01 Oct 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

Artists Who Make Books, edited by Andrew Roth, Philip E. Aarons, and Claire Lehmann, is a landmark survey of artists’ books by non-book artists. It takes only sixteen pages to run headlong into the problem that such artists may not actually know how to make books.

In the book’s first interview, Tauba Auerbach is asked if she uses fabricators to make her books. She defends herself: “at certain stages, yes, but I tried to do everything I could in my studio (16).” Auerbach elaborates that although her studio manager “and all-around amazing assistant” (16) did a lot of the work in-house, eventually a fabricator had to be hired: “I had a very specific way I wanted the book to be bound . . . and I didn’t have the skills or equipment to do that” (16).

So Auerbach hired Daniel Kelm as a fabricator. She describes him as “this extremely talented master bookbinder” (16). Though Auerbach refers to working with Kelm as “a great collaboration” (16), she doesn’t characterize the books made in her studio as a collaboration with her studio assistants. Auerbach is more transparent about hiring fabricators than some artists, but describing your assistant as “amazing” (16) is different than sharing authorship with her. The Auerbach interview concludes by characterizing bookmaking as a discipline that “exists beyond commercial activity . . . it really has to be a labor of love” (26).

Perhaps because I began making books in an industrial bindery at age sixteen, I know that before making books is a labor of love, it is a labor. Auerbach’s comments foreground bookmaking as an artistic pursuit, and mute it as skilled labor. Yet the latter enables the former. No amount of “extensive conversations about paper grain, adhesives, and so forth” (16) with a master bookbinder actually replaces his tacit knowledge. An artist who outsources the fabrication of her bookwork—even with transparency and curiosity—assumes a clear division between thinking and making, concept and form. But as Michael Robbins writes, “the relationship of form and content is more like that of space and time than that of vessel and water” (4-5).

I am not suggesting that employing fabricators denigrates the authenticity or validity of a bookwork off-the-bat. Rather, I argue that it factors into the work’s meaning. “One can outsource with greater or less intelligence,” as Glenn Adamson and Julia Bryan-Wilson point out in Art in the Making (21).

Just as an artist like Auerbach knows the limits of her skills and equipment, many book artists do as well. A printer might employ a master binder like Kelm to bind her artist’s books. So what’s the difference between the books Kelm binds for a postdisciplinary artist, and those he binds for our imaginary printer? The printer has the chance to credit Kelm in her colophon.

It’s probably impossible to include every detail of production in a colophon—but some give it their best stab, exhaustively listing everyone that took part in a project. More concise colophons recap only the most relevant details of making—perhaps those the primary creator feels will factor saliently into making meaning of the book.

The convention of the colophon in our field exposes an assumption that the meaning of an artwork is informed not only by the finished product, but by the specifics of artistic labor. There is substantial difference between art-directing a bookwork, and actually making it. Not only is this because “making is a form of thinking,” inextricably linking “the specificities of creation and the conceptual premise” (Adamson and Bryan-Wilson, 19). It is also because “whenever artists depend on the hands of others to make their work, those hands become part of the meaning of the work, like it or not, as surely as the specific resistances of wood or stone or clay limit the possibility of the carving” (Adamson, 43). Several conventions in the field of book art—extensive instruction in technical bookmaking processes, the ubiquity of handwork, the colophon—suggest that these claims by craft theorist Glenn Adamson are broadly sanctioned by book artists.

In essence, the difference between book artists and artists who make books is craft.

A loaded term, to be sure. Conversations about craft all too easily devolve into stale arguments of definition—where do we draw a line between what is art and what is craft? But given a flowering of recently published craft theory, we have better tools than we’ve ever had to apply “critical theory when it comes to questions of manual skill” (Adamson, xviii). A basic familiarity with current scholarship in this area is essential for a community of 21st century makers tied to methods of skilled hand production—not artists who make books, but book artists.

Works Cited

Adamson, Glenn. The Invention of Craft. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

Adamson, Glenn and Julia Bryan-Wilson. Art in the Making: Artists and their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing. London: Thames & Hudson, 2016.

Robbins, Michael. Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Roth, Andrew, Philip E. Aarons, and Claire Lehmann, eds. Artists Who Make Books.London: Phaidon, 2017.

India Johnson is an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa Center for the Book.

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