01 Jun 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

The title of this post is inspired from the title of W.J.T. Mitchell’s work, What do Pictures Want: the lives and loves of images, which upon first read might seem absurd since inanimate pictures can’t want anything. But it becomes more meaningful after reading Mitchell’s theory that speculates in part upon an analogy of images as being alive, living organisms, separate from the physical apparatus that binds an image to a picture in object form.

Because this is the Book Art Theory blog of the College Book Art Association I’ll make a connection here from Mitchell’s theory to book art generally and the teaching of book art. For instance, personally, when I teach book art classes, I require students to make physical dummies at every stage of a book’s development in order for the book to get out of the students’ heads and so it can “talk back to them.” Of course I understand the book drafts aren’t alive yet the analogy is apt and I will often speak of my own work or that of others as being alive, not yet alive, or dead.

There too is an analogy to be made between art theory and living organisms since theories are ideas, suppositions, beliefs, best guesses. The good ones expand the limits of what was believed to be the boundary of possibilities. Theories are tests of possibilities meant for other theorists to scrutinize, further test, and challenge. They have a habitat and relationship, ecologically, with other organisms. And like Mitchell’s notion—centuries of thought, really—that images live somehow separate, double lives from the object that consciously reveals them, art theory comes alive from and proceeds to exist independently of what made it.

Take an example from critic Lucy Lippard, one of a handful of writers who have theorized, however limiting, about book art. Before her brief but key essay “The Artist’s Book Goes Public” published in Art in America in 1977 (later collected in Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook edited by Joan Lyons), Lippard made a significant theory and contribution out of the conceptual art environment growing around her contemporaneously in the latter half of the 1960s and early 1970s. Her theory was published as a kind of annotated reference book in 1972 called Six Years: the Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966-1972. It revealed the boundaries of a conceptual practice that came into being (just not always materially) during the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation Movements, Vietnam, and counter culture “free-for-all,” as she described the period. Lippard, an active part of that environment, responded to artworks also existing in that habitat, aptly posited about art’s dematerialization at the time, and then went about collecting all the possible evidence of this work’s existence as pointers for further study and theorizing.

Perhaps conceptual art of that period was so far flung and such a free-for-all it wanted a theory and needed the larger process-based moniker of dematerialization to fulfill its lack of cohesiveness as an all-out movement. Or Lippard and others wanted to draw all the disparate work together to make more sense of the works since they were, after all, challenging to the status quo and certainly audiences must have needed assistance understanding these pieces. Perhaps the artists didn’t understand what was happening yet, either; I’ve heard it said—a little condescendingly, if you ask me—that artists need help from theorists in understanding their work.

The point, in the end, is theory wants, needs, lacks the art work and the art work wants, needs, lacks the theory. Ecological problems seem to present themselves when one or the other doesn’t reside in the same habitat. But then maybe the requirement of this balance isn’t accurate. Perhaps I incorrectly understand the relationships between these two organisms of theory and book art. And since this is supposed to be a place for discussion—maybe a comment or two, at least—I ask then, what does book art want? What is needed, lacking, left wanting for book art, currently? Close reading of key books? If not close reading then recognition of key historical circumstances? Narratives that connect contemporary activities in the field at large? To be more readily considered by non-artists from outside the field? To be more widely understood or appreciated?


  • 02 Jun 2016 2:16 PM | Barbara Tetenbaum
    This is a chewy question, Tate. I'm taking it on a road trip and will see if what emerges.
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  • 19 Jul 2016 9:53 AM | Deleted user
    I like this essay very much, and am filled with all kinds of comments and questions. But the question " what does book art want" seems a bit challenging, and large! I'm very intrigued by all the questions you close with, each of which opens into more specific and, for me, more compelling spaces. How about the "close reading of key books?" Always a good idea! But wait, no one agrees on what those are...my classes get a heavy dose of 246 Little Clouds and The Copley Book...
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