At most colleges and universities, there is not a degree specifically in Book Arts. Usually any Book Arts classes fall inside the Printmaking department, or exist in some other strange extension, like the library or the English department. Sometimes, students can cobble together a pretty thorough Book Arts education by taking classes from a series of departments. But usually they just get a sample. So a thought exercise: what would a Book Arts curriculum look like? What classes would it entail? How would it be structured? How would it relate to other departments? Is there a Foundations program specific to Book Arts?
(I don’t foresee this being a simple task, so this subject will probably occupy the IDE(A/O)(B)LOG(Y/UE) for a little while, for the week, or longer. Perhaps with interruptions. Almost certainly with interruptions.)
This is a fun exercise for me, a way to think through and visualize what an “ideal” teaching situation (for me) looks like. So in keeping with that ideal, we’re going to place this program at the kind of school that I understand best (and think I want to teach at, ultimately)—a small school focused on visual art. (& I suppose that we can expect this “program” to reflect my other biases as well.)
One of the first problems that we run into is the radical inclusiveness of the book. How can we define a curriculum for a field that has been notoriously hard to define? Most academic art programs are defined by media: the Painting program, the Photography program, etc. But books are not a medium, they are a form, an entire cultural paradigm that can easily include all of the media, together or one at a time. (Note: it could be argued that any medium can contain any of the other media (ex: a painting containing photographic images, photographic images deployed across a 3D form) but the difference is this: when media are combined the boundaries of those media are stretched and/or dissolved; all of a sudden a painting is no longer just a painting, it’s a sculpture. But a book can contain both painting and photography and printing and drawing and always has sculptural qualities, and still be, easily and recognizably, traditionally, a book.) So then a Book Arts program stands with other hard to define or perpetually changing academic programs, like Intermedia/New Media, or Digital Arts. Could we base our program on such structures already in existence?
Possibly. But we may need to go further, because the production of artists’ books extends out into fields normally outside the direct purview of the Fine Arts (Department). What about classes in Graphic Design, Typography? What about classes in Writing? Creative, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and/or critical? All of the above? How would a writing program change when bent toward the visual/material nature of language and books? (Aside: what if the Book Arts program was sub-divided into Concentrations, like a BFA in Book Arts with a concentration in Bookbinding or Visual Poetry? That seems like a frightening amount of specialization, the kind we want to avoid, the kind that could negate the expansive, critical potential of the program that we’re outlining.)
A brief break from writing this post, and now I can see that this subject is very complex, and my handling of it is going to be very disorganized. But for now, let’s end on this idea: One of the most compelling and fertile aspects of the book-as-art is the questions it asks of the other “art media” and other areas of culture, that it asks of how art and art objects are made, distributed, and received in this culture. The book has enormous critical potential, the book is potential. How can a Book Arts curriculum communicate that? How can the curriculum be positioned critically, in order to ask questions of how art and art objects are made, distributed, and received in this culture?
Or are we asking too much already? Better to try and fail. Oh, to be drawn out and continued.