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The Future of the Book as Art. By Peter Thomas

The Future of the Book as Art. By Peter Thomas. California State Library Foundation Bulletin, October, 1994

Yoshida Kenko (1283-1350). Tsurezure-gusa (Essays In Idleness) c1340.
"To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate conversation with men of unseen generations-such is pleasure beyond compare..."

I am excited to be alive now, at this exact point in history, to be a book artist, making fine press artist books. There is a vitality in the field, a real excitement among those who practice the many crafts involved in making a book. Even the threat of extinction to the book, which looms on the horizon, seems to be a rallying call for the book arts community. There has been a resurgence of interest in paper making, paper marbling, book binding and fine press printing, and artist have begun to make books, experimenting, creating, pushing the definition of book to its limit. The book is taking on a new life.

The first books were each unique works of art. Master scribes and illuminators decorated their pages with embellished letters and colorful images, as they carefully copied the information to be recorded each book. The bindings of these books not only served to protect the text, but were gold tooled and jewel encrusted. Works like The Book of Kells, produced between the sixth and ninth centuries for use in a church, are now housed in museums and considered national treasures. What was written information is now art.

Around 1450 a revolution occurred when Johann Gutenberg printed his 42-line Bible, the first book made using movable type. It was designed to imitate the artistic qualities of the earlier manuscript books, but was produced in multiple copies and thus could reach a much larger audience. The benefits of mass production were immediately recognized and soon printing presses were found throughout the occidental world. As time passed books came to be valued more for the information they contained than for their visual appeal. As a consequence the artistic quality of the books began to decline.

It was not until the late nineteenth century that books were once again produced with as much consideration given to aesthetic attributes as to the information being communicated. Though commercial book publishers were spewing out information and entertainment at incredible rates, urged on in their attempt to produce more books at cheaper prices by the industrial revolution, a movement developed (which is exemplified by the work of William Morris' Kelmscott Press) that attempted to incorporate the aesthetic qualities of the early manuscript and printed books: wide margins, classic type faces, bold illustration, crisp and deep impression into rich handmade paper... Coupled with a renaissance in fine binding, this fine press movement began to once again elevate production of the book to an art.

During the early twentieth century improvements to the printing press and mechanical type setting machinery increased the speed and ease of book production. But often these improvements were followed by a complimentary lower standard of the quality in the final product. At the same time there were also fine press publishers utilizing improved equipment to produce beautiful books. As letterpress printing was replaced by photo offset and the linotype by photo type setting, inexpensive used printing equipment appeared on the secondary market. For the first time in history it became affordable for individuals to take up the craft of bookmaking.

The invention of the personal computer led to even greater changes. The typographical revolution of the 1980's known as desktop publishing gave the average person access to type and page design, which had previously been the domain of large publishing firms. Many of these new publishers were artists who came to the book from other mediums. They brought unconventional ideas with them and the aesthetics of their book production has been as varied as the practitioners themselves. Though some have made traditional finely printed works, others have created conceptual book art: one-of-a-kind objects that may not appear to be a book. And between the two extremes are found those who make all other kinds of books, from pop-up and rubber stamp books, to manuscript and illustrated books.

For book artists these are exciting times. Because of the computer, the book is being set free, for the first time since the invention of the printing press, from servitude to information. The invention of CD ROM has provided the technology to replace the tactile book of paper and ink with a digital version which can provide superior access to the text. In the future, when computer hardware improves to the point that we have no second thoughts about curling up in bed with a screen, I believe our relationship to the book will begin to change. At that time the book will once again be seen as an object, rather than a functional thing: an art form. People will look to electronic media for information and study, to books for pleasure. Good literature or valuable information will be combined with quality materials and unique methods of production to create books which will be enjoyed and appreciated in ways we cannot now imagine. It is possible that text and illustration as we know them will mutate in ways unimaginable. Poetry may provide the most significant text for these books, for in poetry the type naturally creates shapes on the page which are enjoyable both as images and as text, an effect which can only be contrived in regular prose. The new book will hold many surprises.

I believe it is essential that book artists develop mutual definitions of words and a critical vocabulary for the book. Art cannot be discussed without common words and meanings. Today the field seems divided in two. One side promoting the fine press book, the other the artist book. The aesthetic of the fine press book follows the traditions of the early manuscript or printed books, impeccable craftsmanship and attention to detail are of primary importance. The fine press book exists to support and reveal the text. The artist book values concept over craftsmanship. The text may be illustration and it may have a personal or indecipherable meaning. Emphasis is given to visual impact, and structure rather than function is often the prime consideration.

It is always difficult to reconcile the extreme points of view "Non-books, non-reading books, not-really books are produced by painstaking printers and artists everywhere. There is no reason they should not be. But they should not be advertised and promoted as books." versus "I am a book artist. Therefore what I make is a book.." But there is common ground. Books are recognized to have both form and content. They have a structure which must be supported. Usually the object appeals to the visual and tactile senses while the text provides content and appeals to the intellect. But as in sculpture, the object can provide the content and as a painting, the text can be visually arranged on a page. As with music, a book has sequence. The artist works with consecutive pages, a front and back cover to create within. A book is mixed media: visual art, sculpture, literature and architecture all combined in one object.

I believe the book can only succeed as an art form when the two approaches, fine press and artist book, are merged. I believe a book will prove an artistic masterpiece only when design, concept, materials and execution are all equal and all of the highest quality. This book must be able to sustain interest from page to page, from beginning to end. It must have aesthetic content, visual impact, quality craftsmanship and a text worthy of publication. In the new fine press artist book all elements will work together. These books will touch the soul.

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