Books as art at the Long Beach Art Museum


Sean Davis

Johanna Drucker’s presentation on books as art at the Long Beach Museum of Art’s exhibit leads to questioning about reading in a world of technology. The presentation was held on Dec. 6, 2019.

Sean Davis, Staff Writer

Accomplished book artist and professor at UCLA Johanna Drucker’s engaging and detailed lecture titled Artists and Books: What Is Happening Now? tracks the past, present, and future of book art.

The lecture was presented as part of the Long Beach Museum of Art’s exhibit The Artful Book which showcases experimental books as both literature and art.

Are books anachronistic, outmoded, pointless? Drucker doesn’t think so. The book as an icon holds authority even in our technologically saturated world. According to Drucker, the inspiration that can be drawn from history is “inexhaustible” and helps provide “roadmaps to the present.”

Art has been intertwined with books since their inception. Art has a history of experimentation and books have been part of this evolutionary trend. Experiments in book size, content, and purpose have marked the history of books.

Medieval manuscripts are dominated by detailed images and decorations surrounding the body of text. Artists like William Blake chose books as the vehicle for their written and visual art. The avant-garde challenged old forms of art and literature through their book projects.

Artists recognize the power of books in collecting and disseminating their art. Painters and designers have been publishing art books since the early 20th century.

The world of book art has been dominated by experimental, conceptual art. The form of a book grants credibility and authority to a work that challenges established assertions.

But how does the interplay of book-as-icon and art merge with the techno-future that we’re told is coming?

In a world where “the internet’s forever,” William Gibson, the originator of the cyberpunk genre, gave an answer. His 1992 work Agrippa is a lesson in impermanence. A poem on a floppy disk that encrypts itself after one reading embedded in an art book that slowly fades over time challenges the concept of immortal technology.

The impact of technology on literature isn’t limited to the preservation of texts. On the issue of reading in the 21st century, Drucker asks us to consider the problems of technological progress.

The precious minerals that are put into every e-reader are mined by the exploited poor in other countries. Children are put to work to make the products of convenience for those who can afford them.

Data centers that hold the unimaginable girth of humanity’s digital archive produce more heat than all the cars the world over. What is the cost of convenient reading?

No industry is exempt from criticism, including the traditional publishing companies, but the world of book art stands in contrast to the mass consumptive modes we are told to welcome.

The individualized, craft work that goes into the creation of book art contrasts with the mass production of commercialized books.

The Zine revival has introduced another generation to the concepts of independent, experimental publishing. Punk spaces are awash in self-made booklets covering everything from art to politics!

The reports of the death of books have been exaggerated. The role books play in art and life will continue to challenge and inspire until the authority of books themselves wither and disappear.