What are Artists' Books?
The term Artists’ Books is an unexpectedly controversial one. From the placement of the apostrophe to what belongs in the category, Artists’ Books are heavily debated by art historians and critics. There is no solid definition of Artists’ Books, rather, there is a vague outline of what they are not.
Johanna Drucker, a producer and scholar of Artists’ Books, defines the term by giving examples of what do not qualify as Artists’ Books. Two large categories are often confused with Artists’ Books: Livres d’Artiste and Fine Press Books. Livres d’Artiste are beautifully illustrated books with work done by a well regarded artist. Fine Press books are finely bound and crafted books that are usually special editions of popular and classic titles. Because Livres d’artiste are more akin to illustration and do not use the book itself as art, they are not usually considered Artists’ Books. Fine Press books are not often considered Artists’ Books because they do not have an idea that inspires their production; they are produced to demonstrate skill in creating the book. In order to be an Artist's Book, there must be an intention of meaning and the book form must enforce that meaning.
While there is no definitive start to what is accepted today as an Artists’ Book, 1860s France and symbolist poets like Mallarme would inspire the movement and the form fully emerged in the contemporary sense after World War II. Since then most major art movements include examples of Artists’ Books. The ability of books to be reproduced en masse was appealing to movements that wanted to challenge the traditional gallery and museum system of the art world and books were an excellent way to do this. Objects with multiple pages do not lend themselves to museum display cases, and since they are often printed in multiple, galleries see little profit from them. Books require more interaction than simply looking to appreciate their content making them both intimate and distant since only a few people will ever hold them.