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Re: Book Art Criticism

Thanks Peter, for putting that thread together. Actually,
it's at:


It took me over an hour to read through it, and I'm glad I
did. I had forgotten most of it, and it's great that it ends
with The Return of Gary Frost.

I regard Gary as the leading Philosopher of Bookbinding, and
he always has something interesting to try and follow.

That thread revolves around the definition of artists'
books, and extends to what constitutes "Book Art." Enough
was said about all that.

What I propose we discuss now is not a definition, but an
analytical tool. What tools does everyone uses to evolve
their own work and judge others? Keith Berger's approach is
fresh, and has a good set of questions. It establishes a
clear viewer perspective.

The question for me has always been, "What makes it Art?" I
was fortunate to have the opportunity to study "The
Philosophy of Art" with Professor Horace Kallen at The
Graduate Faculty of The New School for Social Research in
1970. He was 88 years old then, and it was his final
semester teaching. He came to class each session wearing a
cape, a bowler, and high button shoes. He WAS art. He
started off with "What is Creation." He said, "When you take
a shit it wasn't there before. It's a creation."

Then there's The Reading List. I reread it many times, and
recommend it above all other things to anyone who is
interested in Art. I don't have it on paper, so I may leave
off a few dozen items, but the MUST reads are:

Tolstoy. "What is Art"
Kandinsky. "Concerning the Spiritual in Art"
Stanislavsky "On The Art of The Stage"
Koestler. "The Act of Creation"

There are also Harold Rosenberg and lots of others to read,
but the above four is a good foundation.

I played around with all the concepts for a long time, but
kept coming back to one observation: All the great works of
art I see in museums seem to be shimmering in space. They
don't sit still. There is a vibration around them that
separates them from ordinary objects. I call this feature
"Museum Finish." In 1977 I taught The Theory of Museum
Finish at The School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Somewhere I must have a copy of the syllabus, but I can't
find it right now. As I recall it was broken into 15
sessions. I recall a few of them:

1. Material, Image and Metaphor

Besides any optical tricks that artists use to create the
illusion of vibrating space (such as Albers, Itten and
Goethe color theories...more on color theory later), the
actual cause of "Museum Finish" is the balancing of the
three key elements: Material, Image and Metaphor.

When you look at a certain strong image, it establishes a
metaphor. The metaphor reminds you of something in your
personal experience.

For a moment you are in the internal world of your
relationship to that metaphor. Then the material that
supports the image catches your eye, if it is a strong
material (or strong use of a material--as in the way Degas
uses paint), and you are dragged back to the reality of
"it's just paint" or stone, or plastic or whatever it is.
The strong image on or of that material then catches your
eye, and the process recycles.

Perhaps you're looking at an impressionist painting of a
picnic on a sunny day. Your own experiences of picnics are
recalled, or a feeling you had on a particular sunny day.
Then the bright dabs and blotches of paint catch your eye
and you are drawn back to the painting, and the blobs of
paint become the picture of a picnic, and you see the yellow
dress, and...

This happens many times every second, creating an effect on
vision like the shutter of a movie projector, giving the
object that sense of "flickering" or vibrating the space
around it. That is what I regard as Museum Finish. I use it
as an analytical tool in evaluating my own work when
creating it, and others' work when I am advising, judging,
curating or collecting.

If the material is not strong but the image and metaphor
are, you can have good illustration. Like pictures in a
glossy magazine. If the metaphor is not strong but there is
a strong image and material, you can have good decorative
art. Like a nicely tooled leather binding. I love both those
fields and work in them. But they are not "Art."

If I am making a Work of Art, all three aspects have to be
in a strong, balanced relationship. It's kind of like tuning
a violin, listening for the undertones that happen only when
the pitch of each string is exactly right. If the Work isn't
vibrating the space around it, maybe the image is weak, or
it doesn't evoke the metaphor clearly. Maybe the material
has been overworked, or is the wrong material. By looking at
each element, identifying it and seeing how well it supports
the Work as a whole, the elements can be balanced and
harmonized, and the vibration will start.

2. Color Theory

Albers, Itten, Goethe, and the others of that ilk are
important for composition, creating illusion of depth,
paricularly in landscape painting and abstract art, creating
vibrating edges, as in Op art, in trompe l'oeil, and other
aspects of the artist's craft. But what I find more
interesting is the study of color healing, of color
meditations on the Chakras, and the effects of colors on the
endocrine system.

Pink stimulates the production of endorphins. Take Leon
Golub's painting of The Torture of Che Guevara and paint the
soldiers' bile green uniforms pink.

By using colors which support or contradict the underlying
metaphor of the work, the image can either call up the
metaphor more quickly or set up a tension that establishes a
different kind of vibration in the work. Since colors can
create emotional states by direct endocrine stimulation,
independent of any figurative element in the image, it
provides another lever for the artist to use in controlling
the viewer's response.

A work with a metaphor about survival may also use colors
from a mandala or yantra that is used in first Chakra
meditation. Ones that are about balance, love, or thought
may employ colors associated with higher Chakras. Does
Magenta evoke sex? Does Light Blue evoke a sense of higher

More elaborate or sophisticated compositions or Works may
combine several of these elements into one Work. The
important feature is that by adjusting the color of a Work,
it is possible to fine tune the relationship between image
and metaphor.

3. Cognitive Capacity

People can not see or understand beyond their cognitive
capacity. There was an interesting guy on TV a few weeks ago
that's supposed to be the smartest guy anywhere. He's a
bouncer in a bar on Long Island.  With an unmeasurable IQ
over 190. The TV people sent him to their own experts for
testing. This guy is working on the unified theory of
everything in his spare time. He's sort of a loner, because
nobody understands him. He wanted to have a girl friend, but
he said an IQ difference over 25 points makes communication
impossible. Finally, according to the reporter, he met a
woman with an IQ of 170 and they're happy together.

What's this got to do with Book Art and this list? There are
a lot of different people on this list, and in the field.
Among the artists, curators (librarians), artisans, and
everybody else. We tend to be a group of fairly intelligent
humans, and we all spend a lot of time around books. Even
within this elite group there are variations in cognitive

Some concepts require a substantial amount of synaptic
energy. James Hill called it Mental Phosphorus (cf. Elbert
Hubbard). Whatever it is, an artist approaching certain
subjects or metaphors has to have the capacity to grasp it
at a substantial level of meaning and communicate it with
images and materials. Sometimes we, as Book Artists, create
a work from nothing. Other times in Book Art we are faced
with books by the greatest minds in history, and it is our
mission to turn a copy of that book, or an edition of it,
into Art. In this case, the metaphor is already there, and
we have to find it.

Where it gets a bit sticky is that we can only see the
meaning of the book to the limit of our cognitive capacity.
The viewer of our work, if at the same capacity as
ourselves, may find it marvelous. On the other hand, a
viewer with greater scope of vision may see our work as
pedestrian, bourgeois, juvenile, derivative, or just boring.
For that person, the image and material are not at the level
of the metaphor, and it doesn't work.

4. Cultural Limitations

To the extent that the Work demands visual literacy on the
part of the viewer, it is an elite object.

That's all for now. It's past my bedtime.


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