THE CHALLENGE OF GENRE IN ARTIST BOOKS // India Johnson and Levi Sherman

01 Apr 2022 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

If we take books like Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) and Yves Peintures (1954) as examples, rock music emerged as a genre roughly around the same time artist books cohered as a medium for modern art. Since the ‘50s and ‘60s, rock has fractured into many sub-genres, while also maintaining a coherent identity that distinguishes it from other major genres, like country or pop. So the term “artist book” or “artist publishing” might be about as useful a term as “popular music.” Occasionally, we need to talk about all of popular music, but it’s more common to write about specific groupings of musicians, fans, producers, songwriters, etc. We need the umbrella term "artist book," but whenever we want to write about artist books, market artist books, buy artist books, plan an artist book fair, etc. we should consider the advantages of classifying books in terms of audience. This doesn't mean the categories have to be rigid or limit artistic expression — consider that musical artists make legendary work both by blurring/transcending genre (Lil Nas X) or embodying genre (Chris Stapleton). 

In his history of popular music in seven genres, the critic Kelefa Sanneh argues that “the idea of transcending genre suggests an inverse correlation between excellence and belonging, as if the greatest musicians were somehow less important to their musical communities, rather than more. (Did Marvin Gaye transcend R&B? Did Beyoncé?) … It is strange, anyway, to praise genre mixing without also praising the continued existence of the genres that make such mixing possible” (xi). [1] Just as musical artists work within and against existing genres, artist books participate in existing literary and visual art genres. There may also be genres that are unique to artist books, but it is these shared ones that provide inroads for larger and more diverse audiences.

The link between classification and audience is key, and thus existing classification projects reveal a great deal about the intended audience. In “Developing a Book Art Genre Headings Index,” Mary Anne Dyer and Yuki Hibben of Virginia Commonwealth University discuss their effort to develop a “local genre headings index to be used in the online catalog to provide enhanced access to the libraries’ collection of artists’ books.” However, “the list of genres was composed of terms representing book art facets of structures, binding techniques, mediums, and formats.” [2] Calling ‘accordion fold’ a genre is like calling ‘guitar’ a genre, and most rock fans want to discover new rock artists, not a country artist who happens to play guitar. Genres should open up the field, not just help people who already make artist books.

The inherent interdisciplinarity of artist books poses challenges, but also opportunities for connections, which genre can facilitate. For example, India’s partner uses artist books to teach public history. He has a collection of artist publications featuring facsimiles of primary sources, with and without commentary. Content type and subject matter are what is salient, not the binding or material. Book-as-primary-sources might not be a genre (yet), but it demonstrates that a collecting parameter can be narrow and still expand the use of artist books beyond practitioners. 

We’re interested in the possibilities of genre for every player in the publishing communications circuit. We are readers, looking for more of what we like, more easily. We are makers, hoping to reach the audience for our niche publications more easily. We are critics, scholars, and thinkers, writing with specificity about segments of an ever-expanding field. We are publishers, placing publications and their creators into meaningful dialogues and debates. We are educators, teaching about artist books but also using artist books to teach other topics. We are collectors, changing the meaning of our library with each book we add. We are information workers, cataloging and describing works to make them accessible. We are curators, soliciting proposals and offering opportunities, who need to articulate what we can accept, fund, care for, and make meaningful. 

Yet questions remain: Does genre exist without marketing and middlemen? Are genres only characteristic of mainstream sectors of the culture industry? Is genre really a question of type or just taste? Will naming genres stultify the field? Or will leaving them unspoken serve only those whose work fits into our existing, implicit taxonomy?   

[1] Sanneh, Kelefa. Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres. Penguin Publishing Group, 2021.

[2] Dyer, Mary Anne, and Yuki Hibben. “Developing a Book Art Genre Headings Index.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 31, no. 1 (2012): 57–66.

India Johnson makes books and non-books. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa Center for the Book. She also attended fine bookbinding school at LLOTJA Conservatori Arts del Llibre. Based in Iowa City, India exhibits her work locally, nationally, and internationally.

Levi Sherman is a PhD student in Art History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the founder of Artists’ Book Reviews.


  • 30 Mar 2022 12:39 PM | Peter Tanner
    This is a fascinating post. The connection between genre and marketing is one that is important to recognize, though it is complicated in terms of its situation in terms of social and economic history. A concomitant question might be to ask what was the audience for each genre and who makes up its market constituency? By asking this question we recognize that there were and are different forms of marketing produced for persons of one social and ethnographic strata versus another. In other words, there was and is publicity material produced specifically for a white audience versus an audience of color, publicity for a domestic U.S. audience versus an international audience. With this understanding as a basis for an expanded discussion it is important that we also question how we understand genres and their link to marketing as publicity forms that are equally political and racial when marketing art to one audience versus another. We should not forget to question where and to whom are the different genres of book arts presented. There are many book art outreach programs. To whom are they marketing which genre of book art when they produce their publicity materials?

    Further, do book artists only produce books within the genres for their own identified customer base as constituted by their perceived “ideal” audience's economic, political and racial demographic information?

    Along these same lines it is interesting that Johnson and Sherman brought up as a parallel the various genres of rock and roll. It is well documented that rock and roll was critically influenced by African and African American music. This parallel raises another parallel concern between the rock and roll and book art: Where does the question of audience, genre and marketing contend with appropriation, power and race?

    Book artistry interweaves so many different and disparate interdisciplinary and critical discourses that it is obvious that all of this requires greater analysis, especially in post-modernist terms that question the underlying metanarratives that motivate both the establishment of genres and their marketing.

    En conclusión, I would expand the questions at the end to include a few extra caveats:
    “Does genre exist without marketing and middlemen [who classify art works to reach their target audience of a particular social, ethnic and economic status with disposable income]? Are genres only characteristic of mainstream sectors of the culture industry [and if not where are the marginalized genres and how are they, or are they not, marketed as artistic genres]? Is genre really a question of type or just taste [and if so whose type or taste? Concomitantly, how are our perceptions of type and taste influenced by our perception of questions of identity and racial politics]? Will naming genres stultify the field [or will their codification in turn sponsor an expansion of intermezzo genres between the codified official genres and thus produce new marketing for new unclassifiable work]? … [W]ill leaving them [these intermezzo genres] unspoken serve only those whose work fits into [past and currently] existing, implicit [taxonomies]?”

    So many questions!
    So many possibilities!
    So many opportunities for investigation, expanded discourse and change!
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