I got flamed
- Below is an exchange on the Book Arts List_Serv, which is the largest email
group devoted to book arts in the country (around 2,000 subscribers I
believe). It took me awhile to screw up the courage to answer Lisa since I
know my position is way at one end of the spectrum. Nonetheless, I was a
bit taken aback by what I got from Mr. Andrews.
This is not the whole of the conversation with Lisa - there were thoughtful
replies. But I am always amazed at the way the anonymity of email releases
lack in civility in people who would never be that way if they met you.
I like to think my position of openness is part of what is happening in this
country right now, and that we are heralding in a time when more people feel
a place at the table, whatever table it is.
In my next email, I am going to send on an article on Communities of Artists
I wrote for Hand Papermaking magazine. We are a perfect example of the
strength of those communities.
New to book arts, aside from a course taken last semester. Recently, I've
been working on a book idea. When I finished with the mock-up, I noticed I
had deconstructed the form of the book and it seems more like a sculpture.
Now I've been attempting to pull the piece back into a "book" form. Am I
So my question is: what defines a book as opposed to a sculpture? Is it
text or is it the original intent? Any opinions would be much-valued.
I have a set of books in a book arts show that are called "The Censor's
Library." Each piece in the library is a trade book encased in a solid wrap
of high shrinkage hemp and abaca. The book inside is from the American
Library Association's list of books banned in America. It is a sculpture,
but also fits in the book arts world. And you can't turn pages or read
anything; you can't even tell if I am telling you the truth about the nature
of the books I have encased. It is a comment on contemporary life, in book
On this list-serv we have discussed the question of what makes a book a book
in many different ways, most exhaustively when Johanna Drucker published her
ideas in the Bonefolder. I appreciate lots of different opinions and have
my own, articulated at first by my friend Elena Siff: "It is a book if you
say it is a book."
I am a populist. If you want to call something a book, go for it. Because
I want to include you if you want to be included, for any reason whatsoever.
But it only gets interesting after that: why? What makes it booky? What do
you want us to think when you include it in the field of book things?
I feel the same about people calling themselves book artists. You are if
you say you are. I'll let you in - but all the interesting questions come
after that. Where is your work? Does it interest you? Me? Is it good?
What do you want to do next? I extend the same openness to people who want
to call themselves homeschoolers, or artists, or whatever. Relax, you are
in. Now, what do you want me to know or see, about you or your work?
Many years ago I curated Judith Hoffburg's collection of artists' books; it
was 2,500 pieces by the time UCLA took it and put me out of a job. Every
day brought treasures in the mail and from her travels. There were things I
knew right away were books: they looked like what I had grown up with.
These I could put together by subject because their form was the same. But
what about a clear vinyl pillow with alphabet noodles rattling around inside
it? What category of book arts did that fit in? It was a comment on
bookness, with the letters constantly re-arranging themselves; and the
artist had sent it to Judith, so they meant it to be thought of in book
terms. Trying to categorize this piece is when I began to expand my
In Judith's collection there were a number of items that were book
sculptures: pieces of wood shaped like books, Styrofoam carved like a book,
things that were probably similar in kind if not in size to the granite book
John Cutrone mentions. To me, this was one big happy family, cement book
shapes included. You look at such a form and experience it differently than
a book you hold in your hand and turn the pages as you read them. But the
idea of making a book solid was a comment on what a book is and isn't, just
like my books in their paper sarcophagi. I like that. I like everyone
together because then I make connections I would never make if someone else
does the editing. And while I appreciate the editing that is essential to
shows, catalogues, etc, in the whole big field of book art I appreciate more
not less. Inclusion and variety; fuzzy definitions. I like to make up my own
mind what a book is.
Date: Mon, 29 Sep 2008 08:30:55 -0700
From: Michael Andrews <apeiron@...>
Subject: Re: Book or Sculpture?
Here again, such openness is a disguised form of ostracism - it throws out
reasoning, words, discursive thought, text as irrelevant and excludes, by
implication, anyone and everyone who is capable of thought, words, text,
learning, education, etc.
It throws out literature and history,
it throws out science and philosophy
and, certainly, it would be mortally offended by mathematics.
Sadly, for democracy, it throws out an intelligent electorate.
But that is an obvious horse of a different color.
A book is not a book if meaningful text cannot be read.
That is the definitive use of a book.
It is why the object "book" was invented.
Anyone is free to apply any name at all to anything that exists.
That is called a civic right or freedom of speech, which, by common
defintion is not about definitions but about content and protest.
But, I digress.
If actual communication is to be involved we have to agree on definitions
and rules, or else discourse becomes nonsense.
It muddies the clarity of discussion
to dispense with commonly accepted words, to redefine them as anything and
everything - it dispenses with discourse and communication period.
More to the actual point, it muddies markets.
The idea of defining a book simply by calling it a book applies strictly to
the idea of intention, the intention of having some object considered as a
So far, that is acceptable.
But it fails in its intention because it cannot seem to confine itself to
simple rules of communication in which a book is commonly defined as an
object that has a meaningful and readable text, and a sculpture as a
different form of art that is spatially oriented as opposed to a form that
is linguistically oriented.
It is further confusing to contemplate whatever it is that impels someone to
redefine an obvious piece of sculpture as a book.
What is it that makes them want to redefine one form of art, a sculpture, or
a painting as another art form altogether?
Are they offended by the concept of sculpture?
Is it simply confusing to people who do not read because books often are
encapsulated as objects that have sculpture like attributes such as tactile
weight, smell, or visual appeal?
Or is it simply a failure to attract any positive feedback from the
sculpture market that they feel impelled to invade the dying book market,
and thereby erode that market even further by preying on and confusing the
weakened intellects of those who do not understand that books are objects
that require attention and that least denominator of discursive reasoning,
they require reading?
Oops, that's a complex sentence
so I am sure the point is lost there.
Better to seal it up in a block of concrete and call it book art.
The fact is that Littlewood's sculpture depends for its impact and meaning
on the fact that the inaccessible texts are commonly known, made famous, in
fact, by readers of those very same texts.
It is actually a sculptural comment on what are in fact books, and not a
book in itself.
It depends on its meaning as sculpture by representing an object whose form
is only known to represent the containment of a readable text.
The form, as form, has no other meaning except as abstract art and that is a
discussion better left to them what can clearly use words.
The meaning of a sculpture of a book depends on the objects known as books.
One wonders how many of the proscribed texts Littlewood has actually read
before sealing them off?
The suspicion is that Littlewood simply likes both books and sculpture, but
does not create texts, so she creates sculpture about books.
Nothing wrong with that, commendable even - it is simply beyond any
intellectual grasp why she can't call it sculpture.
If it walks like a duck ....
No matter what claims to openness are made if you can call anything anything
you have just excluded language, and yet, utilize language to justify an
Oh well, who needs all these pesky words and thoughts anyway?
For that matter this culture has already excluded actual books, so why fret?
Book arts, anyone?
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