15 Mar 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

A constant consideration in the analysis of the book as art object is its relationship to the body: i.e., the direct physical reaction of the viewer/reader, and book artist, to the book object’s materials. This is compounded by the fact that it is frequently impossible to articulate and share the physicality of this experience with others that have not had corporeal encounters with book art objects. The difficulty of describing and articulating this experience could conceivably be the reason why there are so many differing opinions regarding what constitutes a definition of the artist book. To wit, Simone Murray in her book about contemporary print culture (2021) describes the difficulty of the definition of the book in the following way:

“[A]ll definitions should keep sight of the fact that the nature and role of the book are constantly in flux, and any attempt at definition needs to counterbalance analytical precision with sufficient capaciousness to respond to current (and future) developments.” [1]

In summary, the definition of the book, and to a greater extent the definitions of the artist book, book art object, letterpress book, zine, chapbook, etc., are in a state of “flux,” meaning not just change, but also a flowing and commingling. Due to this state of fluctuation and intermingling of bookish traits, definitions require both detailed investigation of the subject and matter that constitute a sufficiently vast understanding of the book in its manifold variations. [2]

Beyond recurring questions of definition, such as whether book work is art or craft or how publishing is a political act and can be a form of activism, there are questions regarding the essence of the book as a medium for communication. What is interesting is how the “flux” of the book makes it simultaneously capacious and particular enough to engage with a diversity of forms that other mediums cannot. The format of the book provides a versatile material construct that can either question or acquiesce to norms and expectations of what a book is as a means to question and engage with the viewer/reader. Unlike other mediums, the body of the book engages directly with the body of the viewer/reader as they hold and touch the book object; turn the pages; hear the pages, papers and binding move; smell the glue; and travel conceptually through the art object to understand and absorb its captivating ideas and position. Gillian Silverman puts it this way:

“In seeing, there is recognition, but in touch, there is the primal experience of contact-the fingers press against that which is foreign and in the process the boundaries between self and other are obscured. All touched objects function briefly as prosthetics, extending the body in new directions, creating, through the erasure of distance, a formal unity.” [3]

Touching, the haptic experience, has traditionally been mistrusted while sight has been considered the reigning perceptive mode because of its clinical and functional distance from the subject. Nevertheless, as Rosalind Krauss points out, sight is also a mediated and curated form of discernment. Krauss points out that seeing and recognition has been conditioned and formatted by the frames situated around perception.  Historically speaking the visual picturesque was crafted by landscapers, paintings were framed and focused on particular kinds of subject matter. Even photography, that most venerable supplement to vision “acts as a kind of prosthesis, enlarging the capacity of the [eye]” [4] at the expense of the tactile.

Thus, visual cognitive perception continues to be privileged and distanced from proprioception. This conflict is one that has existed for millennia, though the modern version was formulated by René Descartes (1596–1650) and is known today as the mind-body problem. The question presented by this dichotomy is the apparent disconnection between how the natural or material world includes the presence of an immaterial mind.

The book art object, or artist book, represents perhaps the most gloriously fecund arena within which to address and redress the mind-body problem. The artist book “is particularly useful in destabilizing the boundary between optics and haptics or art and the everyday. Perhaps this explains why so many artists interested in such intersections have chosen the book as their medium.” [5]

The artist book’s destabilizing capabilities foment questions and create alternative paradigms that directly challenge and question the mind-body problem. They build curious and quizzical bridges that break down boundaries and establish new connections between mind and body. They present works that address and cross pollinate material objects as embodiments of immaterial thoughts. 

They interrogate the relationship between the human body, as a living material that contains immaterial thoughts. They present a supplemental haptic experience that transgresses the mind-body split to transgress and present, through the body of the book, to the body of the viewer/reader the visual, literal, allegorical and metaphorical immaterial thoughts of a mind made flesh in the material world by the book artist. Thus, the body of the artist’s book is a supplement to the mind that can be touched, and to touch something is always also to be touched.

The mind-body problem is an issue for the book artist as they are holding and molding, literally, visually and materially, ideas and their perception within the material construct of the book. The immaterial mind is in their hands and as they touch it, it touches them back.

De libris cogito, ergo sum. (I think of books, therefore I am.)

[1] Murray, Simone. Introduction to Contemporary Print Culture: Books As Media. 2021. Print. p. 2.

[2] Addressing this point Michalis Pichler proposes that: “we are no longer only talking about books anymore—more capacious than book, the term publication is better because it can encompass digital files, hybrid media, and forms we have yet to imagine. . . . Publishing or publications as an umbrella term would include any form of circulating information, including books, zines, loose-leaf collections, flyers, e-books, blog posts, social media and hybrids, as long as they are (or are meant to be) viewed or read by multiple audiences.” Though there is something important to the question of definition there, he is trying to take the easy way out. Pichler, Michalis. “Artist's Book as a Term Is Problematic.” 3am Magazine, 9 Dec. 2019,

[3] Silverman, Gillian. “Touch.” Matthew Rubery and Leah Price. Further Reading. 2020. Print. p. 193.

[4] Krauss, Rosalind. “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism.” October, vol. 19, 1981, p. 32.

[5] Silverman, p. 196.

Peter Tanner is an Associate Instructor in Spanish at the University of Utah and Editor of Openings: Studies in Book Art.  He has a Ph.D. in Latin American literature, an MA in Latin American Art History, and a BFA in Painting and Printmaking.  His research focuses on artist books from Latin America.

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