"Mongrel Nature:" A Consideration of Artists' Books and Their Implications for Art Education

By Burkhart, Anne L. | Studies in Art Education, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

"Mongrel Nature:" A Consideration of Artists' Books and Their Implications for Art Education


Burkhart, Anne L., Studies in Art Education


Although bookmaking activities continue to multiply in all educational contexts, ways that many artists have worked with the form and concept of the book have received scant attention. An art form developed, matured, and recognized beginning in the 20th century, artists' books occupy a particular niche among bookmaking practices. In this article I argue for a consideration of artists' books in order to broaden educational endeavors regarding the book arts. Historical information, conceptual frameworks, and examples of artists' books are discussed, constructed in part from the literature on artists' books. Implications for art education are presented.

Bookmaking is a diverse set of artistic practices, which includes a wide range of culturally influenced forms, purposes, and binding methods. Contemporary bookmaking, for instance, spans vast artistic territories from luscious productions of fine craft to highly political, inexpensive, mass-produced artists' books that purposefully eschew traditions of fine binding. The book as a form of artistic expression has been part of Russian Futurism, feminist art, conceptual art and performance art (Drucker, 2005). The number of artists making books as an art form is increasing (Cotter, 2005) and "countless people" are regularly introduced to techniques and ideas related to bookmaking in schools, art centers (Drucker, 2005, p. viii), art schools, colleges, and universities (Klima, 1998). The diversity, history, and recent expansion of bookmaking practices merits a closer look at what it means to create books as art and what it might mean to make and study them in educational contexts.

I do not attempt here to map the immense territories of historical or contemporary bookmaking, but instead to focus on the artist's book, or what historian and critic Johanna Drucker (2005) has called "the quintessential 20th century artform" (p. 1). My intent is both to broaden understandings of the artist's book and to show how artists' books can inspire, infuse, inform, and provide historically and conceptually significant frameworks for making and studying the book arts in educational contexts. When studying painting, printmaking, or quilt making, or any artistic practice, students ideally become familiar with that art form's relevant histories, conceptual underpinnings, and current manifestations; so might students investigating the book as a form of artistic expression. Indeed, because of the hybrid nature of artists' books and their multisensory, experiential, and culturally embedded aspects, they are, as I will argue, particularly well-suited to current ideas in art education.

Definition and Its Discontents: Characteristics of Artists' Books

"Mongrel nature" is how former Museum of Modern Art Library Director Clive Phillpot (1998) characteriy.es artists' books, explaining that they are "distinguished by the fact that they sit provocatively at the juncture where art, documentation, and literature all come together" (p. 33). His descriptor is particularly useful because it works against singular definitions, which many writers discussing artists' books likewise eschew. Phillpot's term also hints at the wide variety of works that can be categorized as artists' books. There is no consensus regarding definitions of artists' books, nor is there a single form, production method, or conceptual framework that embodies what an artist's book is. A consideration of differing opinions, however, can be illuminating and can help to "put fundamental parameters into place for critical evaluation of artists' books as an artistic practice" (Drucker, as cited in Klima, 1998, p. 40).

In 1981, the Library of Congress adopted the term "artists' books" (Klima, 1998). Artists' books are typically understood as different from finely crafted books that demonstrate technical mastery. Characteristically, they are not books comprised of reproductions of an artist's work, nor are they about an artist, nor comprised of text illustrated by an artist (Bury, 1995). …

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