Both Zweig and Drucker believe that all books must have some strong intellectual purpose to them, something that contemporary books seem to lack. Zweig writes that rare books are collected for their content and place in the history of ideas, but these criteria are not applied to contemporary book purchases. Instead, she says, the prettiest books are the ones that sell, regardless of the message (or lack thereof) conveyed. Drucker, with thinking very similar to Zweig, argues that “in the realms of fine art or literature elaborate mechanisms exist for sorting and filtering work,” and books as an art form suffer from this lack of academic structure. She proposes that, as well as a firm framework for evaluating books, and established canon would bring order and clarity to a confused genre.
However, I think that Zweig’s focus is ideological, and that Drucker’s view on art and the academy are incompatible with my own.
Zweig’s method of evaluating book-worth is the desert island test; if you were stranded, what book would you bring? She claims that a paperback would bring her more enjoyment than an artist’s book because, as a rule with few exceptions, the content is more engaging. While that is a perfectly fine choice for the last book you will ever encounter, is that a fair way to judge luxury books?
In addition, why is it contradictory to think that a beautiful, meaningless, purposeless book can be art? Oscar Wilde claims in his preface to A Picture of Dorian Gray that “those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.” Is beauty not an end and purpose in and of itself? Must the meaning be plain for it to be appreciated? Wilde concludes that “all art is quite useless.” Is it a higher artistic calling that influences these critics to conflate greater intellectuality with greater art? Drucker claims that a canon or set structure of evaluation will rescue artist books from themselves. However, any ‘canon’ that emerges from “critical consensus and debate” will begin the process of
funneling people into one mode of thinking The academization of artist books will lead it down a path of invented dichotomies that will serve only to limit expression. Wilde writes that “no artist desires to prove anything” and that “it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” Drucker is entitled to a canon that speaks to, that mirrors her. However I cannot believe that a set canon, especially one defined by the racialized, classed, and gendered academy, could mirror even the majority of potential spectators. Who, then, benefits?
That being said, I would argue that both Schlossberg’s wordswordswords and the Gunnar/Keever/Neruda collaboration of Viente Poemas de Amor y Una Cancion de Desesperada would pass Drucker’s book-legitimacy test.
wordswordswords interested me mostly in that it required the reader to create meaning through connecting page and text. The book played out as an engaging puzzle, poems assembling and fragmenting as pages are turned, layering on one another as the light shines through the paper. Though the words themselves are arguably most manipulated material in the book, the meaning conveyed by them often undermines their primacy. Schlossberg printed that “THESE/WORDS/WILL/ FALL/ APART/ TO BE/ SURE/ TOMORROW,” a strange idea in a book comprised almost entirely of them. It is obvious in his treatment of words, especially in his repeated use of fragmentation, that this book is both a celebration of the word and a reminder of its ultimate mortality and futility. In this way, it “moves my understanding from one place to the other” as the book progresses.
Neruda’s Viente Poemas de Amor y Una Cancion de Desesperada was beautifully adapted by Gunnar and Keever into an interactive form that conveyed what, for me, is a central message of the collection. Neruda’s 20 poems inundate the reader with all of the complexity and layers of his love, almost desensitizing her to its potency. This is reflective of the redundant, unremarkable nature of a love that is not your own, and of romantic love in general; while it is necessarily unique and individualized, some form of it is experienced by the majority of humanity, making it in one sense mundane. As you approach the latter quarter of the poems, the imagery grows darker. In Gunnar’s book, this is illustrated by steadily larger flaps, with more space as the poems progress. The brightest colors are reserved for the earliest, youngest poems, and dark blacks color the poems deeper in the book. The song of despair at the ends the book, structuring it so that as the reader plunges further into the book it becomes darker and more consuming (literally, by the growing pages). The song is given a full four pages to exist and express on, more room than any of the poems. The stanzas are layered and fractured throughout semitransparent paper, forming an obscure whole at its start. As you turn the pages to see more clearly, however, you lose sight of the whole. Despair often behaves similarly.
Drucker would appreciate it for its intellectuality, a clear merging of meaning and structure.