The following essay is the script for a presentation I gave at the College Book Art Association conference in 2010.
About my novel Good For Nothing: After receiving a strong blurb from Audrey Niffenegger I have had a string of relatively positive rejections from very good editors at very good publishers. This situation has lead to stress, depression, sleeplessness, ulcers, pimples, overeating, loss of appetite, mood swings, flat affect, irritable bowels, road rage and memory loss. And memory loss.
On the upside, I have been asked to contribute to a few cool projects including a post-modern fairy tale and supplying content for a great website.
How Low-quality Text Debases High-Quality artist’s Books
To begin I’d like to read a definition of Artist’s Books from Ulysses Carrion. He uses the term Bookwork; and applies it in a specific way that refers to the art form that is most commonly called an artist’s book.
“Book Works are books that are conceived as an expressive unity, that is to say, where
the message is the sum of all the materials and formal elements.”
This definition dovetails nicely with the point I hope to make. That is, that if as a book artist, one conceives writing as one of the elements in the “expressive unit” one hopes to create, then that writing needs to be held to the same standard as all other formal and expressive elements of the book. That seems simple enough; but I believe it’s often not the case. In practice, the writing in artist’s books is not nearly as developed as the book object, or the visual narrative.
So to be clear: by the term LOW-QUALITY-TEXT I mean that the writing that is used in many artist’s books is noticeably out of balance with the other element of the book. By text, I do not mean typographic design in which letter forms are treated primarily as visual, but instead refer to sequential writing that aspires to participates in the characteristics of literature.
It’s been my experience that too often the text in artist’s books is one-note, dry, and seemly given the least amount of consideration. I have experienced artist’s books that had impeccable craftsmanship, the paper was beautiful and handmade, the binding was skillful, clean and precise, the page spreads were full of rich and engaging imagery, the printing was executed with enviable mastery, the text looked great on the page, and the structure behaved in delightfully surprising ways. But when I began to read, the writing felt tacked on as if it was the last thing added. When this occurs it is a big problem because it is a lost opportunity.
Artist’s books that use bad text create the likely scenario that instead of building a wider audience, they drive away potential audience and in doing so make the discourse within the field less accessible, less impactful and more marginalized within the arts. With this as our starting point, I will be presenting a rationale for why text is not held to as high a standard as other elements of book design, I will discuss how bad text breaks faith with the viewer, and I will suggest on possible alternative approach to teaching artist’s books.
The field of book arts requires participants to occupy many roles at the same time. Most of those roles fit comfortably in the world of visual arts. But there exists decades old conversations within the field of literature, memoir, and more recently video and documentary film that can shine a light on the way we approach the writing in artist’s books.
I’d like to go back to Carrion to discuss a long-held attitude that is typical of the complex relationship our very visual field has with writing. A little about Carrion: in a manner that reminds me of Malarme, his work with visual and concrete poetry explored and expanded the use of the book as a medium for artistic expression. He is credited with being one of the first artists to write a general theory about artists' books. His influential essay, 'The New Art of Making Books,' written in 1975, analyzes the form of the book in the context of its tactile, visual, and intellectual merits. This essay was a kind of poetic prose list poem and art manifesto that set-up a dichotomy between the “old art” of making books and the “new art” of making books.
To put Carrion’s essay in a historical context, in 1962 Ed Ruscha’s 26 gasoline stations was produced and the first Fluxus Festival was held. For more than ten years there was growing excitement about a new kind of art print culture, a lot of experimentation, and idealized Marxist-inspired views about distributing art outside of the gallery system directly to the viewer. In 1975 Carrion’s essay succinctly articulated many attitudes that were in the air. The jargon and distinctions he made in this essay are still in common use in the way our field defines the “poetics of the book.” For instance, this essay has shaped the way artist’s think of the book as being both temporal and sequential. Along with Seth Sieglaub, Carrion promoted the idea of the book as an “Alternative gallery Space”.
From his home in Amsterdam at his gallery-bookshop: Other Books and So, he produced and distributed his essay three years before Printed Matter attained not-for-profit status. One couplet from this essay states:
In order to understand and to appreciate a book of the old art, it is necessary to read it
In the new art you often do NOT need to read the whole book.
The reading may stop at the very moment you have understood the total structure of the
The point Carrion is making is that artists’ books communicate meaning through structure, design, and materiality, and that if all elements are functioning in concert - the intention of a book can be realized through a visceral reaction to the book as an object. Clearly this is true and one of the powerful things about the art form. But he also seems to argue that an Artist’s Book reveals itself in its structure to the point that the entirety of the text is not important. While Carrion’s essay is provocative, it also suffers the same failures as many such dichotomous analogies. Namely, it’s an effective tool for comparison and contrast, but a poor tool for nuanced distinction. Carrion makes a good point introducing the idea. But Carrion introduces here a dangerous suggestion: Namely that the text of a book of the New Art could be deemed as non-vital to the meaning of the book.
In the field of Artist’s books I’ve heard it said that a book teaches the viewer how the book is intended to be read. This is out of necessity because all artists’ books reveal themselves differently. But it’s also a statement of a type of contract. If a viewer opens a book and finds writing contained in its pages, there is a reasonable expectation that text plays a role in revealing the meaning of the book. And what Carrion seems to suggest is that it is perfectly fine to break faith with the viewer by having text which is not that important, or at least not Vital to the meaning of the book.
Neil Gaiman is a writer whose first big success was the graphic novel The Sandman. Recently I heard Gaiman promoting his new children’s novel, The Graveyard Book, with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. Terry asked him “What is the difference in the way you approach writing a novel, a screenplay or a graphic novel?” He said, and I am paraphrasing here, that when he writes anything, he makes a kind a promise with the first few pages of text, that he then has to keep meeting the terms of and re-negotiating throughout the work. If the promise is broken, he suggested, the reader will not trust the work and will become skeptical of what it has to say. It is exactly this type of broken promise I think occurs when low quality text is used in an Artist’s book.
This notion of a contract between reader and artist is common in literature and in film, video, stage…any long form in which one thing leads to the next; any form that is sequential and temporal. And in all these forms a relationship is established based on how the work presents itself. Then, that relationship must be maintained over the course of the work. Like most interpersonal relationship, the terms of the association may shift from moment to moment or page spread to page spread, but within the context of the initial understanding.
The first place I remember being introduced to this idea was a book of criticism by John Gardner. In 1978 the novelist and scholar wrote the controversial and influential book On Moral Fiction. This book of literary criticism was a reaction to the post-modern novel’s meta-nature, which he felt was a waste of the opportunity to lift the human condition. By "moral" Gardner did not mean religious or cultural "morality," but rather he argued that fiction should explore those humanistic values that are universally sustaining. Gardner felt that few contemporary authors were "moral" in this sense. Much of the furor over this book was because he indicted specific novels as failing to meet the standards he thought written art should aspire to.
For instance, Thomas Pynchon he accused of indulging in "winking, mugging despair" and a “trendy nihilism” in which Gardner felt Pynchon did not honestly believe. In response to this type of “personal assault” in Gardner’s work Gore Vidal declared On Moral Fiction sanctimonious and pedantic, and he called Gardner the "late apostle to the lowbrow.” Gardner was generous to some. Of the work of Italo Calvino he notes that there is beauty in the way he never fails to successfully accomplish the challenging writing task he set for himself. And Donald Barthelme he recognizes as very accomplished at satirizing the anxieties and insecurities of modern man.
Sadly the way the message was delivered, over-shadowed the message itself. And all the subsequent name calling drowned out an important point that Gardner made: when one creates a piece of art that can’t be experienced in an instant, the first moments of reading (or viewing) establishes a kind of relationship between the work and the viewer; and the terms of that relationship should be honored. If a writer or artist builds expectations in a viewer, then- in fairness to the viewer- those expectations should be satisfied. Gardner did not argue that the viewer need to feel “happy” or “good” about the resolution but that the art needs to be resolved in a way that follows from its own beginning. And that the resolution should do more than only entertain (though it may be entertaining), it should wrestle with issues vital to the human condition.
While any claims that art must have certain types of content or objectives are problematic, Gardner’s basic notion of the agreement of internal elements of a text is hard to dispute. Personally, I do believe that one should try to reach a viewer, and one needs to have a point to make or else the viewer will loose interest. As it applies to Artists’ Books, On Moral Fiction seems particularly important because Gardner’s comments recognize that there is a relationship between the artist and viewer; that the terms of that relationship are defined by the artwork itself; it acknowledges an obligation (as defined by the artwork) on the part of the artist to the viewer.
Moreover, the “morality” of the work is self-defined. The Book object itself reveals a promise and then it is the responsibility of the artist to recognize the promise the work has made and find a way to satisfy the terms of that agreement.
Beyond all of that, Gardner’s accusation that the meta-nature of post-modern writing was often only of interest to other writers is one and the same situation that exists in artist’s books when we make books whose content is primarily about the process of making books. Some times so much so that all other content is pushed into the background. This kind of self-referential content runs the risk of alienating an audience who has been kind enough to give their time and attention to our books.
The idea of an agreement that should be honored leads me to similar declaration by someone writing specifically about autobiographical work; either documentary and memoir, or any art that uses the first-person voice to relate to an audience. To support the notion that I am comparing apples to apples I point to the 2001 text book: Reading Autobiography a guide to interpreting life narration in which Sodonie Smith and Julia Watson point out that autobiographical texts and fictional writing share the same formal features: plot, dialogue, setting, characterization…etc. And so the agreement that Gardner talks about as relating to literature is addressing the exact same relationship that Philippe Lejeune is dissecting in his exploration of Autobiographical texts.
In Chapter six (The Autobiographical Pact) of his 1996 book On Autobiography Lejeune states that the word “pact” implies a binding contract in which the artist and the viewer sit down, look over a set of rules, and then-in complete agreement-sign the pact before the viewing of the art can begin. Of course this doesn’t happen. But it does make a distinction about the nature of the pact entered into by a viewer and an artist; it isn’t a binding clear-cut agreement. It is perhaps an implied agreement that operates on the honor system.
Lejeune argues that all autobiography is participating in one of two traditions. Either the work aspires to be “real” or the work is in the “Literary/Artistic Model” which uses the appearance of the first model in order attach credibility to some other agenda. Lejeune believes that if the work is perceived as “true” then it’s received differently than if it’s perceived as “art.”
In the field of Artist’s Books, the idea of subverting the reader’s experience is a common strategy for delivering content. Here, Lejeune says that when art takes on the tropes of some other form in order to surprise a viewer, and catch them unaware, that type of work falls within his parameters of a “Loose Pact,” with the viewer.
So contrary to the, I think unintended implication, presented by Ulysses Carrion in The New Art of Making Books, Neil Gaiman, John Gardner and Philippe LeJuene all acknowledge a kind of promise between the a book artist and the viewer in which the mere presence of writing creates an expectation in the viewer. Gaiman conversationally, and Lejuene explicitly, recognize a kind of constant negotiation between the artist and the viewer carried out over the course of a sequential work. And I would argue that a book that has text on the page and looks professionally and thoughtfully made, makes a promise to the viewer that the writing will be of a similar quality as the book object itself. And if the writing fails to meet that standard it breaks faith with the reader and debases the entire book object.
Lastly, a book that is compelling and complex in appearance, but has flat and underdeveloped writing does not live-up to the promise it has made to a viewer. Because of the powerful one-to-one viewing experience that is unique to the artist’s book, I suggest that unlike the experience of film or a gallery exhibition, a reader of an artist book has the potential to feel especially close to the content within an aritst’s book and conversely be particularly offended if an artist’s book does not meet expectations.