A CENTURY OF CRAFT // India Johnson

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

Johanna Drucker’s The Century of Artists’ Books is one of the best surveys we have of the history of our field. Can a history of artists’ books be considered a rough history of book art? As a form, artists’ books seem to be what unites this ‘book art’ association—when I see an exhibition at a CBAA conference, I mostly expect to encounter artists’ books.

But as Drucker writes in Century, a history of artists’ books is not to be confused with a history of the book. While “outstanding examples of book production” (21)  populate preceding centuries, artist bookwork is born in the twentieth. Before that, she does locate a few “genuine precedents for the conceptual practice of artists’ books” (21), including William Blake and William Morris.

Both men are logical ancestors for today’s book art. But in the longer arc of art history, the legacies of these two 19th-century artists diverge. Blake is a seminal figure in the Romantic movement. Romantic ideas about avant-gardism and personal creative genius set a precedent for the emergence of modern art in the 1850s and ’60s. Morris, an avowed anti-modernist, set a century and a half of reactionary craft aesthetics in motion. In the twentieth century, craft and modern art would come to define themselves against each other  (Adamson, Thinking, 2)—art as being ‘more than’ just craft, and craft as being ‘more skilled’ than art. This aided craft in nurturing its critiques of modern culture, and art in maintaining an avant-garde edge.

To analyze the artists’ books that come from that 20th-century vanguard, we have plenty of theory. A legacy like Morris’s is more problematic for contemporary book art—but it is not going away. Consider that this organization congregates not just around artists’ books, but around specific craft processes—hand printing, bookbinding and papermaking.

In such trades, Morris did not invent skilled workmanship. But by tying it to ideas of heritage, authenticity, and memory—and situating it in opposition to industrial production—thinkers like Morris and John Ruskin invented craft. Glenn Adamson points out that “before the industrial revolution, and outside its sphere of influence, it was not possible to speak of craft as a separate field of endeavor” (Adamson, Invention, xiii).

In his writing on the arts and crafts movement, Adamson does not discuss Morris’s press. This is probably because, as Drucker reminds us, “books were the least and latest aspect of Morris’s production” (27). Though he designed books only during the last six years of his life, Morris almost single-handedly invented fine press. Compared to the influence of Morris’s work on design history as a whole, the Kelmscott Press approach to book design, and production, exerted an outsized impact on hand bookmaking.

Morris and Ruskin championed craft production as meaningful and autonomous labor because they adhered to the thought of Karl Marx. His thought is also alive and well in Drucker’s definition of artists’ book as those which “integrate the formal means of realization and production with thematic or aesthetic issues” (2). Drucker notes that one might criticize Morris’s romanticization of medieval labor—he writes as though the industrial revolution invented exploitative labor—“but that hardly seems useful” (27).

Adamson, however, finds it to be quite illuminating. It is essential to remember that Ruskin and Morris did not really “revive” skilled manual production, which was alive and well in the industry of their time, as it is today (Invention, 212). They also ignored the fact that no amount of enjoyable, autonomous labor completely severs the craftsperson from larger economic systems—as any book artist who has ever needed healthcare or bought an industrially-made material for a project can confirm. (Has anyone used any book board lately?) What Ruskin and Morris did was to write a new script for craft, attaching anti-capitalist virtues to it, as well as a narrative of loss and revival.

Curiously, we continue to tell this story of loss more than a century later. Although some crafts, such as hand printing and binding, have even gained a foothold in higher education, we still talk of “preserving” them. Adamson marvels, “It is truly amazing that every generation can tell itself ... that it is witnessing the disappearance of craft forever, and therefore has a unique responsibility to save it” (Invention, 183).

But there are good reasons this story has had such enduring appeal for the last century and a half. It serves an important cultural purpose—that of processing the trauma of the industrial revolution, and the trauma of modernity itself. Adamson quotes historian Elizabeth Wilson’s remark that, “while an economic analysis may ultimately explain our society more objectively than any other, the use of the term ‘modernity’ makes possible the exploration of our subjective experience of it” (Invention, xxii). He also reminds us that “trauma” does not refer an initial wound, but the effect it causes as it ruptures through the body (Invention, 185). That rupture continues today as digitization fundamentally alters culture. Marx’s phrase, “all that is solid melts into air” (Invention, xxii), feels as apt in the face of the information revolution as it did during the industrial one. It is no coincidence that we are witnessing a revival of crafts in popular culture, such as the DIY movement and Etsy, in this digital dawn. We are trying to cope.

As we enter a digital age, deep engagement with a craft will not provide one with an accurate picture of labor in the 21st century. As it blinded Morris to the profusion of skilled labor that surrounded him, propelling innovation and production in his time, it may blind us. But intensive craft training can provide us with the ability to articulate the workings of embodied cognition. It allows us to assert, from the authority of our own experiences, that how things are made matters—that meaning does not exist separately from the means of production. This is especially relevant for book artists with a foot in contemporary art world, who may need to contextualize their craft practice for an audience in that sphere. Today, fine artists have license to fabricate little of their own work, and even obscure the true means of its production.

When it comes to book art theory, production is not my sole preoccupation. I come to artists’ books with concerns about the relationship of text and image. I come to them with concerns about multiples, sequencing, and social practice. As I stated at the beginning of this post, I’m drawn to CBAA because its membership rallies around artists’ books as a form. But CBAA is not only a ‘book art’ association—it is concerned with the production of artists’ books in colleges. In practice, this often takes the form of course offerings in crafts like printing, binding, and papermaking. We should own the fact that college book art education is craft-based. When we teach not only thinking through making, but critical thinking about making, we embody that term—in its best sense.

Works Cited

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

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

______________. Thinking Through Craft. Oxford: Berg, 2007.

Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists’ Books. New York: Granary Books, 1995.

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


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