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The Manifesto of a Book Artist by Peter Thomas

Visions of what I have come to call the "New Gutenberg Bible" or the "Mona Lisa of the Book" - a thing that is the "perfect" book - haunt me constantly in those dreamy moments between sleep and wakefulness, as I work at the press, as I bind the printed pages of a book I am finally completing. Each time I begin a new book this vision is my standard. In the end I always fall short.

I know now that to make books is my calling and that the book is my art form. But this was not always the case. As a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz, searching for my vocation as an artist in an academic setting, I was told that to make a book was a craft and not an art. My instructors said if an object has a utilitarian function it cannot be "true" art. Art, they said, is unencumbered by function. I argued that art was not a guaranteed status, it had to be earned. Monet’s paintings of haystack were no more archetypal of art than The Golden Cockerell Press’s 1930 edition of The Four Gospels. Books can be art just like paintings can be art. The discussion should be about the aesthetic content in a work, not what kind of artwork is it. But they replied that a painting has intrinsic aesthetic content and the only content a book has is its text. This text might be a work of art, but the book was just a functional container. However beautiful, the book was only a marvelous example of craft.

They might have been right at that time, at least according to aesthetic theory. But I knew they were wrong. One day, as I stood in line to see the Book of Kells at the San Francisco Public Library, I realized the flaw in their logic. The Book of Kells had no other function than to be looked at and be enjoyed. Manuscript books like that, with their lavishly illustrated and illuminated pages, their covers that were jewel studded sculptures, were not made with function in mind. Most people could not read and the monks knew the text from memory. These books were made to be looked at as painting and sculpture.

In the same moment I also realized that most books were not made with this same goal in mind. Gutenberg’s Bible, printed using movable type, heralded the advent of mass production, the common dissemination of information through the written word and an opportunity to make more units for less money. Most books made after Gutenberg's Bible were too encumbered by function to be art works. It was not until centuries later that the work of artists like William Blake, and the fine press and design binding movements at the end of the industrial revolution, signaled change was ahead. The creation of the personal computer enabled this change to take place. As the burden of information storage shifted to electronic media, the book had been set free from its servitude to information. As the book looses function, it can once again become an object. When computer hardware improves to the point that we have no second thought about curling up in bed with a screen, I believe this change will be complete. Then the book will be absolutely free from function and enjoyed solely as an aesthetic object: a work of art.

This is a point in history, similar to the time following Gutenberg’s invention, when between 1450 and 1500 the manuscript book was replaced by the printed book and all the rules for laying out books became codified. Today, the new rules and standard expectations for what is the book as an art work have not yet been formalized. To help this transition occur, book artists must develop an aesthetic vocabulary to use for the books. Most artists have not been taught how to look at a book as an art object. Art cannot be discussed without common words and meanings. What is a book? It is everything, the physical materials, the structure and the ideas it contains. What is art? There are no simple answers.

When defining the book as an art works there are two ends to the spectrum of possibilities. One is the fine press book, the other is the book object. The fine press book adheres to the traditions of the early manuscript or printed books: impeccable craftsmanship and attention to detail. It is a literary artifact, which exists to support and reveal the text. It is a text embellished by artistic treatment. The other is the book object. This can be a book without words, without illustration, perhaps without pages. It includes within its definition shrines, sculptures and things that deal with book ideas, but are not readily discernible as books. In a book object the emphasis is usually on visual impact and concept. Somewhere in the center of this spectrum is thing called the artist book.

I have had a vision of the future when someone - I called them the Leonardo Da Vinci of the Book - will find new ways to present the whole range of aesthetic elements in a book, text, illustration, sequence, structure and color, and create something never before imagined to be possible: a book that would be universally recognized as "art". I call this book the Mona Lisa of the Book, or the New Gutenberg Bible. It is the archetypal book, and like the Book of Kells, it is something people will line up for hours just to get a glimpse of.

The "Mona Lisa" of the book will not be like a best selling novel with pages and pages of black text on white paper, for it will not just be a book to read. It will have good literature or valuable information, and these will be combined with quality materials and concept, to create a book that will be enjoyed and appreciated in ways we cannot now imagine. The illustrations will be integrated with the text, not just art work placed in a book. It will be visually interesting where ever and however the viewer looks at it, and will sustain interest from page to page, from the beginning to end. An artist book will be a "Mona Lisa" only when design, concept, materials and execution all display a mastery of the craft. It must have aesthetic content, visual impact, quality craftsmanship and a text worthy of publication. All the elements must work together to create a literary/visual art object that will move the souls of its audience

For the most part the same aesthetic terms can be applied to a book that are used for other art forms, but sometimes they must be looked at in new ways. For example, books have both form and content. Usually form is expressed through the binding structure and its materials, which appeal to the visual and tactile senses, and the text and illustration address content appealing to the intellect. But, when the text is arranged to provide visual stimulation, the text can address issues of form and act like a painting; and when books are more sculptural than literary, the form can express the content.

Another important aesthetic consideration in a book is the element of sequence. In a book the artist can control (or at least direct) the sequence in which the viewer looks at his or her work. Buzz Spector, a conceptual artist who sometimes works with books, pointed out to me that people will spend on the average only a few minutes in front of even the best painting, but will spend hours in front of a really bad paperback book. I believe the book artist can exploit this fact, working with everything between the front and back covers to create movement as a composer, and guide the viewer’s aesthetic experience deeper than is possible with lesser art forms.

To be art, a book must be made without function as a primary goal. But this does not mean that it should be fragile, or sloppy, or filled with meaningless words. One must not confuse function with craft. Function is utility, while craft is technique. An art work must have craftsmanship that equals or exceeds its aesthetic content for a work to be a real success. The book requires its artist to master many craft skills, but then so does painting (e.g. when the artist mixes their own tempera as the old masters did) and all the other arts. A book is mixed media: visual art, sculpture, literature and architecture all combined in one object.

Walter Hamady has called the book the "Trojan Horse" of art, because people who will not look at art will look at books. Books are intimate public objects. Books are not best shown behind glass, or on display in a museum or gallery, for they are not only two or three-dimensional works like paintings or sculpture. Books have a fourth dimension, which is time. Because of its multi-dimensional nature and versatility, artists from all other art forms are gravitating towards the book; and I predict that the book will become the dominant art form of the twenty-first century.

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