The art book as a genre of publications is now so wide and varied, it is questionable whether we should continue to use the term at all. Once considered to be books on art or by artists, the art book has expanded to encompass everything from aesthetically pleasing coffee table prop to a visual representation of the zeitgeist. The artistic discipline, aesthetic style and very meaning of these publications cover nearly all aspects of humanity and taste.
A visit to London Art Book Fair in Whitechapel, or similar events, goes some way to prove the genre’s growing scope and reach – thousands of ‘creatives’ packed into a warm sweaty space for three days, pawing the fine print of books on porn, subculture, muscle men, politics; even books of sculpted white paper containing not a single image or word.
The art book is at an interesting point – there are the well-established players such as Black Dog Publishing, with limited edition illustrated or photographic books covering art, design and music; and those creating visual narratives through photography such as Weproductions publications. Then there is the vanguard that are making something utterly new out of the term ‘art book’. MIT Press’s Topless Cellist and Ditto Press’s Dead Boys, go some way to create a new direction for the art book, the latter being a neon coloured explicit ode to homosexual copulation. And neither is superior; both the preciously crafted and obnoxiously offbeat provide something for someone. But those contemporary issues are calling to be explored; this is evident in Black Dog Publishing’s recent title Mapping the Invisible EU-ROMA Gypsies, looking closely at a marginalised community. As society changes, so must the remit broaden.
There is however, the underlying question of accessibility around the art book – note how it was ‘creatives’ attending the book fair. As much as the subject matter covered by art books has widened, and it has considerably, a whiff of the bourgeois, the frivolous, clings for dear life to the term ‘art book’. These books do not serve the obvious purpose, that say, a car instruction manual or textbook does. But they are a sign of the times and by the very fact that they are printed and published represent an increasing acceptance – whether it be of sexual preferences, topless musicians or taboo subjects – in popular culture and society. And like textbooks, they can educate and open the mind.
Photos courtesy of Ditto Press