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

Recently we had a post about a book that was made from a series of paintings, carefully lit and photographed, color corrected to get as close as possible to the originals, ending with a link where to buy the book. Along the way is the story of the Kickstarter campaign to raise production funds. Is this book art theory? Is it book art? 

In a 2015 post, Elizabeth Kealy-Morris quotes Johanna Drucker, defining the artist’s book as: “… a book created as an original work of art, rather than a reproduction of a preexisting work and […] a book which integrates the formal means of its realization and production with its thematic or aesthetic issues.” [1]

Is the book of paintings an art book rather than an artist book? Does it matter? A text was added to the book, but although many images of the paintings are shown, the text is not. If it is an important part of the book, integral to it as a work of art, the relationship between the text and paintings should be seen in the post, not just inferred. Does intent make a difference? 

I happen to like the concept behind the paintings, but that’s not the point. I ask: is the economics of book art a suitable subject for a book art theory blog? We’ve had other posts about the economics of publishing, but is selling a specific book, whether art book or book art, something that the blog should do?

We’ve completed seven years of twice monthly Book Art Theory blog posts, about 170 things to think about. The authors are mostly practitioners, varying in experience, including college students, recent graduates, unaffiliated artists, librarians, publishers, and senior faculty who have created and administered book art programs. 

In 2016 we voted to revise the blog’s mission statement. You can read all about that, and the theories behind the Book Art Theory Blog. We aim to make it more inclusive, with diverse voices and representation from marginalized communities and individuals. Some book artists are misfits who got into this field as a refuge. I identify with this and have had students from a wide variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds who were marginalized within their communities as strange. 

It’s worth reading every post on this blog. Sometimes the essay prompts discussion as interesting as the original post, such as Critical Questions. Blog posts often present a personal experience of working, whether it’s making as meditation, studio as sanctuary, or haptic nostalgia.

Among the topics addressed with insight and good links are social engagement, critique of bookworks, preciousness, experimentation, and legibilities,

A theme that has been appearing more frequently is the politics of book art.  Several posts are on gatekeeping, inclusivity, and cultural appropriation within the field. Some take up a specific issue, like gun safety. Others deal with the general dynamics of book art as activism and the conceptual framework of publishing book art. 

Peter Tanner took a chronological approach to this blog and came up with a different set of posts. Well worth your time to explore.

There’s something to learn from each post, even those by novices who are thinking about topics that have been explored for decades but they approach naively. Sometimes that gives a fresh viewpoint. And if you have something to add on the subject, participate! It’s a conversation.

[1] Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Books, 2004) 2.

Minsky is a book artist, curator, and historian. Founder of Center for Book Arts, Incorporated 1974, the first organization of its kind. He serves on the CBAA Book Art Theory subcommittee. The Richard Minsky Archive is at Yale.


  • 01 Nov 2022 9:38 AM | Levi Sherman
    There’s a lot to unpack in this post. (It also makes for a nice bookmarking of the blog.)

    I do think that the economics of artists’ books qualifies as theory, or at least that theory needs to account for economics. (I have argued elsewhere that this is something book arts needs to borrow from book history; if we want to understand how money and power shape the field, we cannot evaluate the form and content of an artists’ book in a vacuum.) Whether that should be done through a single case study might be a question of theory versus practice, and whether theory and practice can or should be disentangled. If not theory in itself, a post like this becomes a primary source for people who want to understand the economics of artists’ books and the role of technologies like crowdfunding platforms and on-demand printing in shaping the field.

    The question of whether a single case study constitutes theory might also address the idea of a sales pitch. Presumably a post comparing the use of crowdfunding by three different artists would be more like theory and less like sales (although the result might be promoting three books instead of one). Since previous posts have promoted exhibitions or programs, one question is whether promoting a book is different than promoting an exhibition or something else less obviously commodified (though still with economic interests). And is promoting one’s own book, exhibition, etc. substantively different than promoting someone else’s, or is it more a matter of style or propriety? (Perhaps book art publications should disclose conflicts of interest like science journals.) On the issue of style, is linking to an artist’s (or post author’s) website inherently problematic, or is it a matter of framing (i.e., the link is the place to buy the forthcoming book instead of the place to learn more about the author)?

    The Book Art Theory Blog should not become a content marketing platform. Admittedly, academia produces its own form of the attention economy by valorizing entrepreneurial individualism and measuring productivity via publications. I think it will be important to continue asking questions like Minsky has done, but to ask questions that unsettle both sides — not “is it theory?” but “what is theory?”

    Lastly, I hope other people join in this conversation, too. How should the Book Art Theory Blog serve the community? How should it represent the community?
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    • 02 Nov 2022 6:26 AM | Anonymous
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Levi. Economics is theory, and before becoming an independent academic discipline was a division of Moral Philosophy. I like your question "What is theory?"

      A word with many meanings, some relate to what we do:

      a set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based.
      "a theory of education"
      [Oxford Languages via Google]

      A theory is a rational type of abstract thinking about a phenomenon
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