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Re: Book Art vs. Book Arts

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Laurie Doctor wrote:

>I found myself interested in the recent letter from Jules Siegel
>on the subject of art criticism, economics & politics.

Yes, that is a post that is challenging. What does it have to do with
the book arts?

At the heart of the matter is ethics and aesthetics. Whatever medium
one works in, content is what counts. If an artist has nothing to say,
who cares? And if what is being said is very important and moves us,
we focus on that, rather than the details of  execution.

In the book arts we often see work in which the details of execution
and the form of the structure are the content. I curated a small
exhibition in the mid-80's titled Book Artchitecture. It was presented
in the TJ Watson Library of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC when
Mindy Dubansky was able to put on that great series of book art
exhibitions there. Of course, that series ended when some book artists
who were in those exhibits strarted putting "Metropolitan Museum of
Art" in their exhibition resumes (instead of Watson Library) and used
that venue for blatant acts of self-promotion. Talk about politics!
The "real" departmental curators clamped down and put a stop to
Mindy's Watson Library program. I suspect that if those artists had
been a little more careful about their use of the MMA's name Mindy
would still have that venue available.

What Jules says about Clem Greenberg and Jackson Pollock has been well
documented. I first read about this in a mid-1960's of Artforum I was
working on when I was the binder for the Hirshhorn Museum (1970). That
contract provided me with an art education. As I recall, the article
was about the CIA distributing the 1948 (or so) Jackson Pollock MOMA
catalog in Eastern Europe as an example of American freedom of
expression. In addition to the contra-Stalinist (social realist)
factor that Jules mentioned, let's not forget that the Rockefellers
controlled the CIA and also had economic interests in Pollock (Mom's
museum--MOMA). The family still owns lots of big Jackson Pollock
paintings, now worth many millions.

The use of the museum to promote the artists owned by the trustees has
always been a factor in the art world. If you went to the "Book Art"
show MOMA presented a few years ago, you may have noticed that it was
not about the artists that we on this list think of as major, seminal,
original book artists.  It was mostly artists in other media that are
collected by the museum's trustees or that are in the museum
collection for other reasons, and who did books. It's in many ways an
extension of the Vollard Livre d'Art tradition, rather than what we
think of as book art.

I don't have a problem with the use of art for propaganda, which is
the blunt way of saying "cultural exchange." As it happens, I think
freedom of expression is an important value, and if we can get our
government to send book art around the world it may help some people
elsewhere see how they can express themselves. Here's a story of how I
used book art as propaganda:

In 1989 I organized a conference and exhibition on "Book Arts in the
USA." You can see some of the exhibit at
[I apologize for not having all 51 artists up on the site yet-- I've
been doing that section as a volunteer effort and haven't had much
free time recently.]

This exhibit was sent around Africa and Latin America by the USIA.
They sent me to the first venue in 1990, in Antananarivo, Madagascar.
This was a Marxist country, where the US Ambassador had never been
shown on TV, and where the USA personnel lived in a compound with
armed guards. While there I installed the exhibit with the help of
local artists, and videotaped that installation. The video was sent to
all the other venues, so they could see how to do it.  In each place
local artists were recruited to mount the show. I also did a hands on
workshop with the artists in basic bookmaking.

The time for the opening reception at the Bibliothèque Nationale
arrived, and outside a crowd had gathered. I was to give a talk at the
opening (in French). Word of what was in this show had been spread by
the artists that set it up. An imposing woman was pointed out to me by
the cultural attaché, and he said "That's Madame le Ministre de
Culture et de l'Art Révolutionnaire. She has never set foot in a U.S.
exhibition." I said, "Bring the podium outside-- I'll give a talk
right here."

I spoke about what book art is, and the different kinds of book art
that were being done in the USA (you can read the introduction to the
exhibit catalog at the above URL). In particular, I said that this is
the work of true revolutionaries, and that that with books anyone can
create a revolution. Where the power of the press used to belong to
the person that owned one, now it's as close as the local copy shop
(this was before the desktop publishing revolution or the internet). I
mentioned as an example Sharon Gilbert's "Poison America" that
criticized the government and corporations for toxic waste dumping,
and that was made on a photocopier and home sewing machine.
And also several one-of-a-kind bookworks for which the exhibition was
their act of publication. The artists were communicating with many
thousands of people in many countries with just one copy of their

After this speech, the US Ambassador got up and said a few words, and
the doors to the library were opened. Mme. le Ministre came up to me
and was introduced. She accompanied me into the library in front of
the crowd, and insisted on my explaining every work in every exhibit
case. It stretched my limited French language skills, but the
gathering of diplomats around us pitched in as needed.

That night on Madascar TV the national evening news was devoted to
this exhibit. It was presented in French and Malgache (the two
languages of Madagascar), and included a sound bite from the US
Ambassador's brief speech. I regarded this as a diplomatic success as
well as a cultural presentation.

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