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[BKARTS] WOID #XIII-18. Round hole in a square peg



I)
The art of the book may have entered its Epoch of Concentration
without a preceding Epoch of Expansion, judging from Johanna Drucker's
recent article, "Critical Issues / Exemplary Works:"
http://www.philobiblon.com/bonefolder/BonefolderVol1no2.pdf

Drucker, an established authority on the book arts and Director of
Media Studies at the University of Virginia, wraps her capacious brain
around the problem of defining what the book arts have been, and what
they should be. This is a common critical tactic, and two-fold: in
part the creation of a conceptual category, in part an incitement to
create artworks equal to the conceptual categories our critic has laid
out to begin with.

According to Matthew Arnold's handy-dandy heuristics, in an Epoch of
Expansion we invent and enrich the productions of culture. In an Epoch
of Concentration those products are refined, in criticism as in
practice. But Drucker, who is a book-artist herself, seems indifferent
to the first approach. It's as if all the components of the book-arts
were already at hand for her: "fine press, small press, livre
d'artiste, conceptual work, catalogues, albums, calligraphic work,
visual narratives, graphic novels, visual poverty, unique books,
process works, book-like objects, and so on."

II)
Hey, wait! All of these components are at hand for us already! At the
margins of most of the manifold forms of the book arts you'll find
traditional and commercial binders, graphic designers, typographers
and the like, each one ready to point out that the so-called artist
has only recycled age-old craft and design practices: fine press,
small press, etc. And that the imputed originality of the book arts
is, more often than not, supremely unoriginal in terms of technique.

Drucker's thought of that already. Or rather, she's recycled a common
answer. She suggests the art of the book is to the craft of the book
as Art is to Craft, or Design: craft is all mechanical technique while
art is the same, plus content, "the intersection of conceptual issues
and production values." Production values, then, are the tried-and-
tried, but it's the conceptual issues that generate art, even to the
extent of modifying production values. So technical issues have their
place in the book arts as in graphic design; in art they're only half
the game.

III)
The avant-garde of the late nineteenth century argued that an artist
was no longer someone who matched content on one side of the painting
to "meaning" on the other, it was someone who understood that content
modified meaning. This is very much where Drucker begins. It's also
where the whole concept of the "book beautiful" began. Unfortunately
that's where Drucker ends, and where most of the book arts end up as
well.

Because (as a number of artists, craftspeople and designers began to
grasp at the beginning of the twentieth century) content and form are
interchangeable: if form is as likely to change content as content,
form, it's because content can, under proper or improper historical
circumstances, become form. Now you can save yourself five dollars on
your next inflight movie, because mainstream movies, being nothing
but "production values," already include their own content as form:
you don't need to know what the actors are saying. Most of the time
you don't even need to see the movie, any more than you need to read a
poem in the New Yorker to know it's about being a New Yorker poem.

And that's an inescapable issue with most contemporary artists' books:
the majority aren't about anything, they merely illustrate the idea of
what an artists' book is supposed to be, just as an ad for soap
illustrates Essential Soapitude. That's why Drucker feels entitled to
end her article with a long, procrustean list of appropriate
definitions of an artists' book - she calls it "protocols," a "meta-
base."

IV)
Depressing as that is (and patronizing), it's less interesting than
her reasons for setting up her Metawhateva. The point, she states, is
to create "an organized culture," a "critical field," a "hierarchy,"
a "canon" - in other terms what Bourdieu calls a "habitus:" a system
of behavior and belief that defines its performers as "art
historians," "graphic designers" or (in the present case) "book
artists."

A worthy goal, perhaps, but here an utter failure. There may be a
field for book arts, but there's no habitus, and perhaps there never
will be. And I've lost track of the number of artists, critics,
dealers, collectors who've moved on, not because the field "suffers
from being under-theorized, under-historicized, under-studied and
under-discussed," as Drucker puts it, but because there is no cogent
area of performance marked off from other areas like the fine arts,
galleries, libraries, schools, printmaking workshops and so forth. The
field of book arts consists of a lot of people who happen to write, or
think, or produce of sell books as a subset of the same activity in
art, or graphic design, or librarianship, book-selling, you name it.
If Outsider Art is an art that depends for its definition on a self-
proclaimed Insider, then the book arts are its mirror image: they
exist, if that, only in the self-definition of a few practitioners.

V)
That's not incidental to the book arts, it's woven into their social
and formal structure: the parts of a fractured whole that cannot be
reunited, or rather, a whole whose logical purpose is in its fracture,
a frozen dialectic, the symbolic re-enactment by the artist of a
breach between productive and alienated labor (as in graphic design)
and unalienated, unproductive labor, as in Art. This is the case
consistently throughout the history of book arts, from Futurist
typography (the Fascist solution) to Russian Zaumniks (the Social-
Democratic solution), to the earliest attempts to introduce the book
arts to America, which were closely connected to movements for social
improvement.

There are only three possible answers to the problem of defining the
book arts: "Book;" "Art;" or "Change all that forces you to decide."
Your choice.


Paul Werner
http://theorangepress.com

WOID: a journal of visual language

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