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Book as Art
- To: BOOK_ARTS-L@LISTSERV.SYR.EDU
- Subject: Book as Art
- From: Richard Minsky <minsky@MINSKY.COM>
- Date: Thu, 6 Sep 2001 15:45:30 -0400
- Message-Id: <200109061945.MAA21124@palimpsest.Stanford.EDU>
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CENTRAL NEW YORK BOOK ARTS: TRADITIONAL TO INNOVATIVE
See The Exhibition Online, And Order Your Catalog.
Ann Grasso wrote:
>I am playing catch-up in the world of "art" and read as much as
>time from "doing" allows
There have been several posts recently from new listmembers and others who enjoy
the discussion of books as art. For those who missed it the first time 'round,
Peter has put together a synopis of the March 1998 discussion at
And I noticed in reviewing some of my postings to the list going back to 1995
that I keep referring to the same classic literature on aesthetics. So as not to
rewrite it again, and to save those who are interested time in searching the
book_arts-l archive, I have copied a few of those posts below:
Re: Defining a book...
Subject: Re: Defining a book...
From: Richard Minsky <email@example.com>
Date: Sat, 8 Apr 1995 12:42:40 -0400
I'm glad Ed Hutchins brought up this subject. People have been arguing
about this all along. Some say a book is the codex form and that's it.
A scroll is a scroll. A refrigerator is a refrigerator. To call it all
a book reduces language to anarchy. Perhaps. But sometimes linguistic
conventions need to be blown away to open the mind to new concepts.
In the mid-70's I did a slide-lecture tour "The Artist and the Book:
>From Caves to Videodiscs." The cave fits nicely into Ed's definition,
and certainly has proved the most archival structure so far. Tablets
(Assyrian, Sumerian, Babylonian, etc.) and scrolls, of course. And just
as Gutenberg would recognize a book, an Egyptian scribe would recognize
It's amazing how much some of those 3,000 year old pages look like
their 20th century counterparts, with texts wrapped around color
illustrations, lot's of variation in column format and page layout. A
lot of Pagemaker and Quark users could learn a thing or two from them.
That slide show included Coptic books, medieval mss., Blake, Kandinsky
and the pedagogical art books (Point and Line to Plane, Klee, etc.),
the Futurists, Vollard, and many other things. One of the things I most
enjoy in current book art is to see work that has evolved from our
historic influences. And what I hate is the overabundance of amateurish
duplication of work that was done a decade or century ago . All I can
think when I see some of it is "too bad they didn't spend a year or two
in the Rare Book Room handling the real thing."
In 25 years the number of artists in this field has grown from about a
dozen to several thousand. The idea of a museum showing book art was
ridiculous. Now there's hardly a museum out there that hasn't had some
sort of book art show.
What's the point? That in their hurry to jump on the book art wagon
there are a lot of curators, dealers, collectors, writers and artists
who haven't done their homework. Or even know there's homework to do. I
read on this list the reviews of the MOMA show, as a case in point. Our
reviewers pretty much panned it. An example of a curator whose best
effort was to show examples of book work by artists most of whom were
familiar names to their public. Still, it advances the field by making
the public more aware that book art exists.
Our subject matter is new, and the field is coming as much from the
Library as the Museum. And a lot of the people in it still don't know
who Barton Lidice Benes is, or Stella Waitzkin. There are some folks
who know art history and book history, and some practitioners who are
artists and book crafters (particularly among the conservation
bookbinders). Much of the evolving work I like best comes from people
who have handled or restored books of all periods, and embodied the
history in their DNA.
So why is the move from the Library to the Museum important? Money.
And if we're going to start a Dictionary of the Book Arts here, it
seems that everybody has a different meaning for "Artist's Book."
Perhaps the copy of the Jenson Pliny [Landino translation--1476 (?)]
that sold at Sotheby's a couple of years ago, beautifully illuminated,
was an artist's book, as opposed to the "regular" copies-- or is that
book art? Perhaps the vagueness of definitions is a good thing, which
gives curators flexibility in selecting exhibitions.
I would suspect that most of us on this list are like Ed, wallowers in
and cradlers of books. But "the anticipation of turning the next page"
seems to be going out of style. Only 20 years ago I was looked at as a
radical heretic (or at least *enfant terrible*) for what I did to
bookbinding. Now I hear I'm a reactionary traditionalist because my
books have pages, and are working bindings. Book Objects are in among
the physical art people--totemic or iconic sculptures in book form. The
Web is in among information people--it's so fast, so accessible, so
William Gibson's *Agrippa* was an interesting combination of the allure
of the physical with the visionary aspect of the computer. I wouldn't
be surprised if we see more artists "warming up" the new media by
including the discs or whatever in packaging that stimulates our
endorphins with some traditional structures and materials.
Book Art History
Subject: Book Art History
From: Richard Minsky <minsky@MINSKY.COM>
Date: Thu, 26 Oct 1995 03:08:45 -0400
And now I'll rant a little:
I'm all for enthusiasm. But many people who start making book art or artist
books just don't know what's been done. And I don't just mean this year or
century. Amazing work has been done for thousands of years. Everyone in
this field--artists, collectors, librarians, curators, writers (critics?),
dealers-- *needs* to spend at least a hundred days in museums, rare book
rooms, galleries, auctions, etc. seeing and touching THE REAL THING.
Looking at pictures of books may be something, but it's not going to get
anybody any knowledge of what it's really all about. Devote one day a week
to this for two years. Maybe then one gets a glimmer of where to begin. See
what's out there.
Look at a bunch of ancient Egyptian scrolls-- they're so MODERN looking!
Page design hasn't changed much in three thousand years. Look at bindings
of all periods and places, both the common ones and those by the great
binders. Handle the incunabula-- the ones in original bindings.
Particularly with hardware (chains, bosses, clasps). See how the hinges
work, how nicely they open and close. Feel it. So much of a book is about
weight, texture, smell, mechanical action. Go to the Louis Stern collection
at MOMA in NYC, and go through a few hundred "Livres d'Artiste" in the
Vollard tradition. Go to the Getty Center for the History of Art and the
Humanities in Santa Monica and spend a week with their DADA material-- they
have Jean Brown's collection from the Shaker Seed House. Get a hold of a
few books of William Blake's (not facsimiles). Look at 10,000 "Artist's
Books" in the Franklin Furnace Archive (now part of the MOMA library). It's
a beginning. Maybe then one has the possibility of becoming an artist.
Handle enough great stuff and it begins to rub off on you.
Read Kandinsky's _Point and Line to Plane_ and _Concerning the Spiritual
in Art_, Tolstoy's _What is Art_, Koestler's _The Act of Creation_.
I'm so tired of seeing redundant work. This field has gone from one with
almost no participants to one with thousands of artist in a very short
time. The thing that always grabs me is how much real content the artists
have to communicate. Seems like a lot more than in painting and sculpture.
I had nothing to read at lunch the other day and they had _Artforum_ at
the restaurant. You know, not only hasn't the work presented in it evolved
in the last 10 years-- they didn't even change half the names. The "Art
World" sort of died out the last few years because it got boring (and a lot
of the yuppies who were paying a lot of money for garbage got snagged).
But so much of current book art *doesn't* utilise the form or materials in
any way that either supports the metaphor of the text or comments on the
book as an evolved iconic medium. Unfortunately a lot of "Artists' Books"
have visually interesting pages in a boring form (just look through the
shelves at an "Artists' Bookstore" like Printed Matter). When they do
create a statement where the whole object--not just the images--is
involved, that's what I think of as "Book Art." To be "Art" an object has
to change the way I see the world-- it has to make the space around it
Art, skill, communication, failure
Subject: Art, skill, communication, failure
From: Richard Minsky <minsky@MINSKY.COM>
Date: Wed, 26 Mar 1997 06:24:54 -0500
The peculiar use of these concepts in recent postings suggests that a reading
list might be useful. I don't have the books in front of me, so please forgive
any bibliographic inaccuracies:
Kandinsky. _Concerning the Spiritual in Art_.
Tolstoy. _What is Art_.
Koestler. _The Act of Creation_.
Stanislavsky. _On The Art of The Stage.
These are essential texts. Harold Rosenberg's books are a good starting point
for discussing the New York school (de Kooning, Pollock, ...). These artists are
not obscure, and did not fail to communicate. One thing that should be made
clear: They never expected to be rich, or to be in an "Art World." For decades
they struggled along painting for themselves, because they believed in their
work. They met to discuss art with each other. The artists were more surprised
than anybody when the work became pricey-- de Kooning thought a painting would
never be worth more than $500. Kline painted on phone book pages. It is the
dealers and collectors who made "the art world." (That's why I named D.H.
Kahnweiler in a previous post-- he was the dealer who managed Picasso et al--
read his biography, it's a great story.)
In many ways it's very appropriate that these are the artists being discussed,
because book artists are in much the same position-- we do it for love, and
because we have this particular obsession with our medium, not because of any
market value. We should be so lucky that the "art world" decides what we do is
of value. I don't know anyone in the book arts who's getting art-world prices
for their work, or who's in it because they think they'll get rich this way.
"Ignorant" is not an epithet. It denotes lack of knowledge or study. In any
event, epithets are no easier to hurl than a slider.
Failure is success. 1984 came and went. To fail is to attempt the unreachable.
Fail and fail again. I would encourage every artist to fail. Success is an
Is Art a common language? Philosophers have been discussing that for millenia.
Skill is not anathema in a discussion of art. It is neither necessary nor
sufficient. All artifacts are made with more or less skill. A well crafted
object may communicate the love the maker had for the tools, materials, and
activity of making. Does this make it a work of art?
There are criteria I use. And that's important to clarify, because I am a
curator of exhibitions, a writer about work which is called art, a teacher, and
a collector, as well as my primary incarnation as Artist. Not only do I have to
evaluate my own work continuously, but I have to choose other people's work to
include in exhibits or to buy, and I have to understand why they are important
works so I can write about them. I have to sit in a room with a dozen artists,
from beginners to outstanding professionals, and critique their work, and SAY
something to them which might be useful to their creative evolution. All this
conversation about Art & Craft isn't about flaming, hurling, or irrelevant to
making book art. It's my job.
The nature of the aesthetic experience has been a subject of discussion for a
long time. What it is, its universality or particularity, how it is stimulated
(by art or nature), its biochemistry, its psychology, its sociology, and much
more fill many volumes. The nature of the art object, its aesthetics, its
politics, its economics, etc. fill many more volumes. The Frick Collection has a
great art library.
So I have to look at something and decide if it's art- whether it's something
I'm making or someone else's. There are three elements I look for: object, image
and metaphor. When I taught at The School of Visual Art in the 70's I called
this "The Theory of Museum Finish." When you see a true work of art, the space
around it seems to vibrate. How is this achieved? The image is perceived by the
viewer and evokes a metaphor. The metaphor turns the attention of the viewer
inward to a state of reflection on personal experience. The object draws the
viewer back to physical reality through the strength of presence of its
materials. This process takes place many times each second, with the shift in
attention acting on vision like the shutter of a movie projector, creating the
illusion of flickering space.
If an object I am evaluating doesn't do this, I simply look to see what is the
weak element. A weak surface (object) can be from weak craftsmanship or
inattention to detail, or can be from a failure to choose materials which
support the metaphor of the work. Not all works of art need slickly finished
craftsmanship. But the type of craftsmanship which is needed is the craft of
art, the knowledge of how to embed metaphoric power in material form. Much as
the craft of the writer is in knowing how to create metaphor with words.
A weak image may come from lack of sufficient contemplation of the metaphor. A
weak metaphor simply doesn't have a lot to say. (We could spend a week on this)
Not all good work has these three elements in a strong, harmonious balance.
There is good decorative art which has strong surface and image. There is good
illustration which has strong image and metaphor. I make both of these, and
include such works in exhibits I organize.
I have put forth this brief pedagogic interlude in an attempt to focus the
issues of this discussion and encourage a precise vocabulary. It's difficult to
compress 15 weeks of classes into a few paragraphs, but I will address any
questions subscribers may pose.
From: Richard Minsky <minsky@MINSKY.COM>
Date: Sat, 18 Apr 1998 00:09:12 -0400
Perceptual boundaries are the limitations imposed on consciousness by the
need to maintain sanity. If the unknowable which is all existence is taken
in small doses and reified in a microstructure (neural net) as a model which
gives us something to hold on to, then the entity which challenges the
perceptual set may be rejected as threatening the illusion of reality which
allows one to get out of bed.
The artist specifically challenges the established sense of order, pushing
the boundary and enabling the culture to expand its vision. If one reads
Tolstoy's _What is Art_, Kandinsky's _Concerning the Spiritual in Art_,
Stanislavsky _On the Art of the Stage_, Koestler's _The Act of Creation_,
etc. one begins to see this thread in all creative acts, in all media. We
can also look at the Futurist manifestos of the beginning of this century,
like _A Slap in the Face of Public Taste_.
Book art is a fledgling movement with millenia of history, and it's not a
paradox. Perhaps it has no manifesto, but everyone should read Ulises
Carrion's "The New Art of Making Books" before thinking too much about it.
What is exciting at this point is that quite a few participants have
achieved serious levels of development in both the mechanical, or craft
aspects, and the conceptual, or art aspects. It is this combination of
structure, material, image, and metaphor which distinguishes book art from
The discussion of human skin in binding is neither morbid nor repulsive. At
the worst, it's academic. At best, it provides practical information for
practitioners in this field, which is a significant purpose of this list.
The fact that some subscribers found it to be in bad taste may have raised
the discussion itself to the level of art. Art is about many things, but
changing or expanding the vision of the viewer is certainly one of them.
To use a material in one's work which in itself startles the viewer is
significant if (and perhaps only if) the material is requisite in
communicating the intended metaphor (e.g., the ratskin and safety pin
binding I did on _Babel_ <http://www.minsky.com/5.htm>, or the Trilateral
Commission's _The Crisis of Democracy_ bound in sheep, gold and barbed wire
To use any animal's skin on a binding is a powerful ritual act which
requires great respect for both the animal which gave its skin and the text
which is bound. It's not a matter to be taken lightly.
Re: Book Art Criticism
Subject: Re: Book Art Criticism
From: Richard Minsky <minsky@MINSKY.COM>
Date: Wed, 30 Aug 2000 23:45:28 -0400
Thanks Peter, for putting that thread together. Actually,
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
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
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
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
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.
Re: What is art - ad absurdam
Subject: Re: What is art - ad absurdam
From: Richard Minsky <minsky@MINSKY.COM>
Date: Sun, 3 Sep 2000 21:50:27 -0400
Charles Schermerhorn wrote:
>Neither van Gogh, nor Bach, nor Feininger, nor Sandburg,
>while producing their work gave a thought to how it would
>be defined. It grew out of an intrinsic creative instinct
>unique to those who do.
What a peculiar idea! They are all masters of form, with extremely well
defined work. Feininger came out of the Bauhaus. Kandinsky, Feininger's
predecessor, wrote _Concerning the Spiritual in Art_ and _Point and Line to
Plane_ (and was the first "abstract" artist by some accounts, though I also
like the path from Albert Pinkham Ryder to de Kooning by way of Turner);
Klee, also out of the Bauhaus, wrote _The Pedagogical Sketchbooks_; If you
want to quote writers, Tolstoy wrote _What is Art_. Bach wrote down every
note--and was THE master of form and methodology. He certainly did a good
job of teaching his kids! Many of the "New York School" (Abstract
Expressionists) wrote and taught theory, and we could make a reading list a
mile long of artists who codified their methodologies. I liked that quote
from Rauschenberg. Curiosity is at the root of it. Certainly there are
artists who didn't write it down, but they all defined it. Some visual
artists are less verbal or literary than others. I certainly wouldn't
criticise an artist for not writing it down.
I make book art. I don't believe in "intrinsic creative instinct". I define
it before I produce it. I have a methodology. I have a theoretical
framework. I use that framework to create and judge art.
And so what if an artist doesn't do that, but works on instinct? I curate a
lot of exhibitions, judge competitions, decide who gets in or gets the
prize. I have a collection of work I believe is important. It's not easy. I
have to make judgment calls all the time. And have a reason for them that
goes beyond "I like it." It doesn't really matter to me whether an artist's
method is conscious or unconscious. I still have criteria that I use to
judge the work.
And I think it's important that people in this field who have to make this
kind of judgment call every day share their methodologies with each other. I
have already read some fresh and interesting points of view, that made me
think about it.
I don't know why some people are afraid of thought or criticism. That point
of view doesn't help us make any decisions. It adds to the mass of
redundant, derivative, thoughtless, weak, self-indulgent work.
For example, I was talking to a young curator/librarian at the Book Art fair
at CCCCBPA. He was extolling the virtues of a young book artist who was
gluing pages together and creating "text" by shaving through the pages at an
angle. I said, "Oh, like Buzz Spector did 20 years ago?" He answered. "Who's
that." I didn't mention Dieter Roth or Michael Gibbs, but changed the subject.
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