I’ve been thinking about that last post all weekend. I realized by the end of writing it that I had irresponsibly gone into territory that I couldn’t fully explore under the time/space constraints of the blog (Normally, I write these posts in the morning before I go to work. That may change.). Thus the abrupt “TO BE CONTINUED!” What follows is an explanation/retraction from the last post, some more measured reflections on the subject of definitions in the field of artists’ books, and a brief assessment of how these definitions do and do not shape the output of the NewLights Press.

First of all, an apology to Johanna Drucker and The Century of Artists’ Books, about the line “she pretty much ignores un-imaged fine press books, and calls the kind with pictures livres d’artistes.” The word “ignores” is not accurate. She does in fact discuss fine press editions, and in doing so she shows why they are outside of the scope of the rest of her book. Her book is not about fine press books, thus, she doesn’t talk about them. That is the kind of decision every writer has to make whenever they are writing, so the word “ignores” is unfair, as it connotes some sort of scholarly irresponsibility or prejudice.

Also from the last post: “Bookarts/Artists’ Books is a discourse with a particularly pernicious definition problem.” Here is the opening of Betty Bright’s No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America, 1960-1980 (Granary Books, 2005):

The story of book art in America in the 1960s and 1970s is a story of persistent identity crises and of fierce allegiances as well as dissensions. Much to the chagrin of critics and the frustration of artists, the enduring debate over the years has turned on the most basic of questions: What is and what isn’t an artist’s book? In his essay “The Rise of the Book in the Wake of Rain,” printer Jim Trissel laments that too often the critics of artists’ books have resorted to an “effort to segregate kinds of books into categor[ies] and to proclaim something now called the ‘artist book’ the emergent and superior species.” By this, Trissel refers to writers who claim for art one kind of artist’s book to the exclusion of all others. To the uninitiated, such hair-splitting may appear confusing, even mean-spirited. Why the polemic?
A preoccupation with definition is perhaps understandable given the diversity in artists’ books, which appear in dramatically different forms and with radically divergent content. […] (p. 1, italics mine)

So the problem is that there are so damn many of the things, and that they are all so different. And of course, books have their own history that was separate from art as such—until the emergence of the term “artists’ book.” But all this confusion is what makes the field interesting. There is a long history as well as a sense of newness and exploration.

Normally, I try not to let the field’s definition problem bother me too much. But it’s come up recently as I try to organize my work for presentation on the web. For the record, I have decided not to list books by “type,” they will only be listed by author(s) and by date.

The definition problem does have its broader consequences as well. As a practitioner of the bookarts, as a publisher of literature, and as a maker of art in book form, where does one (myself, many others) belong? I very deliberately pull from traditions of craft printing and binding, of independent publishing, ‘zines, and a rapidly expanding indie culture, trade publishing, as well as avant-gardist strategies usually associated with the visual arts. I distribute my work over the web, at “trade shows” and book fairs, through bookstores, and at art galleries. Having an education in the visual arts, I feel a strong, compulsive need to show in galleries. But the nagging question: Should I be?

Books are interstitial objects. By definition they occupy a series of planes simultaneously. So the book, so the book artist. Provisional solution: buckle up, bite down, and see where this thing takes us.

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