artist's book

Undefining the Book Art Field

The word-of-the-day is movement.

Not a ground-shattering word, but one the book art field might benefit from employing more liberally.  I’ve recently returned from a stimulating four days at the New York Contemporary Artists’ Books Conference/New York Art Book Fair, where I had my eyes opened to a lot of interesting works and ideas, many of which differed significantly from the manner in which I work and think about books.  It was delightfully refreshing.

I wonder, however, at the persistent desire (in evidence at the conference) to define the totality of book art by a mere slice of the field. This happens both explicitly as well as implicitly.  It is easy to spot the explicit definitional statements that some people seem compelled to employ (and there is at least something to be said for the candor of such explicitness), but even more pervasive are the implicit assumptions that underlie much of the field’s discourse—discourse framed by an obliviousness to the very idea that not everyone shares one’s selfsame perspective. Take, for instance, the impetus to create inexpensive, easily distributed books—the democratic multiple.  Why is it that so many artists and publishers talk about that motivation as a given that is universally shared among book artists, rather than as a particular approach that they themselves happen to have embraced?

To put it another way, why, as a field, are we so resistant to the idea of eras and/or movements within our medium? If I were a painter I could go to the Met and look at medieval paintings and I could go to MoMA and see conceptual paintings, but would I then try to assert that this one is not painting because the painter’s approach and interests differ from mine?  So why is it so common to display a need to define away much of the activity in the book art field?  To not be satisfied with saying “this is my slice within a greater whole.” Even our conferences tend to divide along these lines with relatively homogenous programs and points of view.  Having been to the Wellesley conference and this New York conference, each were so good in their own way, but you’d think I was on two different planets.

Context is a such a useful thing, and there is a certain degree of honesty that comes with framing one’s remarks with phrases like “I believe” and “from my perspective” instead of implying one’s ideas are universal with “artists’ books are” or “we all want to…”  At some level this is a rhetorical issue, but rhetoric is powerful.  And not only that, it can be quite revealing of ones prejudices.

I have to admit to something that will likely be heresy to some. Ed Ruscha’s books do not rock my world.  I understand how and why they were significant, but they are of an era and of a type and I am of a different era and a different type. As such, I feel no need to reject them but neither do I embrace them as fundamentally definitional. They may have defined a movement but they do not define a field.   I find them interesting for what they are (and were) and I learn from that, but I also learn a lot (probably even more) from books that are quite different, such as the William Kentridge I just bought at the NY Art Book Fair (I’ll have to write later on the books I bought and saw…). And then look at something like Oliver Byrne’s Euclid from which there is so much to be gained but which makes irrelevant the importance of declaring whether it falls in or out of those carefully drawn definitional boundaries.

In my talk at this NY Contemporary Artist’s Book conference I characterized the field as an archipelago full of islands that don’t interact.  I’ve had more people come up to me and try to convince me of the virtues and exclusivity of their island.  I’d rather fashion myself as a traveler – set out in some ships and establish some trade routes.  Exploration seems to me to be such an excellent means to innovation and devleopment.  I know this sounds a little too much like a  “can’t we all just get along” speech. I’m not sure I’m asking for everyone to get along.  I just think we should acknowledge each other and forgo the partisan rhetoric.