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Definition of the Artists Book (YES, again)

The following is an extract from the catalogue of "Artists Books -An
Exhibition at the Johannesburg Art Gallery from 25th August to 27th
October, 1996."  In view of the present attempt to define an artists
book, I thought it could become my tuppence worth.  Sorry about the

One cannot assume that the definition of a book, let alone an Artist's
Book, is understood by all, but indubitably the book arts have
infinitely expanded that definition.  The definition of a book (like the
Duchampian definition of art itself) can now mean any object which a
book artist defines as a book!  All the usual criteria have been
breached, infringed and transgressed.  The Oxford English Dictionary
(O.E.D.) entry for 'book' is surprisingly wide and not just, say, "a
repository of information, usually printed on paper and bound for ease
of use and portability".  Part of the long O.E.D. entry (running to over
seven pages) reads: [in brackets]

[3. gen. A written or printed treatise or series of treatises, occupying
several sheets of paper or other substance fastened together so as to
compose a material whole.
In this wide sense, referring to all ages and countries, a book
comprehends a treatise written on any material (skin, parchment,
papyrus, paper, cotton, silk, palm leaves, bark, tablets of wood, ivory,
slate, metal, etc) put together in any portable form, e.g. that of a
long roll, or of separate leaves, hinged, strung, stitched, or pasted
a. spec. (In reference to modern things.)  Such a treatise occupying
numerous sheets or leaves fastened together at one edge called the back,
so as to be opened at any particular place, the whole being protected by
binding or covers of some kind.  But, since either the form of the book
or its subject may be mainly or exclusively the object of attention,
this passes on either side into
b. The material article so made up, without regard to the nature of its
contents, even though its pages are occupied otherwise than with writing
or printing, or are entirely blank: e.g. "a handsome book", i.e. a
trophy of the binder's art, "a tiny book", one that may be put in the
waistcoat pocket.
c. A literary composition such as would occupy one or more volumes,
without regard to the material form or forms in which it actually
exists, 'an intellectual composition, in prose or verse, at least of
sufficient extent to make one volume'.  It is not now usual to call a
(modern) literary composition in manuscript a 'book' unless we think of
its printing as a thing to follow in due course.  In sense b every
volume is a 'book'; whilst in sense c one 'book' may occupy several
volumes; and on the other hand one large volume may contain several
'books', i.e. literary works originally published in distinct books.  No
absolute definition of a 'book' in this sense can be given: in general a
short literary composition (especially if ephemeral in character, and
therefore also in form) receives some other name, as tract, pamphlet,
sketch, essay etc.]

>From the above it is apparent that many of the controversies exercising
the minds of book artists today were considered, although from a
different aspect, by James Murray in the last century when he wrote the
entry for 'book'.  Two interesting historical quotes, at about the time
when the entry for book was being written, are:
[1884. J.A.H. Murray  in 13th Addr. Philol. Soc 22.  I do not know what
a book is.  Was Shakspere the author or one book or forty-four books?
1886. Boston Literary World 1 May 150/1.  The first matter was to settle
the seemingly easy but really difficult question, What is a book?  This
they solved by defining it as 'a literary work substantial in amount and
homogenous in character'.]

The most interesting aspect of the O.E.D. definition is the fact that
the concept of a book has always been ambiguous, with such comments as
"without regard to the material forms in which it actually exists"
(perhaps a reference to shape or sculpture!) and "No absolute definition
of a 'book' in this sense can be given, even though its pages are
occupied otherwise than with writing or printing, or are entirely
blank".  While the definition of Artists' Books is still one of some
controversy, when the movement developed in the 1960's and 1970's, an
Artist's Book was then thought of as a unique object made by an artist
in the book format.  This definition has been extended to include
editioned books (i.e. not unique and usually using a graphic process for
duplication) with the principle criteria being the artist's input and
individuality.  David Blamey states: "Sometimes found in bookstores and
sometimes found in art galleries, the bookwork does not rest easily in
either camp but is nonetheless now widely recognised as an important and
valid form of creative expression.  The dichotomy is further fuelled by
book artists themselves, who subvert the conventions of both worlds by
packaging highly personal or complicated ideas in the form of a popular

Jack M. Ginsberg
25A Talton Road, 2193 Forest Town
Johannesburg, South Africa
E-mail: jackg@cjpetrow.co.za

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