding.” Most generally, the heart of the practice is communicative contact: “Meeting people, reading together and discussion is an art of temporary encounter, an act that can affect both our noetic and social activities.”[9] It is striking that in the series of photographs Ganahl has made of famous art-critical and cultural lecturers (like Rosalind Krauss, Susan Sontag, and Pierre Bourdieu) each image of an intellectual star holding forth is matched with one of the audience. The author’s words alone are normally featured in the social world of “theory;” Ganahl insists on the role of the listener and reader, even if only to show us their normal silence, the silence he wishes to break.

The attitude and mode of procedure at work in Ganahl’s “seminars” is evident in the series of works collected for this exhibition. The Afghan Dialogs provided Pashtun embroiderers with visual materials taken from CNN’s news reporting, in a form whose open space invited commentary. The Iraq Dialogs use ceramic tile—as historically associated with Iraq as weaving and embroidery are with Afghanistan—in the same way: A Westerner manifests his concern in a material and form calculated to encourage and open and direct response.

It is worth noting how different this is from the usual stance and methods of “political art.” The vast range of modern and contemporary art that can be classified in this genre, makes a statement, takes a position, admonishes or exhorts the viewer. Ganahl is hardly hiding the nature of his response to American aggression, but the focus of his work is less on self-expression or exhortation than on inviting a collaborative dialogue. The work is “conceptual” less in that it is driven by verbalized strategy than in its aptitude for setting off thought, in those with whom Ganahl collaborates and in eventual viewers.

The difference in mode of address, of course, bears with it a difference in politics. As modern politics came into existence from the late eighteenth century on, the idea of democracy as well as the various forms of opposition to it have typically been embodied in a practice in which political activity is the monopoly of professionals, whether heads of state, opposition parliamentarians, party notables, or professional revolutionaries of the Leninist mold, down to the pundits who hold forth in intellectual journals and the daily press. Another politics has made itself visible from time to time, on many scales and levels, in such phenomena as the movement of workers councils in Central Europe that ended the First World War, popular eruptions like the French events of  May-June1968, or the world-wide protests against the U.S.-Iraq war, in which official leaders and slogans played a relatively unimportant role. Democracy from this point of view does not deny the contributions of individuals or their need for self-expression, but it locates their significance within collective thought and action. Ganahl’s work, without ever ceasing to be marked as his, is inherently democratic in this sense.

It would be pointless to bemoan the limitations that marks politics in the artistic realm: its enclosure in a cultural practice that acts constantly to strip urgency and seriousness from ideas and feelings by transforming them into cultural artifacts, and ones for sale and collection at that—into “art.” It would be worse than pointless to complain that Rainer Ganahl is not facing imprisonment or deportation to a death camp. We can only be thankful that his postcards lack the terrifying urgency of Benno Neuburger’s gestures, which themselves are in constant danger of being turned into historical and cultural collectibles (if only ideally, since they no longer materially exist). What I find impressive is Ganahl’s success--despite his career as an artist, with the shows, publications, and museum exhibitions in which that consists—in keeping the content in his work alive as a contribution to our understanding of the state of affairs to which the development of modern society has brought us. And this is surely traceable to the means and form of the work, its utilization of low-tech, indeed often ancient methods, that serve to appropriate the imagery of high-tech warfare from television and computer screens in a form open to anyone, no matter how untrained (as Ganahl himself is, in the craft skills of fine art). What is more ordinary, more minimal, more part of the global litter of modernity than the post card? What could be more powerful as a means to communicate thought and feeling and to invite them from others?



[1] Jüdische Selbstbehauptung, Kulturreferat der Landeshaupstadt München (http:/www.widerstand.musin.de/w4-12.html).

[2] His gesture is thus kin to Barnett Newman’s answer when challenged by the critic Harold Rosenberg to explain what one of his pictures “could possibly mean to the world. My answer was that if he and others could read it properly it would mean the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism.” Newman wasn’t crazy; he was claiming not that his picture could transform the world, but that it meant that the world should and could be transformed.

[3] See Peter Junk, “Du musst es eben aushalten …” Karl Schwesig im Exil: Kunst als Dokument, Protest und Überlebenshilfe, 1935-1943,” in Herbert Remmert and Peter Barth (eds.), Karl Schwesig, Leben und Werk, exh. cat. (Berlin: Frölich & Kaufmann, 1984), p. 93.

[4] Ibid., p. 91.

[5] Quoted ibid., p. 92.

[6] Jean-NoĎl Laszlo, “The Stamp is the Message,” in Timbres d’artistes, exh. cat. (Paris: Le Musée, 1993), p. 213.

[7] R. Ganahl, Ortsprache—LocalLanguage, exh. cat., (Bregenz: Kunsthaus Bregenz, 1998).

[8] Reiner Ganahl, Improted. A Reading Seminar. Semiotexte VI:3 (New York: Semiotexte, 1998).

[9] R. Ganahl, Reading Karl Marx (London: Book Works, 2001), p. 3.