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Artists' Books vs. Book Art
- To: BOOK_ARTS-L@LISTSERV.SYR.EDU
- Subject: Artists' Books vs. Book Art
- From: Richard Minsky <minsky@MINSKY.COM>
- Date: Sat, 14 Mar 1998 18:52:28 -0500
- Message-Id: <199803142337.PAA26366@SUL-Server-2.Stanford.EDU>
- Sender: "Book_Arts-L: The list for all the book arts!" <BOOK_ARTS-L@LISTSERV.SYR.EDU>
>AND, if you can bind a book excellently, using archival materials, but choose
to make one from barbed wire and old tires? Do you still get flamed on the
I'm the guy who made the binding with barbed wire, as well as the one with
live explosives and a timer. That was many years after doing the inlaid
leather gold tooled bindings (which, by the way, I still make, because I
love the materials and the process), and the repairs of the 15th & 16th c.
bindings. I don't often get flamed on THIS list, but I have had similar
experiences to Yehuda, starting with the art museum and the craft museum in
New York in the mid 70's, before book arts were two words used adjacently,
and which despite the supposed advances in our field does still happen.
I relate to Jack Thompson's use of "mechanic," though he's a much better
mechanic than I. The European system of exclusion and specialization, as he
so aptly points out, is quite different from American generalism, which I
also advocate and practise. The European system ordained three people to
bind a book-- the designer, forwarder, and finisher. People talk about Paul
Bonet bindings, but I've never seen one. I've seen many that he designed,
but which were bound by someone else and tooled by a third person. Of
course, that system has changed even in Europe during the last couple of
decades, and there are English and French binders who now follow the
American system, as exemplified by such luminaries as Mary Reynolds. I have
seen work by contemporary British "Designer Bookbinders" which is almost
identical to Reynolds' bindings of over 50 years ago.
In the 70's there were many discussions about the Art/Craft Connection- is
it Art or is it Craft?- in _Craft Horizons_ Magazine. If anyone cares I
could probably find the citations. The panel generally consisted of myself,
Dale Chihuly, John Kelsey, Pete Voulkos, and a few others. Rose Slivka was
the Editor-in-Chief of that magazine for 25 years. Some of the younger folks
on this list may not remember it, as when Rose left it they changed the
format into a gallery-type glossy called _American Craft_. I recommend that
those who are serious about the content of this thread go back and read or
reread what was said, even though it was 20 or 25 years ago.
Just because I wrap a cover in electrical tape with batteries, wires and
fireworks or do something else weird which communicates the metaphor of the
contents, and it doesn't look like what anyone ever thought of as
bookbinding, doesn't mean I haven't paid a lot of attention to every detail.
If it's supposed to look like it was made by a mad scientist, then it can't
have prissy structure.
And while I'm ranting, remember that a lot of books which are "fine
bindings" have to be treated as "precious delicate objects" even though they
have no pretense to being Art, but are proud to be well designed craft
objects. Certain French bindings in particlar can't be opened without
destroying them, because of overlined spines and other construction
peculiarities required for their visual appearance. Do they then become
"livres sculpture" because you can't get to the pages?
I never did like the term "artists' books" being applied to anything other
than Visual Literature. If I want to see Artists' Books I go to the Printed
Matter Bookstore (now at DIA), or to the Franklin Furnace Archive (now at
MOMA). Mostly this means books by artists in which the content is visual or
conceptual, usually in traditional commercial format (paperback, hardbound,
spiral, wire-o, accordion, etc.). Some of these become "Book Art" objects as
well, by using structure or materials which cause the physical presence of
the book to be an integral part of the work. I further define things as
"Structural Bookworks," "Livres Sculpture (or Book Objects, or Sculptural
Bookworks)", "Typographic", "Fine Printing" (which includes all printing
processes done finely, not just letterpress), and "Bookbinding."
I prefer the term "Book Arts" for the overall field which includes all these
subcategories (and many others, such as Papermaking, Calligraphy, Matrix and
Punch Cutting, Marbling, Book Repair and Restoration, Illustration, Page
But as far as whether it's Art or not, I don't think it matters except for
those of us who need to make certain decisions for curatorial, collecting,
literary, or creative purposes. These sort of decisions, as others have
pointed out, are transitory, and we can safely say that in a hundred years
or five hundred years, if any of this stuff is still around and someone sees
it, they will have their own opinions. The important thing to us now as
artists is that we continue to produce whatever it is that we feel
represents ourselves and our culture.
And if "Artists' Book" is a statement of result, in that it's a book by an
artist, I'd rather stake my claim as a "Book Artist," which is a statement
of intent: that the Book is my medium of Art. I don't make "artist's books."
I make "Book Art," in the sense that others make painting or sculpture. It's
important that the sophisticated viewer of my work bring with them the
history of the book, from the use of caves to preserve human marks to the
use of electronic media, in the same way that a sophisticated viewer of
paintings brings with them the history of painting, from the same caves,
through the walls of Egypt and the Chapels of Italy, through the Whitney
Biennial and Documenta. Much in a painting comments on what has gone before.
Throwing paint on the wall may be such a comment. Certainly rolling nude
girls covered in paint on a canvas was. And Andy Warhol. The same is true in
Book Art. Of course you'll find a lot of artists entering any field who
don't know the history, and only bring their personal experience to the
table. Sometimes that produces something that we all can learn from. If I
see one new thing in a work I'm happy. Most of what I see is redundant.
It's like the difference between have a non-profit organization, which is
any business that loses money, or a not-for-profit organization, where the
statement is that it is not the INTENT of the business to have profit as its
goal. More specifically, a not-for-profit corporation has no shareholdeers
and no distributed profits. When I founded the Center for Book Arts in 1974
as a not-for-profit corporation, it was with the intent of establishing a
focus on Book Art, and it was in large part because I had faced the same
sort of chauvinism in art and craft institutions as Yehuda faced in Canada.
And it worked! Artists and craftspeople came together and met, exchanged
ideas, learned from each other, absorbed each others' methodologies,
collaborated with each other. Strange book art objects inspired bookbinders.
Craft structures and materials inspired artists. People came from all over
the country, and from other countries, and went home and established their
own versions of the organization, with classes, workshops and exhibitions. I
doubt that there are very many people on this list who haven't been to one
of these organizations, as a visitor to an exhibit, a student, an exhibiting
or studio artist, a teacher, or as a collector acquiring work for themself
or an institution.
What we have in Book Art that is different from Artists' Books is that
BOOK ART is a MOVEMENT. Like Impressionism or Futurism, only without the
"ism." Maybe we don't have a manifesto, or maybe we do. I'd coose Ulises
Carrion's 'The New Art of Making Books." as a good choice in the Manifesto
My dream is that someday Judith Hoffberg and I would have the time to write
a Book Art History. Judith has what may be the best sense of who's who and
who's done what when. There are a few histories of Artists' Books, the main
two being those by Joan Lyons and Johanna Drucker, but neither one includes
Book Art and both have very particular points of view. Betty Bright was
working on something for several years, but I haven't heard about it for
quite a while. Hopefully that will soon be added to the literature.
It astounds me that anybody discussing the story of this movement could omit
Barton Lidice Benes, Stella Waitzkin, or Marty Greenbaum. Yet hundreds of
artists whose work is directly descended from their seminal creations have
never heard of them! Hundreds more use Hedi Kyle's structures without
knowing who she is. Someday we'll have to sort this all out.
I could go on ranting all night, but I have to cook dinner.