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Key Texts (Research Methods Assignment 3)
Presenting a limited number of texts has forced me to hinge my arguments on just a few core ideas. This 'stripping-down' introduces a certain amount of mental mobility into my understanding of and presentation of my ideas, in the same way that speaking from basic notes rather than from a prepared statement makes for more lively presentation. Having a smaller range of tools to set up makes me think about what to do with them a bit more clearly.
I have chosen five short quotations from three key texts. Two of them are from theoretically useful sources, namely the essay On Interpretation1 by Paul Ricoeur, and the essay The Field of Cultural Production2 by Pierre Bourdieu. My third text is from a talk given by the book artist Helen Douglas as part of the Arcadia id Est exhibition and conference organised by the U.W.E., Bristol, on the subject of 'Nature, Landscape and the Book'3 as it pertains to her work.
My first text, Ricoeur's On Interpretation sets out in brief form his thought on how the functioning of metaphor in narrative produces the meaning of texts through interpretation. This interpretation, Ricoeur says, is a hermeneutic relationship between the text and its producer, the text and its audience, and the text and its relation to its cultural milieu. I have selected a pair of quotations from this essay to support my use of Ricoeur's ideas in my development of a project interpreting artists' books. My reading of the existing writing on artists' books has shown a tendency for texts to describing artists' books to to concentrate on the characteristics of the object and its effect on the viewer, with some attention to the historical/cultural placement of the artwork. Despite the existence of works devoted to interviewing living artists4, the first site of books' meaning (the first area of the hermeneutic interpretation of texts), that of artistic intention, remains obscure.
At this point I will cite the first of my quotations. Ricoeur here presents three events or sites where text (here I interpret this as being applicable to an artwork as a cultural text) exists as a discourse that is amenable to interpretation and analysis.
Thanks to writing, discourse acquires a threefold semantic autonomy: in relation to the speaker's intention, to its reception by its original audience, and to the economic, social and cultural circumstances of its production. It is in this sense that writing tears itself free of the limits of face-to-face dialogue and becomes the condition for discourse itself becoming-text. It is to hermeneutics that falls the task of exploring the implications of this becoming-text for the work of interpretation.
In short, existing work on artists' books tends to concentrate on what an artists' book is. This includes criticism of what it is as a work of art as well as its physical characteristics. There is also, as I stated, attention paid to the historical development (and hence the cultural engagement) of artists' books, but this tends to produce, again, taxonomies of physical description and critique over time , rather than a set of really 'inward' artistic practices over time.5 The question of 'Why produce artists' books?', and thus one of the crucial areas of artists' books as meaning-producing texts has not yet been adequately examined6.
My further quotations from Ricoeur and from Bourdieu, attempt to provide a framework for questioning why artists make artists' books. The insight informing my choice of this framework come from my own experiences of what seems to be going on in the production of artists' books.
Ricoeur's thought examines meaning as arising through a hermeneutic relationship of the self with other things: other texts, other selves. His thought ultimately presupposes an objectivity which answers empirical enquiry, but an objectivity modified by the liveliness of interpretation. The world and its meanings are alive in living metaphor, which bears the weight of interpretation for every novel experience, every work of imagination where two or more terms are freshly combined. Ricoeur sees the fully-fledged metaphor at work in narrative, which he sees as the site both of fiction and of historical testimony. Ultimately our sense of self is limited and articulated by the powers of narrative, but these limits and articulations are far from restrictive: they are productive. The human is, before all, an interpreter. Here is Ricoeur on narrative. Note particularly his comment on how narrative destroys ordinary consistency and allows new interpretation to arise.
…Metaphor constitutes a work on language consisting in the attribution to logical subjects of predicates that are incompossible with them. By this should be understood that, before being a deviant naming, metaphor is a peculiar predication, an attribution which destroys the consistency or, as has been said, the semantic relevance of the sentence as it is established by the ordinary, that is the lexical, meanings of the terms employed...
[comparing the theory of narrative and the theory of metaphor]
Both indeed have to do with the phenomenon of semantic innovation...In both cases the novel, the not-yet-said, the unheard-of – suddenly arises in language: here, living metaphor, that is to say a new relevance in predication, there, wholly invented plot, that is to say a new congruence in the emplotment.
What might this mean in terms of artists' book production? I take Ricoeur's explanation of metaphor in narrative as a cue to begin a description of the metaphorisation of practice. Like Ricoeur, I see metaphor as operating at several points: (1)in the artist's intention, (2)in the medium, (3)for the audience, (4)in the work's cultural and historical relation. The first and second of these sites are held within the hermeneutic of artistic practice, I have elsewhere their relation as what I termed the 'cycle of intention'. there are undecided qualities of 'yet/also', of Keatsian negative capability in the book artist's use of his or her medium. The identity of the medium itself is undecided. It has intermedium characteristics. The character of the intention within the artwork has narrative characteristics, but the narrative's autonomy as a text and as an artwork are similarly in a state of constant interpretation, between the challenges of artistic intentions and the social construct of the book. (Between what the artist wants it to be and what the viewer expects to see). Artists' books are full of narrative metaphor, but also engaged in an ongoing ironic contest as metaphors-for-books. They are viewed, read, as-if they were books, and at the same time as-if they were artworks. They coin legitimacy from both their appeal to, and their critique of tradtional book forms. The third and fourth sites, that of the audience's viewing of the narrative artistic object, and of its historical disposition are often seen in other work on artists' books. They too, inform the cycle of intention, but from outside the artist's own creation. This is a two way street, however. Returning an analysis of artists' intentions and the factors by which the artists' book metaphorises (and thereby mobilises) practice, cannot but inform our view of books' meaning for audiences and in historical context.
I mentioned above how artists' books' inter-medium identity allowed artists to 'mint legitimacy' from several sources. Bourdieu's essay on The Field of Cultural Production is useful as a framework for theorising how book artists use their medium to exchange the capabilities of various artistic 'roles' in their practice. (I might also have mentioned Robert Darnton's essay, What is Book History?7, in which he outlines a 'circuit of production' for books, thus following (ordinary) books through the various roles necessary to their production). Artists making books have vastly differing relationships to their medium. Some are responsible for the whole process, including publishing and distribution, others arguably produce artists' books in something approaching the role of an illustrator hired by a publisher. Others are, in addition to being artists, poets, writers, musicians and publishers. My thesis expresses the view that all book artists seek access to two things: first, the metaphorisation of practice amenable through working on the loosely-defined but multi-faceted (if not knife-edged) medium of artists' books. Secondly, they seek access to the modes of production (and thus roles) of book making. Thus they garner the legitimacy of publishers, designers, writers, and so on, retaining (to varying degrees) the flexibility and undefined status of the fully autonomous artwork. his hybrid form wants to cross boundaries, wants to keep its freedom whilst gaining the legitimacy of stricter or less autonomous forms.
Here are two quotations from Bourdieu. In the first he sets out the diversity and instability of roles available in the field of cultural production. In the second, he notes the general areas from which legitimacy is sourced.
In no field is the confrontation between positions and dispositions more continuous or uncertain than in the literary or artistic field. Offering positions that are relatively uninstitutionalized, never legally guaranteed, therefore open to symbolic challenge, and non-hereditary (although there are specific forms of transition), it is the arena par excellence of struggles over job definition.
...we find three competing principles of legitimacy, i.e., the recognition granted by the set of producers who produce for other producers, their competitors, i.e. by the autonomous self-sufficient world of 'art for art's sake', meaning art for artists. Secondly, there is the principle of legitimacy corresponding to 'bourgeois' taste and to the consecration bestowed by the dominant fractions of the dominant class and by private tribunals, such as salons, or public, state-guaranteed ones, such as academies, which sanction the inseperably ethical and aesthetic (and therefore political) taste of the dominant. Finally, there is the principle of legitimacy which its advocates call 'popular', i.e. the consecration bestowed by the choice of ordinary consumers, the 'mass audience'.
It seems to me that book artists gain a capability for movements amongst artistic roles and forms of legitimacy, through their creative use of the book medium.
I will close with a quotation from Helen Douglas, a book artist whose own work, as well as that made with Telfer Stokes, has been widely exhibited and written about over the past two decades.
"Rather than speaking in the abstract, I have decided to speak from the book, the place of my making, the place where my expression is made concrete, and where all three Nature Landscape and Book come together."
...And yes also to Book
That is the place of my making
where I can gather all within the gatherings
and weave my visual narratives as text to the page
in and out
teased to the surface
inside to out
expressing this to my viewer in an intimate and contained way
Douglas' identification of books as the 'place of her making' is, for me, an example of one of books' several features being used by an artist in her practice. Books are a place where narratives can be assembled and presented, a 'gathering of gatherings'. They are a place for these things to be thought about and assembled by the artist. They are a place for ruminations on how the work will affect the viewer- how the work brings 'inside to out/ expressing this to my viewer in a visual way'. Elsewhere I have written about my notion of artists' books as forms of 'temporary construction': something between a temporary abeyance of deconstruction in order to produce something worth deconstructing, and a petit récit, stepping away from the legitimation offered by the orthodoxy of grand narratives. These polarities, or nodes, seem both to answer to the temporary but powerfully liberating character of metaphor. Artists' books metaphorise practice.
1 Ricoeur, Paul, On Interpretation, in The Continental Philosophy Reader, pp138-155, Eds, Kearney, R and Rainwater, M, Routledge,London and New York, 1996.
2 Bourdieu, Pierre, The Field of Cultural Production, in The Book History Reader, pp77-99, Ed. David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery, Routledge, London, 2002.
3 Douglas, Helen, Nature, Landscape and the Book, accessed online at
4 See Courtney, Cathy, Speaking of Book Art,
5 See Drucker, Johanna,The Century of Artists’ Books, Granary Books, New York City, 2005
6 This criticism is why I am not citing a text from Johanna Drucker's The Century of Artist's Books in the limited space available. I need to concentrate on articulating my own argument, whilst acknowledging its meaning in terms of its critique of existing work. I would, had I space, include a more detailed critique that showed how my ideas build on directions suggested by Drucker's scope and the attitude taken by her work; it points towards the gap I want to explore.
7 Darnton, Robert, What is Book History?, in The Book History Reader, Eds, Finkelstein, D and McCleery, A, Routledge, London and New York, 2002