BOOK THOUGHTS // Peter Tanner

15 Feb 2023 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

I received a beautiful handmade book for Christmas from my wife. It was a book that she made at a book making activity at the library where she works. I love this book. Beyond the sentimental reason that my wife knows me enough to give me something that I think is beautiful, I think that the craft of this simple book is lovely.

The book I received for Christmas 2022.

I love the touch and smell of the suede leather cover. I love the beautiful long stitch cover binding. I love the saddle stitch bound quires. I love the tooth of the paper, though I cannot see a watermark on it to tell what specific kind of paper it is. This book, like most handmade books, is a smorgasbord of sensual stimuli. I enjoy this personal book so much that I have no idea what to do with it. I do not want to disturb its pristine state. I could use it for a journal, but I already have one. I could use it for notes, but notes end up getting thrown away eventually. I could use it as a sketchbook, but then it will get dirty!

I never had these sorts of conundrums about my sketch and note books as an undergraduate in art school. At that time the use of materials was about discovery, exploration and mastery of process through making mistakes and, as a result, learning what works and doesn’t.

The personal nature of this gift, and my own pondering about what to do with it, has prompted me to muse upon what is a book's purpose? Is it there to be beautiful or to be used? Or is any use of a book beautiful?

When I read books that are works of literature or critical theory, I underline them copiously. When I am critically examining artist books and book works, I take pictures of them, capturing them from every angle and transcribing any text that is present. Then, I print out the text and images and underline salient points, circle important visual details, so that when I write about them, I can highlight what from my perspective are the most important portions of the work in question. The books and printed-out iterations of artist books that I read and evaluate look like coloring books when I am done.

Interacting with books, interacting with book art, interacting with information in books, either visual or textual, is a physical and intellectual dance for me. Reading books, experiencing artist books and book art satisfy a need to connect both visual and literary aesthetic threads together. The connection between the two leads to the contemplation of ideas about how they connect and disconnect the visual and the textual. Therein lies a problem for me.

I am usually reading multiple books and articles at the same time. Recently I have been reading about the historic vanguard/avant-garde in Latin America and how artists created networks of ideas between art theories and individuals all over the Americas and Europe. I have also been reading manifestos of publishing that relate to artist book production across the globe. I also frequently return to the prose and poetry of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who regularly examines the importance of books and writing. I recently started reading Andreas Huyssen’s After the Great Divide (1986) that addresses the dichotomy of high-art and mass culture and how the two have been separated based upon a question of quality. In his introduction Huyssen states, “to reduce all cultural criticism to the problem of quality is a symptom of the anxiety of contamination. … The boundaries between high art and mass culture have become increasingly blurred, and we should begin to see that process as one of opportunity rather than lamenting loss of quality and failure of nerve. … Neither postmodern pastiche nor the neoconservative restoration of high culture has won the day.” [1]

The conflation of these theories and histories and their application to artist books and the book arts all rolling around in my mind have produced the same questions as the beautiful but utilitarian book that I received for Christmas: Do I want to get these theories dirty in the liminal world between literature and visual culture? The personal nature of my reading of such theories and ideas causes me to ponder: What is the purpose of theory? Is it there to be beautiful or to be used? Or does any use of theory produce a beautiful, or at least mildly innovative, result?

All of this rumination has resulted in my desire to ask you the reader, the book arts practitioner, the book arts theorist, members of CBAA, what theories are you talking about? What is fascinating to you right now? The readership of this blog represents a broad spectrum of people interested in the book arts that extends from the novice to the most skilled practitioners. I am hoping to hear some of your interesting ideas.

Some topics I expect to see are the following:

The importance of the haptic nature of the book.
Personal rituals/processes/spiritual approaches to book creation.
Book markets, pricing, marketing, and distribution.
Representation and spaces for works from marginalized peoples and cultures.
Books as interdisciplinary frameworks.
Materials, and what they represent as physical objects that reference different cultures and cultural printing practices.
Structural analysis of the book.
Artist books and the book as alternative mise-en-scene.
Appropriation as practice.
Conceptual art and writing.
Reading and readership.
Queer identities.
Social context, publishing, and public space.
Tackling western-centrism (overcoming anxieties of contamination).
Corrupted and not-as-corrupted economies.
Print-on-demand (POD).
Internet, digital and post-digital publishing.
Poetics of the everyday.
Material conditions of book production.

Other ideas that you have, which have not been touched upon above.

Honestly the only thing I would be disappointed with would be if no one comments at all. 

Still further, if you have an idea that requires an extended forum for its elaboration, as editor of CBAA’s journal Openings: Studies in Book Art, I think I can find a place for your article.

[1] Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. 1986. pp. ix and xii.

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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