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Writing > Essays

Re-Reading the Boundless Book

When I first started writing about books I was intrigued by being part of a thoughtful conversation: examining books by artists, reflecting on their ideas, and representing them to a new audience with other ideas. But it was difficult to decide what part of me would be doing the talking in this conversation. As an artist, I consider my role to be a provocateur, to engage the viewer visually and intellectually.

As a teacher my role is similar, to challenge students to see and think and act, first for themselves, and then in order to address their own viewers. As a writer, it seemed less clear what form of address I should take: challenging, predicting, evaluating? When I started writing reviews for the Women’s Studio Workshop in New York, I looked to the teaching model as a way to discuss the work in a critically supportive manner. It is as a teacher that I learned how to select a territory, open it up, and guide the students through it. A critical writer can do the same for the reader.

A teacher is also an evaluator of both projects and progress. This is a difficult and subjective process. Whether critiquing class assignments or reviewing artists’ books, comments should be made not to close off possibilities, but to encourage growth. And it is the teacher who knows that it’s critical to ask questions, when there may not be answers; to bring up issues to see what discoveries are made in the ensuing conversation.

So it is from this perspective that I will address some issues of critical writing for the book arts, in order to open up the territory and see where we go.

Artists make books for an infinite number of reasons about an infinite number of subjects. Some call themselves book artists, or visual artists or concrete poets, but the common meeting place is the book. And each artist sees the “book” in a different way, as the variety of works in this exhibition [Art & Language: Re-Reading the Boundless Book] can attest to. With all these variables, the idea of developing a cogent critical discourse seems daunting.

Books can be looked at as a specific discipline with a history that includes cuneiform on clay protobooks, and a future that includes interactive cybertexts. Within the specific discipline, the book is defined by book arts centers such as this one, artists’ presses, book collectors and scholars. But cut free from this sympathetic atmosphere, books are often looked at as a peculiar art form that is not quite like anything else—not quite like books from the regular bookstore, not quite like the art in regular galleries.

When they do make it into museum exhibitions, artists’ books are often relegated to the library, away from the normal viewing traffic patterns, and usually subject to shorter hours than the rest of the museum. Reviews might show up in Artpapers from Atlanta, or in the Northwest Review. Although the mast-head of Afterimage lists “photography/independent film/visual books” as its subjects, the visual books they review seem to be limited to those with photographs accompanying text.

Talking the Boundless Book: Art, Language, & the Book Arts
Editor, Charles Alexander. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Center for Book Arts, 1995.
First presented as a lecture at MCBA for a conference by the same title, 1994.