Blast Their Eyes!

Love must justify itself by its results in intimacy of mind and body, in warmth, in tender contact, in pleasure. If it has to be justified from the outside, it is thereby proved a thing without justification (27).
—Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point

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Published in 1928, Point Counter Point is a highly amusing society drama which seems to be a pointed but harmless tale of the social foibles of the English upper classes. But, in truth, there is a poison at the center and the story produces a feeling by the end that is akin to a cold hard blade of a steel knife in one’s gut. That people are consistently awful is something we all know but usually try hard to forget. Huxley’s genius is his clever mode of describing the heartbreaking disillusionment of life. I read this book from a found copy of a 1960’s cheap paperback. It more or less fell apart as I read it: the browned acidic paper crumbling, the leaves falling away as I turned the pages….seemed appropriate.

“It’s the disease of modern man. I call it Jesus’s disease on the analogy of Bright’s disease. Or rather Jesus’s and Newton’s disease; for the scientists are as much responsible as the Christians. So are business men, for that matter. It’s Jesus’s and Newton’s and Henry Ford’s disease. Between them, the three have pretty well killed us. Ripped the life out of our bodies and stuffed us with hatred” (124-25).

So admonishes Mark Rampion—the one decent fellow in the cast of characters. He and his wife Mary represent the only healthy people in the book. Their love story is something of an oasis I kept wanting to get back to. It did not surprise me in the least to discover, after I had finished the book, that they are probably based on D.H. Lawrence and Catherine Mansfield. The sane people are justifiably disgusted:

“They’re just marching toward extinction. And a damned good thing too. Only the trouble is that they’re marching the rest of of the world along with them. Blast their eyes! I must say, I resent being condemned to extinction because these imbeciles and scientists and moralists and spiritualists and technicians and literary and political uplifters and all the rest of them haven’t the sense to see that man must live as a man, not as a monster of conscience braininess and soulfulness” (220).

Of course, the legacy of Huxley is his incredibly prophetic vision. although, when you think about it, I suppose it doesn’t take much talent for insight to realize that there is something very wrong with our ability to live naturally in the world. Most people are lucky if they can merely get by on the fumes of love as the real quenching experience eludes so many. And people are cruel to one another. Crueler, even, than they have to be.

“You don’t want to hurt my feelings. But it would really hurt them less if you did say so straight out, instead of just avoiding the whole question, as you do now. Because avoiding is really just as much of an admission as a bald statement. And it hurts more because it last longer, because there’s suspense and uncertainty and repetition of pain. So long as the words haven’t been definitely spoken, there’s always a chance that they mayn’t have been tacitly implied. Always a chance, even when one knows that they have been implied. There’s still room for hope. And when there is hope there’s disappointment. It isn’t really kinder to evade the question, Phil; it’s crueller” (81).

This sort of common way of dealing with things is so destructive. And painful. I see it extend out beyond the domain of romantic love— the question, do you love me or not? This tradition of evasion leads to the warping of all relationships including our relationship with the planet, which asks more and more plaintively each day, do you love me? Why are we poisoning our planet? Why do we poison each other? I saw a photograph this morning of a boatload of starving people who were turned away from countries that could at least help them simply not starve to death. Police killing our own citizens based on the color of their skin. Politicians taking food out of the poor’s mouths. Polluters with incomprehensible immunity. Why don’t you love me? As a society we are bound by norms that don’t allow an injustice to be called an injustice. We evade the reality that other people’s human dignity is trampled upon by an disinclination to let ourselves just be human. To show and prove our love of life—this life! my life! your life! — openly and unapologetically.

“It’s the substitution of simple intellectual schemata for the complexities of reality; of still and formal death for the bewildering movements of life. It’s incomparably easier to know a lot, say, about the history of art and to have profound ideas about metaphysics and sociology than to know personally and intuitively a lot about one’s fellows and to have satisfactory relations with one’s friends and lovers, one’s wife and children” (329).

Reality is hard. I always considered the hermit to be something of an evading weakling—just try to maintain kindness, consideration for others, and for the world here IN the world—that’s the true and good work. My daughter and I always like to remind each other, “if you’re not laughing, it’s just fucking depressing.” But the profound lack of kindness— including faux-kindness laced with ulterior motives, justifications, and self-aggrandizement— is just too depressing to laugh off some days.

The Heart’s Watermarks

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I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by Ken Botnick on his recently published artist book, Diderot Project. While waiting for my final exam of the semester to be released I calmed my nerves by spending a leisurely morning in Mortimer Rare Book Room extending the pleasure by reading this sumptuous, intelligent, and marvelously reverential work.

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I decided, while photographing some of the pages, that I would leave my own hand in the image. First of all—it made it a hell of a lot easier to take the image, but also, reading this book is such a richly tactile experience that my own hand began to take on all of the most wonderful aspects of the book. Not least of all–the first section—which is titled: “To Observe Without Confusion Vol. 1 Memory: The Hand.” My hand turning and touching each page created an echo of meaning. As Botnick relates, to touch something is a complex act: “grasping cannot be reduced to its visomoter aspects” (Marc Jeannerod quoted). And then, the spectacle of dried paint under my thumbnail (the stubborn vestiges of my own printmaking adventures) created a connection between myself, the artist Botnick, and les métiers (the trades) which Diderot so famously championed in his encyclopedia. And finally— I work the book. It is my tool. By my hand the deliciously rich and varied papers are discovered, the ideas absorbed, the beauty felt. The object is directly infused into my senses, of which touch, as Diderot believed, is the most essential.

Hand knowledge and symbolic knowledge constitute equally powerful but different and not equally appreciated ways of organizing worldly phenomena” (Jeanne Bamberger quoted).

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Botnick pieces together a variety of text by various authors, including himself, as a way into the project of representing, through a work, through an object, the vibrating pulse of Diderot’s spectacular l’Encyclopedie. Botnick lets the affecting qualities of what it means and how it feels to become deeply engrossed— intellectually, aesthetically, and emotionally— radiate out through his own book. In the second part, “I Insist on the Freedom Vol. 2 Reason: the Object”  he includes the poem, “Delights of the door” by Francis Ponge, arrestingly hinged on the gutter of the book. There is something so sweetly lovely about it…I love to turn a page and feel a smile rise upon my mouth.

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Some of the most extraordinary pages are the most difficult to photograph. Botnick designed several watermarks and had Paul Wang of Dieu Donné Paper produce. I have a weakness (thanks, especially, to Henry Miller) for watermarks. In the third image posted here the watermark of a compass can just be made out, these pages call to the reader’s hand with such intensity it is impossible not to lift the page and find the image increased by the backing of one’s own darker skin behind it. The paper is breathtaking throughout the book, but these pages are so lovely…Botnick has a gift for finding the sublime in the subtle.

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The person who perceives is not spread out before herself as a consciousness must be, she has historical density, she takes up a perceptual tradition and is faced with a present…(Maurice Merleau-Ponty quoted).

The above page, found in the final part, “Through Sensation We are Led to Abstraction Vol. 3 Imagination: The Senses” just about made me fall to my knees…I was trying to drown out the office chit-chat that was being conducted behind me so I put my earbuds in and played my playlist I call “Eclectic” —because it is. As I turned the page, the music went from Sue Jorge’s “Rock N’ Roll Suicide” to Mendelssohn’s Elijah op. 70 “he that shall endure.”  Something in those opening chords combined with the image in front of me just about slayed me.  Our personal-historical density informs and layers every experience we have. This is what I love about a book such as Botnick’s: what he brings, what Diderot left, the watermarks of my own heart—all these things are lived in the object.

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*Project Diderot, the work of Ken Botnick, editor, author, designer, printer, and publisher (Emdash 2015). Bound by Daniel Kelm (Wide Awake Garage).

Yes

“I can do everything with my language, but not with my body. What I hide by my language, my body utters. I can deliberately mold my message, not my voice. […] My body is a stubborn child, my language is a very civilized adult…”
—Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (44)

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Oh the lover’s discourse. I know it well. One hardly requires an other for the discourse to sustain itself. But I suppose the euphoria and bitter ruefulness would not quite be the same without X. Roland Barthes’ book, A Lover’s Discourse, is by turns a complicit exploration into the sometimes amusing, sometimes helplessly humiliating neurosis of the hall of mirrors that is the lover’s internal discourse with the other, and which—consumes.

(What is stupid is to be surprised. The lover is constantly so; he has no time to transform, to reverse, to protect. Perhaps he knows his stupidity, but he does not censure it. Or again: his stupidity acts as a cleavage, a perversion: it’s stupid, he says, and yet…it’s true.). (177)

The book’s purpose is driven by Barthes’ assertion (found in a sort of prologue) that “the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude” and that it is “completely forsaken by the surrounding language: ignored, disparaged, or deride by them, severed not only from authority but also from the mechanisms of authority (science, techniques, arts).” The construction of the book too is a lovely thing. Fragments of discourse, organized by a word and the particular definition that word has to the lover, with running sidebars of the lover’s accomplices in forming the ideas within: Diderot, Lacan, Stendhal, Werther (oh lots of Werther!)Freud, Proust and many others…”So it is the lover who speaks and who says:”

To Be Ascetic
askesis
Whether he feels guilty with regard to the loved
being, or whether he seeks to impress that being
by representing his unhappiness, the amorous
subject outlines an ascetic behavior of
self-punishment (in life-style, dress, ect.).

1. Since I am guilty of this, of that, (I have—I assign myself—a thousand reasons for being so), I shall punish myself, I shall chasten my body: cut my hair very short, conceal my eyes behind dark glasses (a way of taking the veil), devote myself to the study of some serious and abstract branch of learning. (33)

It goes on, but…that one made me laugh. I can’t say I relate to the dark glasses (he has an entire entry on dark glasses) but that may just be because I’m near-sighted and need my regular glasses to see the world further than whatever book I have in my hand. But it could be possible to say my entire education is an offering at the alter of the lover’s discourse.

Barthes’ passage on Waiting is another quite funny rift on the harrowing heights and fathomless depths our discourse travels in the space of ten minutes.

The setting represents the interior of a café, we have a rendezvous, I am waiting. […] I discern and indicate the other’s delay; this delay is as yet only a mathematical, computable entity…[…] What is to be done (anxiety of behavior)? […] I am internally livid. That is the play; it can be shortened by the other’s arrival; if the other arrives in Act I, the greeting is calm; if the other arrives in Act II, there is a “scene” […] “Am I in love? —Yes, since I am waiting.” (38)

Am I in love? is a question fraught with anxiety, hope, excitement—but wait! it leads into another phrase, and moment of when—when does “I love you” come to sit on the lover’s lips dangerously threatening to be uttered at an unguarded moment?  And, well, first, what actually, does it mean to say “I love you” ? Barthes approaches the phrase as a single word (like a Hungarian—he explains that it IS a single word in Hungarian) There is a correlation between the difficulty of defining what the word “word” means and the single utterance of “I love you.”

3. The word (the word-as-sentence) has a meaning only at the moment I utter it; there is no other information in it but its immediate saying: no reservoir, no armory of meaning. Everything is in the speaking of it.” (149)

Barthes spends some time here. Diving into the waves of possible answers to I love you, after, of course, defining the dimensions of such an utterance: no real usage in the world, no nuance in its all-or-nothing clumsiness, no place to fasten itself to…but what do we know? We lover’s of the world? We know:

I-love-you is active. It affirms itself as a force—against other forces. Which ones? The thousand forces of the world, which are, all of them, disparaging forces (science, doxa, reality, reason, etc.) Or again: against language. Just as the amen is at the limit of language, without collusion with its system, stripping it of its “reactive mantle,” so the proffering of love (I-love-you) stands at the limit of syntax, welcomes tautology (I-love-you means I-love-you), rejects servility of the Sentence (it is merely a holophrase). (154)

So yes, this self-inflicted discourse is of endless fascination. The wonder and beauty of the word I-love-you is that— all Barthes says about it is true, but its meaning is in its activity: not its letters, not in its internalization. I-love-you alone connects, and connects to all the parts: the sensual, the emotional, the intellectual: it is the scaffold by which the lovers’ hands caress each other, the lovers’ hearts sing with the other, and the lovers’ mind builds castles in the air together.

4. The truth: what is oblique. a monk once asked Kao Tsu: “What is the unique and final word of truth?”…The master replied: “Yes.” (231)

*Monoprint— “Book XX, Homer” (unfinished) by J. Ryan 2015

Parlez, bijoux!

There is nothing like being a human. As ridiculous as a work may be, if it is praised it will succeed.
—Denis Diderot, trans. Sophie Hawkes, Les Bijoux indiscrets/The Indiscreet Jewels, (61)

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As my interest (okay, fine, obsession) with Diderot continues I took a slight detour into his novels (he is famed for his l’Enclopedie but perhaps not as well known for his literary works). Perhaps detour is too strong a word, the fact that each of his three novels are completely different and experimental in their own way fits perfectly into the kind of discursive and avid (not too strong a word in his case, I believe) intellect.

Allow the voice of your jewel to awaken the voice of your conscience, and do not blush at confessing the crimes you had no shame to commit (61).

The premise of Les Bijoux indiscrets is hilariously scandalous, I’m amazed, frankly, that Dali or Almodóvar never made a film of it. How can one resist a story of a sultan who obtains a magical ring which, once turned toward its female victim, causes her “jewel” to speak. Don’t think that just because this book came out in 1748 women’s vaginas didn’t have a lot to bitch about, actually, I suppose they had more…but this is not a book whose purpose is sympathy for the desires of the various jewels. It is really a provocative philosophical romp undressing the sexual hypocrisies of society.

Diderot was of course accused of indecency and while he was in the middle of negotiating the terms of his editorial-ship in regard to his monumental and incredible l’Encyclopdie, he was promptly thrown into jail for many months. That’s the thing about hypocrites—no sense of humor. Ah well.

Diderot uses this genre, (some people consider it a roman à clef, as some of the characters seem pointed towards real people—and court life in general) in an interesting way. Quick digression—I should mention that I also read his book, The Nun (La Religieuse) and, although a very different genre, it seems to me that he uses the literary form in both cases to explore philosophical ideas and political critiques. Both books suffer from this inverted stance. In literature, the story must come first, and whatever philosophy flows from the tale should not try to lead. It would be like a tango with two leads—an exquisite balance is lost. In The Nun, written as if it were a sort of Samuel Richardson novel in the vein of Clarrisa (Diderot wrote an essay in praise of Richardson that is so effusive in its praise that it is only its sincerity that keeps it from being on the wrong side of the ridiculous— but gosh I love the man’s committed passion!). I digress. The protagonist, Suzanne, is a woman forced into the cloistered life petitioning (the novel is, like Clarissa, epistolary, a long letter written to a man she hopes will help her out of her miserable condition) to be let free. For Diderot’s purposes it is important that Suzanne have no ulterior motive other than the simple reasonable truth that she has no feeling or interest for the vocation. She simply has no calling for it, why should she not have the freedom, the free will, to say, no thank you?  And the tortures and indignities she suffers with perfect patience and understanding! And yet, this purity and simplicity makes Suzanne a pretty flat character, and worse, she really loses credibility when, in an extended series of scenes (greatly detailed) she remains oblivious to the importunate sexual advances that are inherent in the Mother Superior’s fondling of Suzanne’s breasts (and other sweet spots)…. Really Suzanne? I know Diderot wanted to make her “an innocent” but I don’t care who you are, if your breasts are being fondled you are going to feel something, and if you are remotely intelligent you are certainly going to suspect something. Geesh.

But back to the jewels.

“Many are those in whom the soul visits the head as if it were a country house, where the stay is brief. These are the dandies, flirts, musicians, poets, novelists, courtiers, and all those whom we call pretty women. Listen to these people argue, and you will immediately recognize vagabond souls that are influenced by the different climes they inhabit” (126).

While the premise of this novel is fun, I don’t think Diderot has enough fun with it, but that may be because that is not really what he wants to talk about, and he may simply lack any deep insight into the complexity of what a woman’s vagina may have to report on from her perspective…the novel seems focused on the jewels’ fidelity or lack thereof (more the man’s perspective, I’d say) but what is lovely in the novel is the relationship between the sultan Mangogul and his beloved Mirzoza. Their spirited and philosophically complex discussions are the true heart of this novel. I couldn’t help thinking that Mirzoza stood for Sophie Volland who was Diderot’s mistress—her name was not Sophie, but because the name harkens the Greek word for wisdom that is what he called her throughout their passionate (intellectual and sexual) relationship as documented in his copious letters to her (only his are known to be extant).

“What! [affection in a jewel] devoid of meaning?” Cried Mirzoza. “So, is there no middle ground, and must a woman necessarily be a prude, a gallant, a coquette, a voluptuary, or a libertine?”
“My soul’s delight,” said the sultan, “I am ready to admit the inexactitude of my list, and I would add the affectionate woman to the preceding characters, but only on the condition that you give me a definition thereof that does not fall under one of my categories.” (100)

Where does the soul reside? Are animals sentient? Are people fundamentally good or bad? These are some of the conversations dispersed throughout the tale between these two lovers whose respect and tenderness for each other is a lovely thing to spend some time with.

*monoprint—”Motherhood” by J. Ryan 2015

Salt of Words

The object in which power is inscribed, for all of human eternity, is language, or to be more precise, its necessary expression: the language we speak and write.”
—Roland Barthes, A Barthes Reader, edited by Susan Sontag. From the essay “Inaugural Lecture” (460).

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Bons mots, bon app’!

I have been deeply engaged in reading as many books about the French Enlightenment figure: Denis Diderot as my wearied eyes can manage. I love the way his mind is organized around a passionate principle of discursive delights. I am planning on writing a short research paper about him, but I have gotten so involved in so many varied primary source essays, novels, and secondary source material— not to mention the impetus of my  fascination: l’Encyclopedie des Sciences— that I was complaining to a friend that I had read far too much to be able to write a mere 7-8 page paper. He suggested that I get some sort of learning disability dispensation stating that my inability to stop reading requires that I be allowed to write twice as much.

Worsening my condition, thanks to Diderot, I now have a new person of interest: Roland Barthes. I got the book A Barthes Reader because it had an essay about the plates of  l’Encyclopedie (the area I will try to narrow my focus upon), but was unable to rest until I had read all of the other varied and wonderful essays within and then, yes, request another book of his: A Lover’s Discourse (but how could I resist that title, I ask you?), possibly, I need help. But nevermind that–

The act of stating, by exposing the subject’s place and energy, even his deficiency (which is not his absence), focuses on the very reality of language, acknowledging that language is an immense halo of implications, of effects, of echoes, of turns, returns, and degrees. […] Writing makes knowledge festive (464).

In Roland Barthes’ essay “Inaugural Lecture,” which is a lecture that he gave upon the inauguration of his position as Chair of Literary Semiology for Collége de France, asserts that it is literature alone which can “understand speech outside the bounds of power” (462). He breaks his argument into three parts based on Greek concepts: Mathesis, Mimesis, and Semiosis. 

Mathesis, or acquisition of knowledge, of which literature is replete—this is not to say that literature is a manual from which one studies, nor is it an either/or proposition—simply, it is really something more: “science is crude, life is subtle” (463) and it is literature that negotiates that line. For Barthes it is significant that the French words (this essay was translated by Richard Howard) flavor and knowledge have the same root. Beautifully put:  literature is the “salt of words,” and it is this, this quality in literature, this “taste of words which makes knowledge profound, fecund” (465) that lifts the burden of acquiring knowledge.

For all knowledge, all sciences are present in the literary monument. Whereby we can say that literature, whatever the school in whose name it declares itself, is absolutely, categorically realist:  it is reality, i.e. the very spark of the real. Yet literature, in this truly encyclopedic respect, displaces the various kinds of knowledge, does not fix or fetishize any or them (463).

Mimesis is of course related to representation, “literature’s second force” (465).

The real is not representable, and it is because men ceaselessly try to represent it by words that there is a history of literature (465).

This is the aim of literature, this realism which the writer will persist “according to the truth of desire” (467) in demonstrating even though, as Barthes’ concedes, “literature is quite as stubbornly unrealistic; it considers sane its desire for the impossible” (466). But even at its most modernistic, literature is based in describing the real, that is what allows a reader to connect to the work.

[The semiology of the speaker] is not a hermeneutics: it paints more than it digs, via di porre rather than via de levare. Its objects of predilection are texts of the image-making process: narratives, images, portraits, expressions, idiolects, passions, structures which play simultaneously with an appearance of verisimilitude and with an uncertain truth (475).

Semiosis is then the effort to “elicit the real” (474). Barthes only concedes that semiotics has a relation to science, not that it is a science. It “helps the traveler” but is not a “grid” meant to make clear a “direct apprehension of the real” (474). It can’t possibly because  it is affixed to a moving target. Language is not static, nor apolitical, nor ahistorical: “I cannot function outside language, treating it as a target, and within language, treating it as a weapon” (473).

It is a fascinating and thought-provoking essay, and it is just one of many in the book. I knew I had to read them all when the premier essay was the very first one Barthes had ever published in 1942 on one of my favorites: André Gide. The penultimate essay described here is “Inaugural Lecture” and it stays with me. He recounts towards the end his experience of reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and how he was struck, powerfully, by the force of reading that historically removed novel about a disease which he himself had had and yet which was, because of modern treatment, a different disease than it had been in Mann’s time. This realization of a connection, through his body, of being linked to the past, was something he said he must forget so to be free for a vita nuova. He distilled his insight into his closing remarks which left me with chills:

There is an age at which we teach what we know. Then comes another age at which we teach what we do not know; this is called research. Now perhaps comes the age of another experience: that of unlearning, of yielding to the unforeseeable change which forgetting imposes on the sedimentation of the knowledges, cultures, and beliefs we have traversed. This experience has, I believe, an illustrious and outdated name, which I now simply venture to appropriate at the very crossroads of its etymology: Sapientia: no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavor as possible” (478).

God that’s lovely.

*French macarons with raspberry or chocolate hazelnut filling.

The Unseen

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Gypsy & Other Poems

In Johanna Drucker’s 2005 article published in The Bonefolder, “Exemplary Work,” she laments that the “field of artist books suffers from being under-theorized, under-historicized, under-studied, and under-discussed” (3). The article is a sharp critique, and yet it would be difficult to argue that she is wrong about some of what the artist book suffers from. Drucker has been writing about and making artists books for decades now, and is very much an insider: part of the history, theorizing, and discussing-class of the field. As an outsider, new to the world of artist books, I feel as though I come to this issue from a different perspective.  Drucker and I share a love of the genre, and a concern as well, but as I have not been steeped in the culture but recently (and am perhaps late to the party), I wonder if her emphasis on “specific descriptive vocabulary,” a perceived lack of a canon of artists, or “critical terminology for book arts with historical perspective” (3) is quite the fundamental problem.

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If one looks at a book published by Gehenna Press, such as Gypsy & Other Poems, a clear historical perspective is indeed evident. Leonard Baskin, the late artist, sculptor and proprietor of Gehenna Press, worked with one foot, at least, well within the Fine Press tradition of book publishing. In Gypsy & Other Poems, using the poetry of revered writer James Baldwin, Baskin created a sumptuous finished product which tactilely, aesthetically and emotionally adds to Baldwin’s work. Rather than illustrate Baldwin’s poetry, Baskin found inspiration in the man himself by reserving his artistic prowess for various portraits of Baldwin which follow the poems in the back of the book.

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The poems are put forth with a fierce and pointed commitment to traditional Fine Press practices: the margins are of generous proportions, the letter face is beautifully composed in black and red ink alone, the quality of materials are in evidence. Baskin offers Baldwin, a man who suffered from an exclusionary racist society, to the reader with the dignity which he deserves as expressed in the reverence, quality, and gravitas of a 20th century Livre d’Artiste. Baskin’s influence in the history and canon of artist books can hardly be ignored. While taking from the conservative art form of letterpress, he advanced the craft by adding his intense, and often disquieting, etchings. William Morris may very well serve as the looming figurehead of the Fine Press tradition, but it is the Livre d’Artiste that brought the genre of book arts into a new century, and artists such as Baskin that moved it yet further forward.

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Sommes-nous deux ou suis-je solitaire

 

Paul Eluard’s books such as Sommes-nous deux ou suis-je solitaire, (which to answer Janet Zweig’s litmus test: could certainly sustain me on a desert island) or the even more seminal, A Toute Epreuve, perfectly testify to a certain history and canon, of which Baskin was obviously influenced. The conversation within A Toute Epreuve between poet (Eluard) and artist (Joan Miro) is of the sort that initiated an entire genre of collaborative work: writer, artist and publisher, not necessarily three different people, but three distinct roles whose attention to the artist’s contribution altered and shaped modern artist books.

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A Toute Epreuve

 

Whereas text was once the dominating distinguishing feature of books, the era of the Livre d’Artiste expanded the ground that a book could cover. The enthusiasm with which the Livre d’Artiste was received, testifies to the public’s appetite for the complexity of text and art converging in the intimacy of the book form. That complexity has exponentially increased as the artist book’s structure, materials, and dimensions are experimented with in earnest.

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I don’t believe Drucker would argue with any of the above, she, more than I, understands the nuanced history of the artist book. Perhaps her complaint is really more along the lines of that particular history taking its proper place in the academic world. Where is the chapter on artist books in Jansen’s History of Art? Or E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art? There isn’t one.  Clearly, the artist book is seen as something outside of the regular history of art. I don’t disagree with Drucker there, where I do quibble is over the question of the proper nomenclature or descriptive words.  I approach artists books in the same way that I would approach any art. All of the questions Drucker wants to ask concerning one’s experience as a viewer applies as well to a painting as it does to a piece of literature, or an artists’ book.

We have the words and critical discourse in place. It is simply that artist books aren’t in the discussion. Why? The fact that artist books draw on multiple genres (literature, art, sculpture, the ubiquity of the utilitarian book!) should in no way discourage viewers or critics—one would think rather that it makes for a more interesting set of questions and challenges for artist and viewer alike. I believe the problem lies in the issue of access. A few years ago I did not even know what an artist book was.  My complaint, or worry, is that no one ever sees these things. They are locked away in rare book rooms, a place many eschew or are ignorant of, and it seems to me, many books are now being produced with the sole aim of selling them to the institutions that lock them away. I rarely, outside of special shows or Medieval Manuscript museums, have seen books displayed in museums. And books, by their nature, resist the ease of display that paintings or sculptures enjoy. They must be handled, and yet, they cannot be handled. They demand time: to read, peruse, and turn the pages, and that poses problems in this ‘drive-by’ society. What to do? I’m sure I don’t know, but I can’t see a solution that does not involve a greater visible presence in the world: in museums, galleries, library displays, art history books…if people do not know they exist, they aren’t going to look for them, much less discuss their artistic merit, which, like all art, varies wildly, and is at the mercy of subjectivity.

*previously published in fall of 2014 in Smith College’s “The Artist Book in the 20th Century” blog.

darling buds what may

darling buds what may

darling buds what may

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)]
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
—E.E. Cummings
*”darling buds what may” —monoprint with torn paper, J. Ryan 2015