LIVING WITH ART, PART 2 //Aaron Cohick

15 Aug 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

If we accept the idea that artists’ books are most available to be read when they are in someone’s home, several questions come up immediately: whose home? How did the books get there? And once the books are there, are the people that live in that home comfortable storing, reading, and handling them? These are questions of economics and distribution, of privilege and class, of power, of culture and discursive structures.

Some of this line of reasoning sounds familiar: are we talking about the artist’s book as “democratic multiple?” Yes, but also no—our inherited idea of the “democratic multiple” might be limiting our possibilities.

The historical idea of the “democratic multiple” is an artist’s book/publication that is made in a large or unlimited edition, usually with commercial processes and materials and sold at a reasonable price. This approach is often associated with the 1960s and 70s, with the “dematerialized” art practices of Conceptual Art, politically engaged art practices, and/or the desire by artists to circumvent the gallery system and get their work directly to the audience. The democratic multiple is often considered a myth or failure. There are many artists that never got that memo and continue to produce these objects—they might be called zines, comics, poetry, visual books, photo-books, etc. Failures of the historical democratic multiple are usually discussed in terms of three facets: affordability, availability, and accessibility.

Affordability seems straightforward—if you want a large audience to be able to purchase and read the books at home, then they have to be priced in a way so that individuals can buy them (which also often implies fairly large editions). Affordability goes two ways—as Johanna Drucker points out in The Century of Artists’ Books—the books need to be affordable for the buyer and the artist. Affordability for the artist includes materials, of course, but also time and physical demands. For artists that are committed to making books by hand (such as myself) affordability is a thorny problem.

The term availability comes from the poet/printer/publisher Simon Cutts: “The act of publishing is one of making available […].” Availability is the ease (or difficulty) of finding and buying the book, of shipping and moving, and then of storage and reading. Availability is different from accessibility (defined below) in that is has to do with the physical life and presence of the object.

In terms of distribution, the Internet is a huge asset that was not available to the producers of artists’ books in the 1960s and 70s. For an individual artist distribution is so much easier now, at least up to a point. Getting the word out and conducting transactions is easier, but packing and shipping orders is still a considerable amount of labor and expense.

Accessibility is different from availability in that it relates to content. Of our three terms it has the least to do with the physical object—it is more a quality of the artistic or readerly object. Accessibility is cited as one of the major failures of the historical democratic multiple. In her essay “Conspicuous Consumption: New Artists’ Books,” the critic Lucy Lippard reflects on that failure: “[…] despite sincere avowals of populist intent, there was little understanding of the fact that the accessibility of the cheap, portable form did not carry over to that of the contents—a basic problem in all of the avant-garde’s tentative moves towards democratization in the sixties and early seventies. The New York art world was so locked into formal concerns (even those of us who spent a lot of time resisting them) that we failed to realize that, however neat the package, when the book was opened by a potential buyer from the ‘broader audience’ and she or he was baffled, it went back on the rack.”

It’s a cliché that the “broader audience” is not interested in art that differs from the received expectations of a form, that deals directly with important social/political issues, and/or has an emotional/aesthetic/spiritual depth. It’s important to note that in the quote above Lippard places the fault with the “art world,” which tended at that time to eschew any emotional content. Are things opening up, both for the “art world” and for the culture at large? I’m thinking here of the graphic novels of Alison Bechdel, of the music of Kendrick Lamar, of Sonic Youth, of Twin Peaks (old and new), of the recent film Sorry to Bother You—this list could go on and on. The “broader audience” is fully capable of grasping complicated formal structures and/or nuanced aesthetic experiences. The reader needs—deserves—some sort of relatable entry point, if they are to dwell in/dwell with the work.

Works Cited

Simon Cutts, Some Forms of Availability (New York and Derbyshire: Granary Books and Research Group for Artists Publications, 2007), 65.

Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Books, 1994), 72.

Lucy Lippard, “Conspicuous Consumption: New Artists’ Books,” Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, ed. Joan Lyons (Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985), 50.

Aaron Cohick is the Printer of The Press at Colorado College and the proprietor of the NewLights Press. He lives and works in Colorado Springs, CO.

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