Postcard Appreciation: High Enthusiasm, Low Art
Or, What Is Deltiology (And Why Should I Care?)
BBC asks the dreaded query: Are postcards art? Imagine here that ‘art’ is given a nasally inflection with the slightest hint of a French accent. The ‘is such-and-such ART?” question is probably my least favorite, right up there with “so how are you?” Gag me.
But I’m being unfair; Andrew Graham-Dixon wrote a very nice article, albeit one with a very annoying title. He agrees (I think) that postcards are (despite being bawdy, mass-produced, and appreciated by common folk) a legitimate form of artistic expression. This is the BBC after all. We’re all wishy-washy socialists here.
Postcards, especially those dating from the so-called GOLDEN AGE (roughly 1905 to 1918), are gaining some serious clout with artists and historians. Leonard A. Lauder, a sort of art collector’s Santa Claus, has donated hundreds of thousands of postcards from his personal collection to museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Neue Galerie in New York. There’s a wonderful art book that surveys his collection. Lauder calls each postcard a “minature masterpiece,” which is heavy praise coming from a guy who collected Braque paintings in his free time.
With a rep like that, even the snobbiest of art snobs has to admit that postcards are ART, with all the vagueness and pomposity the definition entails. Even the dirty ones.
So alright, why should you care? You’re not reporting on trends in fine arts for the New York Times (if you are, hmu), and you don’t have a bajillion dollars to start collecting.
But that’s precisely why postcard enthusiasm is important, especially for us normals. It levels the playing field in a world where Monet’s used tissues would auction for millions. Your average 100-year old postcard sells for under five bucks at most, and most of these transactions exist not in Soho galleries, but the proletariat eBay. Every local antique store has shoeboxes stuffed with postcards going at a dollar or so each. No, not all of them are Bauhaus originals, but they all hold historical, aesthetic, and personal value.
Which brings me to point two of “why postcards are the best thing ever and everyone should appreciate them”: at the end of the day, even the blandest “wish you were here” is a memento of a human life. Unlike riding terrifyingly unsafe unicycles, or starting arms races, this turn-of-the-century fad was available to the rich and poor alike. Sending a postcard was cheaper than sending a letter, and everyone took advantage. No matter who you were, you sent postcards.
There’s something kind of wonderful about that. In my modest collection, pieced together on a college student’s budget, there are notes home from the trenches of World War I, birthday greetings sent across the Atlantic, secret sexy rendezvous plans, and a lot of everyday ponderings. These are the thoughts and hopes of a people living in one of the most turbulent times in modern history, and, for the price of a McDonald’s Summer Break meal, we have the opportunity to commune with these ordinary citizens.
For a hippie loser like me, this is a profoundly spiritual experience. I recently bought a gorgeous French art deco card, tinted hallucinogenic pink. The handwriting is perfect, but labored — it’s so easy to imagine a child gripping their pen a little too tightly. This little girl, Gaby, is writing to her godfather to wish him a happy birthday.
If she still lives, Gaby would be a very old woman. In all likelihood, this is the only connection I will ever have with her. And yet, against the odds of a 22 year old in modern day New York meeting a little girl living in interwar Paris, we have connected, if one-sidedly.
It doesn’t help that the card is absolutely beautiful.
And that’s why, even if you don’t give two shits what’s popular in the art world, postcards are important. They give Us (the royal Us) the power to collect, to curate, to enjoy miniature pieces of history and art. And these pieces of art (because what else do you call that photograph??) were sent and cherished by the nobodies of the day. Gaby’s birthday message is a serious artifact. The ordinary messages of a human life now hang in the Museum of Fine Arts. That’s really, really awesome.
As historians and artists become more interested in deltiology, or postcard collecting, I hope they respect the living people behind every scrawled “I love you” (or “I hate you,” for that matter). Yes, these are works of art, but they are also works of art that have been profoundly personalized. Postcard art represents voices that are so often ignored. Those two-cent bits of cardboard were used with equal enthusism by our great-grandparents and Queen freakin’ Victoria.
If you’re looking for the neat and clean, I suggest the Louvre. But if you want the profoundly silly, the doodled on, the weather-beaten, the odd-smelling, the messy bits of living contained in 4x6 inches of paper— Then get to eBay!
Coming soon: What to do if you’re like, “I totally get what you’re saying here, but the world of postcards is super intimidating and I don’t know where to start, and also I’m too poor for a new hobby.” I’ve got you covered.