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LETTER TO MR. THOMAS B. HESS on May 31th, 1962
Your letter of February 23 just reached me recently after following me all through Europe. I appreciate the friendly tone of your letter, but some of the questions you pose are very much serious and they do deserve a serious answer.
Let me thank you for ►your introduction to our show in Europe, I found it heartfelt, and it could not have pleased me more than it did. It seems reassuring to find a friend where I would have hardly expected to find one. Certainly your confidence will not be betrayed.
You ask if there is no contradiction in calling "Doom" and in "playing the exhibition circuit". Anyone feeling impelled to call "Doom" is ipso facto duty bound to "play the exhibition circuit"! (Only, I would not call it "play"—my shows and the group shows I had organized at the March, had been consistently ignored by the press and the "art world", or properly insulted, like in ... Art News and especially the N.Y. Times which went as far in name-calling as shouting "pornographers" and " neofascists" ... I won't mention alI the "artists" who tried to tear us down by a more subtle variety of name-calling, mean the "artists" who always stay on the right side of the tracks and who always go through all the "proper" avant-garde gestures. As to the marketplace or the big money sponsored institutions, you will well imagine that my condition is synonymous with being blacklisted. What else should and can an artist who has something to say do but "play the exhibition circuit"? - This is the one legitimate outlet (and not necessarily the most efficient one in view of the boycott by the "media" ...) our "set-up" provides for us, providing the artist has the energy and the means to take advantage of it. The important publicly sponsored exhibition places are open only to the vegetable-pin-stripe artists, or the tickle- and amuse-me type of "DADA" ... You ask if I would feel better about the situation if I was "Rich and Famous". I have never cried poverty, or mortal disease, or mental disturbance, or various other handicaps, but in my life I have seen and I have been through quite enough. It is also true that at times I had been very poor. I have also seen wealth losing its power so totally (and often turning into death) that I but attach a transitory importance to it. The work I have been doing is not the kind that can be produced by steady working, bringing about a steady production. The basis of my education in art I learned at the Buchenwalds.
You ask if artists should be responsible world citizens. I definitely think they should ... if they can. I think the artist ought to try to be no different from any other mortal in this respect.
Is there such a thing as Commercial Anguish? There certainly is. Most artists fall victim to it. Especially if they have suffered much poverty in early life. Especially in a commercially-minded society whose set of values the artist cannot hope to escape. It is the ruin of most artists and of most art movements today. An example of Commercial Anguish is the lack of success of the co-operative galleries an Tenth Street; the paramount aim of most artists is an arrangement which will give them a better economic standing in exchange for freedom of expression. The "masters" might be antagonized a little, but at the danger point the artist will realize what side his bread is buttered on.
You ask me what I think you represent: marketplace, a conscience, a promotion agency? I am sure you know the answer much better than I. But I could make a suggestion on what I think you should represent. The answer is analogous to the artist who calls "Doom" and who plays the "exhibition circuit": he must believe and follow his conscience and then he must put his ideas into action. This will inevitably involve the promotion agency and the marketplace. Creation, promotion and sales are terribly tied together today. (One idea of breaking this tie-up were the coop-galleries, another the "happenings", a form of theatre). A comforting thought is that the marketplace was not always there: a mural painting, for example once done, cannot be traded).
If you will permit me one more remark, I was surprised at your reaction to the "Doom" show. Whatever its "artistic" quality it was definitely not meant to convey "coyness". Should that have really been the case, I would consider it a terrible flop. I do hope to have the opportunity of meeting you very soon.
Published in: Lurie, Boris; Krim, Seymour: NO!art, Cologne 1988