:: Article

Artist’s Book as a Term Is Problematic

By Michalis Pichler.

Image: Artist’s Book as a Term Is Problematic (pedestal problem), Michalis Pichler, 2019

According to Stefan Klima, three issues dominated the debate around artists’ books (from about 1973 to 1998): publishing as an explicitly political act and the desire to challenge an art establishment; publishing as an implicitly political act and its challenge to imagine a new kind of reading; and finally, the very definition of what an “artist’s book” might be.”[1] While the first two issues are still pressing today, the term “artist’s book” now sounds outdated.

To talk about the artist’s book in the singular (as opposed to artists’ books as a collective plural) was always paradoxical, because the field has always been extremely heterogeneous. That heterogeneity might be aptly described by the term bibliodiversity. With an allusion to the (post)Darwinist concept of biodiversity, François Benhamu has described a publishing environment wherein one finds “several species, but some are present in huge numbers while others are very scarce, and the ones with many copies are likely to eat or prevail over the others. This is what is happening in the book world.”[2] In contrast to commercial, mainstream, mass-market publishing of normal and normative books and publications, the bibliodiversity is much greater in the realm of publishing as artistic practice, artists’ books, conceptual publications, cuckoo’s eggs, wolves in sheep’s clothing, sheep in wolves’ clothing, art as books, books as art, books as something else, primary information, bookworks, catalog exhibitions, and hybrid and entirely unclassifiable cases.

“Artist’s book” as a term is problematic because it ghettoizes, enforces the separation from broader everyday practices and limits the subversive potential of books by putting an art tag on them. Robert Smithson discusses this process of cultural confinement when he critiques the “portable object or surface disengaged from the outside world […] Once the work of art is totally neutralized, ineffective, abstracted, safe, and politically lobotomized, it is ready to be consumed by society. All is reduced to visual fodder and transportable merchandise.”[3] Even when books are housed (entombed) in institutional libraries, their sequestering in “special collections” and “rare book” collections mean that access to them is usually further complicated, typically putting restrictions, rules, limits, and the protocols of institutional bureaucracies between interested readers and the books they might want to experience. Any institution (including art libraries, exhibition spaces, and schools) that is serious about such material should acquire at least two copies of each item—and keep one of them on an unrestricted open shelf.

While extended discussions have taken place around the term, including heated debate over whether and where to put the apostrophe in artist’s book, Lawrence Weiner once cut through the Gordian knot by concluding: “Don’t call it an artist’s book, just call it a book.”[4]

A book is a sequential collection of pages, loose leaf or bound, and it is circulating in multiple reproductions. But today, we are no longer only talking about books anymore—more capacious than book, the term publication is better because it can encompass digital files, hybrid media, and forms we have yet to imagine.

Publishing or publications as an umbrella term would include any form of circulating information, including books, zines, loose-leaf collections, flyers, e-books, blog posts, social media and hybrids, as long as they are (or are meant to be) viewed or read by multiple audiences.

Moreover, the beauty of publications in contrast to white-cube gallery exhibitions lies in their ability to circulate in less controlled and potentially uncontrollable ways: “Words on paper seem to be not such a bad historical recording mechanism, because I know my books have gone all over the world, and they can’t kill them all.”[5] (V. Vale)

The other beauty of publishing is that it permits a great degree of efficiency, or, even better, sufficiency, if one’s lifework fits into a plastic bag—and one is proud of that.

* A different, longer version of this text appears in the introduction to Publishing Manifestos, a co-publication of MIT Press and Miss Read, entitled “Publishing Publishing Manifestos.”

[1] Stefan Klima, Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature (New York: Granary Books, 1998), 7.

[2] Françoise Benhamou, “Les assises et leurs suites. Comptes rendus des assises internationales de l’édition indépendante et programme prévisionnel d’action 2008–2009 de l’Alliance des éditeurs indépendants” (Paris: International Alliance of Independent Publishers, 2009), 28–29.

[3] Robert Smithson, “Cultural Confinement,” The Writings of Robert Smithson, ed. Nancy Holt (New York: New York University Press, 1979).

[4] Lawrence Weiner, in conversation with the author, unpublished interview, November 25, 2013.

[5] V. Vale, “Humor über alles” (2019), in Publishing Manifestos, ed. Michalis Pichler (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/Berlin: Miss Read, 2019), 324-327, 326.


Michalis Pichler is an artist and writer based in Berlin.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 9th, 2019.