15 Aug 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

In his post to the Book Art Theory blog on June 1st of this year, Tate Shaw asked us the question, "What does theory want?" I agree with Barb Tetenbaum's comment that this is a "chewy question," and I'd like to speak to Dean Dass's comment regarding the need for "close reading of key books," which Shaw proposes as one of several potential answers. Dass stresses the problem of choosing these key books, "Always a good idea! But wait, no one agrees on what those are…" I would assert that we do not need, nor should we want, to agree.

At this point in our field, we are certainly not at a loss for book art that invites close reading. As Julie Leonard reminded us in her March 15th post, "It's 2016," and "the 'canon of artists' is here to be studied and mined." We also now have at our fingertips a variety of resources for the "critical terminology" and "descriptive vocabulary" that Johanna Drucker called for in 2005. Artists' Books Online and the Artists' Books Thesaurus are two such resources.

I agree with Leonard that we need an "accounting" of these resources, and CBAA is well-positioned to be the host venue for such an effort. A variety of Resource Lists are already in place on our website, including chronologies of prominent works from which we can build. We also host a growing collection of Book Art Links, to which we could add online resources for critical terminology and descriptive vocabulary. This is all within our reach.

With generations of book art to mine, and a shared vocabulary defined, I think it's time for us to chew on this: What are the critical questions that we should be asking?

I am inspired by the constant dialogue around this issue within the field of socially engaged art, which, as I asserted with my last post, seems to be experiencing a parallel and intersecting evolution with ours. Returning to one of the projects that I believe successfully inhabits that intersection, I'd like to share a set of questions proposed by Temporary Services in the Art and Social Practices Workbook "to help in evaluating an artistic project that includes other people who are not the artists, or in some way relies on its meaning being generated from the production of social experience."

  • Does the work empower more people than just the authors of the work?
  • Does the work foster egalitarian relationships, access to resources, a shift in thinking, or surplus for a larger group of people?
  • Does the work abate competition, abusive power and class structures, or other barriers typically found in gallery or museum settings?
  • Does the work seek broader audiences than just those educated about and familiar with contemporary art?
  • Does the work trigger a collective imagination that can dream of other possible worlds while it understands the current one with eyes wide open?

I admire this brief and brave list, and I return to it often as I continue to pursue my interest in the relationship between book art and social practice. For Temporary Services, these questions get to the heart of the matter and offer "an in-depth way of assessing art works" in their porous field. It seems to me that these questions avoid the pitfalls of asserting key works or continuing to debate terminology. They are straightforward and complex. They invite critique and spark meaningful debate. Most importantly, they are not presented as the questions to be asked, but some questions to be asked.

I'd like to follow suit. Over the next two weeks, I will generate a list of some critical questions that I believe to be helpful in evaluating book art. I encourage other CBAA members and readers of this blog to do the same, and I invite them to share their questions by posting to the comments section below. For my next post on September 1st, I will present the compiled results of this exercise. My hope is that this list of questions will serve as a jumping off point for close readings of artists’ books, and that those close readings will inevitably generate additional critical questions–all of which I believe that theory most definitely wants.


  • 17 Aug 2016 9:42 AM | Susan Viguers
    1. Who is the intended audience? (Is this an appropriate question for art?)
    2. To what extent does the intended audience have access to the work (more particularly, to the intended experience of it)?
    3. Can the artist book incorporate text (extensive text) to be read, rather than primarily seen, as an essential component? Does the form, the medium, show its most powerful potential when text is not intended to be absorbed, but, when present, is transformed into the visual and the material?
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  • 17 Aug 2016 12:38 PM | Deleted user
    The following "CREDO" by Ruth R. Rogers, was presented at the First Minnesota Center for Book Arts Biennial, 2009, where she was one of the jurors. Ruth shared this with me in response to this post and she agreed to have the following excerpt published on the Book Art Theory blog as a part of our growing list of critical concerns.

    Let us praise and elevate the artists:

    1. Who build their work from the content first-- content that is relevant, lasting, and universal

    2. Who create works that need to be read more than once, and that reveal new meaning upon every reading or viewing

    3. Who are not seduced by gorgeous paper, ingenious formats, sensuous bindings, found objects, and clever engineering, but who allow the content to dictate the form and materials above all else

    4. Who have a sound background and technical mastery of their materials, processes, and tools, and who know how to achieve their vision with them (or whom to ask for collaboration)

    5. Who have practiced their art for long enough to know that making it is an iterative process that requires many attempts and failures, and whose work reflects this constant striving to arrive at the ideal integration of craft and concept
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    • 18 Aug 2016 8:31 AM | Susan Viguers
      I found this a hugely convincing list.
      Link  •  Reply
  • 17 Aug 2016 1:07 PM | Elizabeth Kealy-Morris
    Some questions I might ask of an artist's book from the viewpoint of visual methodology and 'practice as research':

    1) what does the visual nature of the book offer towards its narrative -- i.e. what does the art/design which is bound together to signify 'book' add to the meaning/narrative that linguistic discourse on its own could not?

    2) what is the relationship to the book's crafted sequence and its narrative?

    3) why this book, in this way, to communicate this now? linked to question 1 above -- why did this story need to be told this way, with all the storytelling methods available, why was the handmade artist's book the chosen visual and material form of representation?
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    • 30 Aug 2016 12:07 PM | Ruth Bardenstein
      Some additional questions along this line:
      What is the pacing/rhythm of the content? How is it experienced by the viewer and how does this relate to the overall concept?
      How does the ease or difficulty of viewing reveal or hide the subject matter?
      Does the work interrogate the conceptual or material form of the book as a part of its intention/themes/production activity?
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  • 18 Aug 2016 8:30 AM | Susan Viguers
    How are the questions one poses about book art (and one's answers) shaped by one’s own talents, interests, joys—one’s perspective? What are the implications?
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  • 23 Aug 2016 9:56 AM | Tate Shaw
    I think it's Clif Meador who has suggested in private conversations and perhaps in some conference presentation or another that what is important when critically considering a book is its level of authorship, so the question might be "what is the authorship of this work?" But then what is authorship? Well, when I'm reading a book I want to directly connect with the author, to be in the author's head, to have revealed to me another way of thinking than my own. In other words empathy--going into--not sympathy--going along with. Which to my thinking is perhaps in line with some of the questions regarding empowerment and egalitarianism suggested above and also helps to determine what one might read closely. $0.02
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  • 01 Sep 2016 6:41 PM | Deleted user
    I am restating several questions here that I raise in my September 1, 2016 post, as I hope this list will continue to grow and evolve in the context of these comments. Please see the full post for background information regarding these questions, as they are generated from multiple sources.

    Does the work engage the transdisciplinary nature of the book and its potential as an area of intermedia?

    Does the work provide an intellectual and aesthetic experience that will inspire the reader to profoundly engage with the subject matter and perhaps catalyze action?

    Does the work invite deep looking and/or reading–a practice of empathy that reveals another way of thinking?
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