Articulate Activism: Artists' Books Take Issues

Article excerpt

Recommended for students in grades 9-12

We are familiar with the informative nature of books, as well as the beauty of many handmade books. We may be less familiar with artists' books, which are different from those that are only beautifully bound or those that are collections of an artist's work. Artists' books are themselves artworks.

Although it is impossible to sum up the diverse array of artists' books, they often explore and emphasize particular aspects of "bookness" to convey ideas. Included among these aspects are the forms, traditions, conventions and histories of the book. For example, Janet Zweig s This Book Is Extremely Receptive: A Flipbook (1989) explores narrative possibilities. It is a small, wry meditation on modern technologies, housed in a silver mirror-finish paper cover. Three different forms of narrative structure parallel each other throughout the entire book. Thus, a satellite image rotates as pages are turned flipbook-style, accompanied by dialogue from a television show and phone conversation.

Book artists sometimes experiment with the placement of visual elements, putting them in the fore edge, gutter, back, front, end pages, upside down, diagonally, and backward, and utilize techniques including letterpress, offset printing, intaglio, hand lettering, silkscreen, and digital technologies. They have included 3-dimensional elements and used materials as diverse as rubber, metal, bone, wood, leather, plexiglass, and mica. Some artists' books appropriate and alter other books. Enormously diverse, artists' books can be one of-a-kind, limited edition printings, or mass-produced works. Forms book take include everything from accordion folds, flipbooks, simple pamphlets, to the familiar codex. Artists' books have alluded to book traditions such as scientific texts, pulp fiction, religious texts, informational pamphlets, and medieval manuscripts.

Although many artists' books are exhibited on gallery walls, they are sometimes displayed in reading racks or on tables so that they can, ideally, be held and experienced. You can even check some of them out of libraries. Artists' books can be found in archives, libraries, museum collections, and personal libraries. Although some artists' books can be expensive, many are about the same price as books commonly found in mainstream bookstores.

Artists' books are essentially a 20th-century phenomenon (Drucker, 2005) that gained significant momentum associated with the rise of conceptual art in the 1960s and 1970s. Some artists felt that books were perfect vehicles to convey art that was mostly about ideas, and they mass-produced books in an attempt to skirt the gallery/museum system and reach a larger number of people (Lippard, 1985).

Activism and Artists' Books

Activist artists' books are those that overtly take issue with aspects of the world in need of change. These politically, socially, culturally engaged artworks explore issues about a particular aspect of life, and like other activist art, bring it to our attention. A small sampling of the many topics that activist artists' books have focused on include revisiting important civil rights events (Meador, 1996), investigating the sexist treatment of women (Cummins, 1998) and exploring censorship (Zweig, 1989). Many activist artists' books are mass-produced.


This resource explores three activist artists' books. The lessons outlined here will enable students to:

* Identify and discuss some of the characteristics unique to artists' books as an art form.

* Identify and critically discuss the social and political content of the artists' books made by three book artists, including how production methods affect and reflect this content.

* Individually or collaboratively design, produce, and distribute an artists' book that presents an issue that they consider to be important.

Some Questions for Exploring Activist Artists' Books

In addition to the critical approaches you might already utilize, consider including questions like these that are specific to artists' books and to activist artists' books. …