Anatomy of Insanity by Maureen Cummins

Anatomy of Insanity by Maureen Cummins

Last November I had the honor of judging the JAB-sponsored Critic’s Award for the Pyramid Atlantic Book Fair. Artists’ books take such a wide variety of interesting forms, I ended up giving two awards, one to  Anatomy of Insanity by Maureen Cummins and one to Karaoke by Masumi Shibata. The former is a visual interpretation of diagnosis patterns found in 19th century records of a mental hospital, and the latter is an experiment in visually manifesting the author’s experience of the memory-laden sound of karaoke.

Masumi Shibata's Karaoke

Masumi Shibata's Karaoke

You may be wondering why I am writing about this just now; well I’m happy to announce the release of JAB25, the Spring 2009 issue of JAB: The Journal of Artists’ Books which contains my full review of these two books and why I chose them, but I didn’t have room in that article to articulate the criteria I used when judging and, more generally, some of the things I think about when looking at (or making) an artist’s book. So I thought I would do that here as a companion to the printed article.

Judging requires a certain degree of focus, lest you get lost in the sea of possibilities, so I focused on 3 aspects of book art that I was looking for:

  • Visually and tactilely compelling
  • Content that takes me somewhere (but where the art, not the content, does the heavy lifting)
  • Structural integrity

Criteria 1: Visually and Tactilely Compelling

It may seem odd to combine these two criteria into one since they involve two very different senses, but I find it can sometimes be difficult to extricate the one from the other when analyzing my reaction to a work.  The materials used in a piece can have such a significant impact on its visual experience.  [Of course both are also intertwined with, and affected by, the book’s meaning as well, but I am speaking here just of the sensory experience of the work.]

I do not think that there are any visual forms, or production methods, or materials that are intrinsically better than others, but I do believe that materials have particular qualities and certain combinations can work at cross purposes—the character of the images straining against the texture of their paper for instance—which detracts from the overall effect of the piece. I found this in some of what I saw at the book fair—things that almost worked but left me feeling like something was lacking. Soft, dreamy images on hard shiny paper, for instance. I want a satsifying sensory experience as much as an intellectually compelling one.

Taking on the role of an award judge made me painfully aware of the somewhat accidental, personal nature of sensory taste. [I mean accidental in the philosophic sense in which it stands opposite essential]. What I find visually and tactilely appealing may say as much about me as about the piece itself. I sometimes feel helpless in the face of my senses, having  aesthetic longings for sensory enjoyments that I cannot achieve. I have always wanted, for instance, to like brussels sprouts (for reasons ranging from my delight in the odd way in which they grow like ping pong balls on stalks to a recognition of the great delicacy they are considered to be when smothered in browned butter), but no amount of intellectual understanding of these attractions can cajole the small bumps on my tongue to find the taste of a brussels sprout anything but awful. Almost more disconcerting is the way in which taste can suddenly change without warning or explanation (asparagus used to be in my brussels sprout camp, but now I adore it). Interestingly, I’ve always found my visual sense to be more ‘trainable’ and open to learning to enjoy new things than are some of my other senses.

Nonetheless, I do believe that there are aesthetic principles that can make a piece of visual art more universally compelling and effective.  Part of the process of judging is focusing more on these aspects and less on the quirks of one’s own personal taste. The burden of judging lies in the recognition that the latter inevitably plays a role even when the former is well satisfied.

Criteria 2: Content That Takes Me Somewhere

The importance of content in artists’ books has lately become something of a rallying cry in the field, though there still remains a need to explore what, exactly, that means.  I would maintain that content does not equal text—visual imagery can speak as eloquently as the best turned phrase—but it does imply a certain level of specificity.  The kind of specificity that gives shape and substance to an idea. I want a work to take me somewhere, whether that be to contemplation, or insight, or  laughter, I want to find when I reach the end of a book that I have arrived at somewhere more than a cliche. I want to feel that the artist has let me share in their unique vision of the world. I don’t require that the content be of a serious nature in order to be substantial. Humor, beauty, whimsical delight—all are as significant components of a full life as the political outrage, pain, and suffering that too often masquerades as the only scope for ‘important’ art.

Questions I ask myself when looking at a piece include: what specifically does this work say about its subject? and is that interesting or does it remain in the realm of the obvious? is the content contained within the work or is it merely a pointer after which I have to use my own knowledge of the subject to fill in the gaps? is half the content in a lengthy explanation in the colophon or is it fully played out within the pages of the book itself?

These questions underly my comment that I want the art, not the content, to do the heavy lifting in a work of art. The depth of meaning in a piece should come from the artistic interpretation of the subject, not from the external importance or inherent interest of the topic. This seems to be especially problematic with the hot issues of the day. How many book have you seen on X (fill in the blank with the topic du jour: war, child abuse, depression, global warming, political repression, etc) that really don’t say much except maybe that X happens (i know that) or that X is bad (i know that too). Do something more than point at a topic and let it do all the heaving lifting.  Don’t use the topic’s own emotional impact as a crutch to move me. Tell me something uniquely your own about it. Show me the details of what it looks like, or how it plays out in the human experience. Examine the contradictions. Make the art speak.

Criteria 3: Structural Integrity

Book artists have the luxury of control. Control over their layouts, control over their materials, control over their constructions. I like to see books where that control is used to create a structurally-integrated whole in which the formal elements complements, enhances, and/or completes the meaning of the book.

Structure is the architectural, spatial elements of a book and it can be played out both in the 3-dimensional elements like the binding and shape of the book, as well as the 2-dimensional relationships of elements such as the layout of the page or page spread. Structural integrity can take many forms, sometimes subtle—quietly complementing the piece, and sometimes central—shaping the primary mode of the experience. My desire for structural integrity does not require that a book’s structure take the lead role, just that there be a consonance between the book’s meaning and its structure; that they not fight each other. Shibata uses a plain codex binding and simple materials for Karaoke, but it suits the book perfectly.

On the other hand, in some books, the layering of different structural elements can be effectively utilized to create a rich experience.  Cummin’s Anatomy of Insanity, for instance, does not stop at a structure merely imitative of its subject (the book is bound as though it were medical record), but further employs that structure to convey elements of the book’s meaning: the male and female sections are juxataposed so they can be viewed simultaneously; the pages have a translucence that compounds the visual impact of the differences between the male and female diagnoses.

I have been speaking of all these elements as though they can be treated separately, but in truth I find them far more intertwined than that. Beautiful materials do little if they don’t mesh with the content of the book; structural elements can rely on the types of materials used, intriguing structure don’t save banal content. The point is not to think of them as a checklist of elements, which might all too easily lead to their mindless exploitation (“use handmade paper—special collections librarians love it” I once heard it advised, as though the element existed independent from the context of its book), but rather to ask something of the books we look at and make; to inquire into how their constituent components interact to form our experience. Always ask. Ever question.