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Book Art Theory

Capitalizing on the interdisciplinary nature of the field, this blog calls attention to criticism and theory about the book as a medium and/or subject in works of art and, more generally, about book art. It seeks to encourage dialogue, solicit comments, and create a generative space for new ideas from critics and theorists of various fields regarding the aesthetic, semiotic, haptic, cognitive, historical, and other features that distinguish these works and their function in ethical, political, and social matters.

To contribute to the list of underrepresented voices in the book arts, see CBAA Book Art + Social Justice Resource List.

  • 15 May 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

    A visit to the Netherlands gave me the chance to see the Museum Meermanno in The Hague, said to be the oldest book museum in the world. The original Museum of the Book, founded as a bequest of the Baron van Westreenen in 1852, contains over 20,000 items including a significant collection of medieval manuscripts and incunabula. In 1960, it became part of the Museum Meermanno, which brought together other significant collections of fine bindings, Dutch book design, calligraphy, Czech avant-garde books, Ex Libris (book plates), archives of designers and typographers, and other collections relating to the art and design of the book. The museum continues to collect artist’s books (Ode to a grand staircase by Julie Chen and Barb Tetenbaum is one that is showcased in the catalog) and presents exhibits which reveal different parts of the collection.

    Besides being in a charming building which was the grand home of the Baron, the museum contains many surprises (a notable collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman objects) and too many highlights to cover in this post. The current exhibit, The Book Inside, provides a veritable history of the book in six large rooms, from clay tablet and papyrus through modern printing and digital media. All items are selections from their extensive collections and the displays provide an opportunity for close inspection of binding models, stunning illuminated manuscripts, early bindings, and fine printings and modern artist’s books.

    Models made by Janos Szirmai, on display as part of The Book Inside exhibit.

    Bindings from the 12th and 15th century on display as part of The Book Inside exhibit.

    Love is Enough, written and designed by William Morris, printed by the Kelmscott Press on display as part of The Book Inside exhibit.

    The Book Room is a dream 18th century library with wall and floor cabinets filled with van Westreenan’s extensive book collection. This includes a custom cabinet of the complete set Kelmscott Press books (53 publications in 66 volumes, all in the original vellum or half-cloth bindings). There are showcases containing many very large format books which include the Blaeu atlases and art books and portfolios. There are some gems displayed in this room, but one may contact Erik Geleigns, the Conservator Oude Collectie, about viewing other items in the collection that are in the Book Room cabinets or in storage.

    The Book Room in Museum Meermanno.

    The miniature book displays were an absolute highlight: the Meermanno has a collection of over 600 miniature books, including more than 50 from the 17th and 18th centuries. A sampling from this collection along with printed sheets and materials for making some of these books were on display (see image below) along with the stunning miniature library “Biblioteca Thurkowiana Minor.” Given to the Meermanno in 2012 by Guus and Luce Thurkow, it contains beautifully crafted globes, desks and chairs, a book staircase and miniature wood cabinets housing and over 1500 miniature books. These books were purchased or handmade by The Catharijne Press (owned and run by the Thurkows) and there is a video showing the making of some of the books and background on this marvel. (See for more information.)

    Miniature book display at the Meermanno museum.

    The Bibliotheca Thurkowiana Minor miniature library at the Meermanno museum.

    Pages of The Young Stork’s Baedeker, a miniature printed by The Catharijne Press.

    (All photos by the author, courtesy of Museum Meermanno, The Hague, NL)

    The current exhibition The Book Inside runs until May 29, 2016. Further information on exhibits, events, and museum collections can be found on their website: This is a must-see museum for anyone involved with the art of the book, and I would strongly recommend contacting the museum before visiting so that special holdings can be viewed!

  • 01 May 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

    For my blog posts in May, I will be featuring two unusual museums which focus on different aspects of the art of the book. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is an intimate, light filled space located across from the Hampshire College campus in Amherst, MA whose mission is to inspire a love of art and reading through picture books.

    It is a museum that invites interaction and exploration of the elements of picture book art with energy, engagement and excitement. This is achieved by including much more than just the final polished, framed artwork which are reproduced in the books. The visitor’s experience is more of an immersion into the artist’s creative process and a window into their practice in shaping the book experience.

    Over the last few years, I have seen some very inspiring exhibits of picture book artists, including Leo Lionni, Eric Carle, Uri Shulevitz, Leonard Weisgard and William Pene du Bois. Besides featuring the original artwork used for their picture books, the exhibits also may include storyboards, sketches and different versions of pages by the artist revealing aspects of the development of the book as a whole. One is able to gain some insight into how the artist worked through the flow of images, the composition and interaction of text and image, and the building of page spreads for some of the books. I have also seen color separations (acetate layers), color testing and revisions, and sheets with printing instructions which shed light on the complexities of the process of developing and finalizing the art of the picture book. Some examples from the current exhibitions are shown below.

    Final illustrations for “WHAM! The dogcatcher’s wagon upset a wheelbarrow where two men were building a house.” And “SMASH! The dogcatcher’s wagon ran into a junk dealer’s cart.”
    Down Huckleberry Hill by Leonard Weisgard.

    Final illustration for “Father played his recorder for her.”
    The Sick Day by Patricia MacLachlan. Illustration by William Pène du Bois.

    Final illustration for “What big teeth you have…”
    Little Red Riding Hood by William Pène du Bois.

    (All photos by the author, courtesy of The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, MA.)

    One of the galleries usually has an in-depth exhibit on Eric Carle’s early work and the development of his signature style and mixed media/collage techniques that are now so familiar from The Hungry Caterpillar and his many other works.

    The Carle museum offers educational programs that provide a foundation for arts integration and literacy. It houses an art studio (which has a full shelf of resources for book art related projects for all ages), a theater, picture book and scholarly libraries (with a full collection of Caldecott winners), and educational programs for families, scholars, educators, and schoolchildren. They also offer professional training for educators around the country and four onsite graduate programs in Children's Literature in collaboration with Simmons College (see for more information.)

    Exhibitions in May include:

    A Taste for Adventure: The Art of William Pène du Bois ends May 1, 2016

    Magician of the Modern: The Art of Leonard Weisgard exhibit continues through June 5, 2016.

    The Art of Eric Carle: Hide and Seek exhibit continues through August 28, 2016.

    Louis Darling: Drawing the Words of Beverley Cleary is showing from May 17- June 5, 2016.

    Additional information on the exhibitions, programs, events and educational workshops can be found at the museum website

  • 15 Apr 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

    I have long been familiar with the work of German artist Anselm Kiefer in terms of his large scale paintings and mixed media work with themes rooted in German history, myth and culture, including confronting the cultural impact of the Third Reich. But I was surprised to see his sculptural work which directly centers on the form of the book and its expansive terrain of symbolism, which I experienced at The Margulies Collection in Florida. A bit of internet research quickly yielded a significant body of work focused on the book which has an important place in the book arts domain.

    As opposed to William Kentridge, whose artist’s books leverage the intimacy and the potential for personal interaction of the book, Kiefer works with the book form on a monumental and more abstracted level. “Derived from his interest in mythology, history, and knowledge, Kiefer often uses books as subject matter representing knowledge and civilization. Similarly, he frequently incorporates text into his paintings, including excerpts from poems, novels, and nationalist slogans as well as names of seminal figures, written in a scrawling script.” (

    His creation of monumental books with pages of lead, an element noted for both its toxicity and for its alchemical purposes, are central elements for a number of large scale works, including two at the Margulies Collection, shown below. “The ideology of alchemy is the hastening of time, as in the lead-silver-gold cycle which needed only time in order to transform lead into gold. In the past the alchemist sped up this process with magical means. That was called magic. As an artist I don’t do anything differently, I only accelerate the transformation that is already present in things. That is magic as I understand it.” (Anselm Kiefer, quoted in the Margulies Collection exhibit.)

    Sprache du Vogel (or Language of the Birds) has a stack of large book forms made of lead as the central body attached to enormous, expansive wings. The book as the symbol of transformational knowledge, enlightenment and an internal freedom emanates from the presence of this work.

    Die Erdzeitalter (or Ages of the World) is another monumental work with a stack of Kiefer’s abandoned canvases interspersed with sunflower stalk sculptural pieces and large books made entirely of lead. The book form here appears to relate more to processes of learning and understanding: books as repositories of knowledge and touchstones for greater personal development, as catalysts of transformation.

    Sprache du Vogel 
    (The Language of Birds) (image by the author)

    Die Erzeitalter (image from

    Die Erzeitalter (The Ages of the World) (image by the author)

    Other major works which incorporate large scale sculptural books include Breaking of the Vessels (see; The High Priestess/Zwiestromland (see; Buch (The Secret Life of Plants) (see

  • 01 Apr 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

    For my two blog posts this month, I want to present information, comment and images on two artists who are well known for their work in other media but have also produced significant work in book arts domain.

    William Kentridge is a South African artist best known for his static and animated drawing (stop motion films), sculpture, printmaking, and the use of all these in his stunning Metropolitan Opera productions (including sets and costumes) of Stravinsky’s The Nose and Berg’s Lulu. He has also produced a number of artist’s books including Lexicon, No It Is, Trace (discussed below) as well as Second Hand Reading and The Refusal of Time.

    Lexicon is virtually a facsimile of an 1825 Latin-Greek Lexicon apparently used by his father during college (we see his father’s name penciled onto the title page). The page spreads are the background for rough charcoal sketching which transforms from a coffee pot into a cat and more. This rigorous, academic reference book becomes a rough, playful and conceptual flip book. The intimate space and interaction possibilities characteristic of the book form are employed here to connect thought processes and concepts across distant points in time.

    Lexicon by William Kentridge, Photo by Ruth Bardenstein

    No It Is also incorporates antiquarian books, but in this case Kentridge selects pages from a variety of technical books and places them in thought provoking pairings on each page spread. The drawings on top of these pages range from static to animated, abstract geometric to playful figurative, black and white to color, and text to image. Again, the book form is critical in allowing intimate interaction/exploration of the background print and the drawing on each page and page spread. It also allows a flip book dynamic, oppositional page spread dynamic, and the creation of perception and meaning from absorbing the book as a whole.

    No It Is by William Kentridge, Photos by Ruth Bardenstein

    Trace is actually an exhibition catalog of prints at the MOMA which Kentridge directly responds to by drawing, printing and writing on translucent pages which serve as overlays to both recto and verso sides of a number of the pages. The book format allows for this conversation between past work and present thought and for participation by the viewer in creating different layering of the translucent and opaque pages. The result is an engaging and dynamic layering of meaning and response; one feels a part of Kentridge’s dialogue with his own work and his mind at play.

    Trace by William Kentridge, Photos by Ruth Bardenstein

    Other links that provide more in-depth information on Kentridge, his studio practice and work:

    Kentridge gave the 2012 Norton Lectures at Harvard where he very personally and brilliantly discusses (and shows in various video pieces) studio practice and the development of his art and themes.;;;;

    For a probing discussion with Kentridge of his underlying themes and concept development, see “that which is not drawn” by William Kentridge and Rosalind Morris. (

  • 15 Mar 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

    In Spring 2005, Johanna Drucker published an article entitled “Critical Issues/Exemplary Works” in the journal The Bone Folder. In The Journal of Artists’ Books, Fall 2007, Matthew Brown wrote “Book Arts and the Desire for Theory” (JAB22) for a review of the conference “Action/Interaction” held at Columbia College Chicago. CBAA was founded in 2008 in part to promote scholarship and criticism in the field. Levi Sherman recently posted in this blog promoting what he calls ‘Book Thinking’ (“artists’ books as discourse…considering formal qualities like structure and sequence within social contexts like literacy and book culture”) within the field and as a means for considering other disciplines (giving back). A stated goal for this blog is to “call attention to current criticism and theory about the artist’s book.”

    “We don’t have a canon of artists, we don’t have a critical terminology for book arts aesthetics with a historical perspective, and we don’t have a good, specific, descriptive vocabulary on which to form our assessment of book works,” Johanna Drucker wrote in 2005. In this context, she described her proposal for a meta-data base to serve as a resource for descriptive and critical data on artists’ book work. Soon after, Drucker launched Artists' Books Online based on developed descriptors and critical terminology. Matthew Brown wrote, “In the arts and humanities over the last thirty years, theory has done the work of challenging conceptions of aesthetic value, artistic production, and meaning-making…[T]heory has also had a salient institutional role: its vocabulary has given humanists a set of principles that help them speak across disciplinary divides. It is hardly a voice of unanimity. Instead, it is a shared language to maintain a conversation, enrich the debate, and deepen one’s learning.” Drucker and Brown are both asking for a part of a framework in which to do critical work on book art.

    Levi Sherman suggests that the book arts have built both criticism and scholarship that could be framed through what he is calling Book Thinking. What has evolved over the last ten years that allows for the optimism Sherman projects, suggesting that what both Brown and Drucker sought has gained a foothold?

    Crawling, with trepidation, out on that limb, I’ll suggest that the field is maturing. It is defining itself with greater clarity and expanding its range. It interacts more fluidly with other disciplines particularly as discipline specific art making continues to break down. This is evident in work being shown in both gallery settings and book fairs. The ‘zones of activity’ Drucker defines are discernable but with a merging, a talking to each other. For example, fine press work of imagination and visual acuity has expanded radically the work we see coming from that medium. This is evident in the interviews and writing that saturate our small dot of activity on the Internet (also oozing beyond our borders here and there). The ‘canon of artists’ is also here to be studied and mined; book art is becoming generations, not a generation.

    What is still lacking is some kind of accounting, a pulling together…the work that has been and is being done to build that ‘critical terminology’ and ‘descriptive vocabulary’ with ‘conceptions of aesthetic value, artistic production, and meaning-making’ in the book arts. Perhaps this is a time to take advantage of an accessible (practically), collaborative, and also challenging (“enriching the debate”) venue in which to rejuvenate (dig up) and solidify (document) this ongoing concern.

  • 01 Mar 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

    “The poetry of erasure is taking place all around us. Underneath the pavement, behind newspaper headlines, on paste-layered billboards and graffiti-laden walls… continuously peeling away and papering over itself. Its very surface is a living thing in flux between the dueling processes of decay and renewal…This world demands of its denizens a constant and vigilant revision of form.” Travis MacDonald

    Erasure crosses and mixes disciplines; emerges from impulses ranging from conceptual systematic experimentation to political inquiry to a destructive act to a conversation between an original work and its ‘renewal.’ Created by painters, prose writers, poets, book artists, and those artists who defy disciplinary labels, erasure can harmonize with an original or create a dissonance. As with any artistic genre or endeavor there are both successful works that resonate and burrow deep, and those that flounder, never penetrating the surface. Scraping or painting or cutting, a palimpsest is formed for the reader to decipher, to search through layers for meaning.

    In the last decade, erasure as a poetic form has rapidly gained momentum. The intersection with an aspect of the book arts—the object (or not object) and materials that make up that object—manifests in a consideration of material and form taking on greater significance. It gets more interesting in light of the wide range of production methods being employed as well as conceptual motives: one-of-kind, serials, digitally produced, originals reproduced and reconfigured before erasure, born and raised digitally, to name a few. Poetic and visual considerations are found in erasures by artists as distinct as Robert Rauschenberg, Amelia Bird, Jen Bervin, and Tom Phillips.

    Criticism that addresses this form from the varied perspectives of painting, writing and the book arts offers a rich means for assessing the work both historically and in this contemporary moment. Travis MacDonald in A Brief History of Erasure Poets provides a context that places erasures in a lineage including Oulipo, Language Poetry, book artists and current practice. He uses specific artists to elucidate varied approaches to the relationship the ‘eraser’ creates with the original work.

    On Erasure by Mary Ruefle, provides a personal perspective on the rigor involved and how erasure can be approached. She creates both one-of-a-kind and digitally reproduced editions. Andrew David King interviews six contemporary poets: Srikanth Reddy, Matthea Harvey, Janet Holmes, M. NourbeSe Philip, David Dodd Lee, and Travis MacDonald, “questioning practical and theoretical concerns surrounding erasure as a technique.”

    Poets Genevieve Kaplan and Mary Hickman both situate erasure poetry within a book art framework, contrasting the perspective MacDonald takes in allying it primarily with conceptual poetry of the 1960s. “While poetic appropriated books may not always be artists' books per se, it is helpful to use the contemporary artists' book as a lens to better understand these new texts,” Genevieve Kaplan writes. She digs into contrasting methods that address the physical form and means of erasing in the work of Jen Bervin, Mary Ruefle, and Erica Baum.

    Mary Hickman also uses Jen Bervin and Mary Ruefle’s works to situate the work within the context of book art. “I suggest we also view erasure poetics in the context of the material substrate of the book as object, a view which allows for a richer understanding of both compositional process and conceptual or creative effect.”

    Two last bits to offer up from a broader perspective encompassing painting and photographic manipulations are The Eloquence of Absence and Brian Dillon’s The Revelation of Erasure. The two essays consider erasure from perspectives such as censorship and deceit and include photography, painting, and text-based works.

    When we take a step sideways, address materials, ideas, critical approaches and theories that intersect our own activities and practices, but are often positioned in a sister discipline, it opens our thinking, poses new questions, asks us to move outside our own discipline in considering the book and why it is compelling to us as an artistic form. It can illuminate where we close our minds to other modes of thinking about the book, and what it means and represents when we move away from our own canon to consider it with our heads cocked to another side.

  • 15 Feb 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

    Two recent book art theory blog posts use the phrase “the artists’ book.” This may be awkward, but it has precedence. Stephan Klima in his Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature notes, “A most confusing aspect of the debate is the spelling of the term artists books. Its first appearance, in 1973, omitted the apostrophe. Thereafter, it appeared with the apostrophe, and sometimes without. Typographical error may explain certain cases; but there are unexplained mysteries” (10). Johanna Drucker speaks variously of “an artists’ book,” “artists’ books,” and “artists book.”

    The history of the possessive apostrophe is somewhat murky. It is “a grammatical anomaly, a vestigial case marker . . . in a noun system [modern English] that has otherwise dispensed with cases,” writes Elizabeth S. Sklar. Its origins clearly go back to the case sensitive Old English, but there isn’t full agreement on its history and well into the 18th century most grammarians ignored the genitive plural, even claiming there was no such thing (177-80).

    In the instance of the artist’ book, I wonder if the apostrophe inconsistency stems from confusion inherent in the concept of the artist’s book itself. That the artist is the originator, the owner, if you will, of his or her artist’s book, is as significant as any other characteristic, if not more. Also, as Ulises Carrión’s “The New Art of Making Books” suggests, this is a new genre, unchartered territory with attendant lack of terminology.

    Ted Gachot, presently copyediting CBAA’s journal Openings, queried the use of the apostrophe in this context in an email to CBAA’s president Julie Chen. The real ambiguity, he explained, is whether the word “artist” refers to a person or persons responsible for the book, or simply describes a type of book. Here are excepts from his email:

    [T]he terms “artists’ books” and “artist’s book” create grammatical ambiguity because they are not formed in the way such terms are usually formed.

    A good example is “sailor suit.” The plural is “sailor suits.” “Sailor” in this case is an attributive (descriptive) noun. It remains the same no matter how many suits are being discussed.

    In “artists’ books” and “the artist’s book,” “artist” is still attributive (probably) but it is in the genitive case. When terms like this are formed in the genitive, the plural is normally formed the same way as with “sailor suit.” The plural of “farmers’ market” is “farmers’ markets.” “Artists’ books” is not the plural of “artist’s book.” They (when used in this sense) are . . . two ways of saying the same thing, of describing a type of book.

    But “artist” can also refer to an artist, and “artist’s book” to a book made by that artist. One can talk about a particular artist’s book (her book) or that artist’s books (her books), or if two artists have collaborated on a single book, the artists’ book (their book). If they’ve made more than one, they are the artists’ books (their books). “Book” or “books” in these kinds of clauses serves the same function as, and could be replaced with, “artist book” or “artist books.” You could even say an artist’s artists’ books (though it would be better not to).

    Unfortunately, neither “artists’ books” nor “artist’s book” has the internal logic that “farmers’ market” has. It seems a little funny to say “an artists’ book” if discussing one person’s book. It also seems a bit odd to say “an artist’s book” if the project is collaborative. That’s because the reader does not know whether to read the terms as referring to the artist or the book. [R]eplacing these terms with one formed with an attributive noun, like “sailor suit,” would clear up all these complications. There . . .[would be] none of the haziness that gets in with “artists’ books” and “artist’s books,” where it’s unclear whether they are descriptive or possessive or how to form the plural.

    Resistance to this may simply be the result of the field’s newness, of not being around long enough — certainly not as long as sailor suits, dog food, pig pens, and cat whiskers.

    Note: Works cited are easily found with the exception of the following, which can be accessed in JSTOR: Elizabeth S. Sklar, “The Possessive Apostrophe: the Development and Decline of a Crooked Mark,” College English (38.2) 1976.

  • 01 Feb 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

    As an American artist, I never considered what France’s Lang Law, or other fixed book price agreements (FBPAs), might mean for artists’ books. While the US adheres to its mythical free market, many countries fix book prices by law or agreement. In an interview for JAB37, Leszek Brogowski states, “In one of my definitions of the artist’s book, there’s the specific question of de-territorializing the practice of art in book culture which remains . . . a protected domain, with the fixed price of a book (a radical anti-free market policy) . . . that stands in contrast to art in its traditional forms.”

    FBPAs have many interesting implications for artists’ books, but I will focus on two. The first is a matter of context: the meaning of any artists’ book is affected by its location (and that of its creator and reader) within a free market or a fixed market. Brogowski argues, “We must fight for the definition of a book, to make it understood that a book doesn’t simply boil down to a form. It’s much more than a form: it’s a usage and culture.” Not only can a book acquire new meanings in different contexts, these various meanings impact the formal and conceptual concerns of artists in countries with and without FBPAs, resulting in divergent artists’ book outputs.

    The second implication of FBPAs has less to do with a book’s meaning, but much to say about its categorization. FBPAs increase diversity among books and booksellers by preventing big distributors from discounting best-sellers to undercut more challenging or specialized books. Increased diversity would seem an obvious aid to artists’ books, yet only artists’ books competing within the book market (rather than the art market) stand to benefit. This distinction bolsters the argument that these artists’ books are truly books, since they are valued and produced according to the book market, whether fixed or free.

    Contrast this to limited edition works with the formal characteristics of a book, yet belong to the art market. Circulating outside the book market, the influence such rarified works can exert on the publishing world is limited. Artists and distributors who engage the book market directly can challenge and steer the broader definition of literacy and the book. Separating works impacted by the book market from those beyond its reach, FBPAs make an interesting (though reductive) thought experiment, a litmus test of book-ness.

    My intention is not to lump artists’ book into two camps, but to help clarify the meaning of what Brogowski calls “making art according to the customs of book culture.” He asks: “why should a work of art be materially unique when it can be multiple, like a literary work? . . . Why should the originality of a plastic work be judged against its non-reproducibility, while a literary work is judged by its intellectual and artistic values?” FBPAs should remind book artists that they can participate in and shape a cultural arena that many governments deem too important to be left to the free market.

    Further Reading

    Blache, Catherine. "Why Fixed Book Price Is Essential for Real Competition." International Publishers Association. International Publishers Association, 19 March 2015. Web. 16 Jan. 2016.

    Brogowski, Leszek. Interview by Hubert Renard. “What the Artist's Book Makes Us Rethink About Esthetic Theory.” Journal of Artists' Books. JAB37 2015: 9-14. Print.

    Nakayama, Moè. "For What It's Worth: Fixed Book Price in Foreign Book Markets." Publishing Trendsetter. Market Partners International and Publishing Trends, May 2015. Web. 16 Jan. 2016.

  • 15 Jan 2016 12:00 AM | Deleted user

    As book artists, we understand that books are more than just vessels for information. We read the books’ form, materials, texture, structure, interactivity, as well as written and visual information in search for concept, and not all communication is verbal. I am interested in ways of reading—contemplative reading of our sensory experience, our bodies, and our landscape—those things subtle and direct to achieve a better understanding of our surroundings. Books have the potential to directly communicate information, yet everything around us can be read, though it may take more time, patience, and contemplation. I want to bring attention to the quiet voices or even to the voiceless.

    By Alex Borgen, Photo by Kellen Walker

    How do we read paper? I want to bring attention to reading paper, as one might read a landscape or body, as we read artist books. Paper is not just a substrate—how do we demonstrate paper’s potential to tell stories, reveal concepts, and perform on a level of interactivity? How do we observe, read, and translate those landscapes with a much quieter, subtle voice? Answering these two questions is pivotal in my conceptual work as it relates to our experiences.

    By Alex Borgen, Photo by Penelope Hearne

  • 31 Dec 2015 9:00 PM | Deleted user

    Artists’ books are a slippery, interdisciplinary medium. Attempted definitions seem to fall into two general categories: genealogies and zones of intersection. The latter acknowledges how artists’ books can be understood by applying analytical tools from myriad disciplines including film, design, poetry, and so on. Though this may leave some purists, determined to define precisely what is and is not an artists’ book, dissatisfied, these related fields provide the theoretical and critical framework for artists’ books as a mature discipline. In turn, artists’ books today are capable of lending an analytical lens to other areas of study and practice.

    I wish to advocate for the idea of artists’ books as a way of thinking: Book Thinking. This is an easy leap for me, as someone who studied graphic design at a time when Design Thinking was already a pervasive cultural buzzword. Another design analogy is Katherine McCoy's influential essay, “Typography as Discourse,” which, following Foucault, understands discourse as a “[way] of constituting knowledge, together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations....” What can we gain from artists’ books as discourse, from considering formal qualities like structure and sequence within social contexts like literacy and book culture?

    I believe acknowledging Book Thinking would avoid two frequent and unproductive conversations within the artists’ book field. On one hand, purists rejecting a work: “But it’s not an artists’ book.” On the other hand, enthusiasts adopting everything: “Cave paintings are artists’ books” and “Facebook is an artists’ book.” The purists and enthusiasts make such claims until the definition of an artists’ book is either squashed or stretched to the point of meaninglessness. By acknowledging Book Thinking, enthusiasts can bring the analytical power of artists’ books to new frontiers without watering down the field, and purists can engage related works without knee-jerk defensiveness.

    The biggest benefits of Book Thinking lie beyond our own discipline. Philosopher Gary Tedman argues that Marx’s 1844 Paris Manuscripts is an artists’ book (though I would amend that it be understood through Book Thinking). Tedman cites Margaret Fay, who asserted that understanding the visual and structural eccentricities of Marx’s original hand-bound manuscript leads to a fundamentally different interpretation of Marx’s critiques of Adam Smith and G.W.F. Hegel. The manuscript embodies and clarifies the challenging concepts of immanent critique and dialectical thinking. In JAB38, Anne Royston similarly applies Book Thinking to Derrida's Glas in her intriguing essay, “The Fibrous Text.” Like Tedman, Royston helps readers access a difficult and unusual text. Such insights are no small feat for Book Thinking. Imagine if those of us with expertise in artists’ books pursued such studies more frequently.

    Having borrowed from so many influences, the artists’ books field is ready to give back. By embracing Book Thinking, we can move beyond unproductive self-definition and collaborate with other scholars and practitioners, whether to study cave painting or social media. In today's climate of budget cuts and lip service interdisciplinarity, it can hardly hurt to demonstrate what we have to offer.

    Works Cited

    Fay, Margaret. “The Influence of Adam Smith on Marx's Theory of Alienation” Science & Society: An Independent Journal of Marxism, Vol. XLVII, number 2, Summer 1983.

    Tedman, Gary. “Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts as a Work of Art; A Hypertextual Reinterpretation” Rethinking Marxism, Vol. 16, issue 4, Routledge, 2004.

    Weedon, C. (1987). Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

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