Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Prices of Book Art and Book Trading

A reader commented on my last post, curious: "what is it about the rising prices in the book art world, that reduces one's interest is trading?" I wrote that I had "stopped thinking" about trading, and when I wrote that line I meant that I had forgotten all about it. I'm happy when the trade is a good one. But I thought the reader brought up interesting questions: Why did I forget? How do the rising prices have an impact on trading?

It's a risk when you ask someone to trade with you. And you are put on the spot when someone asks you to trade with them. It takes energy and thought. Questions lurk under the surface. You stop to evaluate these various uncomfortable questions: are you working at the same skill level? do the books seem to have taken a similar amount of time to make? are they both inventive and interesting? do either of you rely on sales of your work to make your living? how many copies are there? do you price your books similarly? And the basic questions: do you like the artist's work and do you want to own a part of it? Sometimes the answers aren't clear.

There is a risk and a cost in trading. Will it be worth it? There may be an assumption that the labeled price is what a book is worth. That high numbers equal high quality is not, unfortunately, always the case. But the numbers seem to be generally what people look to for guidance. Which might make the professional book artist pricing books for more than say, $150 or even $1500, less likely to want to trade, is that s/he may be fearful that it won't be an equal trade. The artist also may not be interested because s/he needs the sale of the book for income.

When I began making books in college I wanted the work to be accessible, to have art accessible to regular folk, so I priced it extremely low: a hand bound, multipage, letterpress book, perhaps with illustrations, for about $15 in today's dollars. Can't make any kind of living doing that. Can't hardly pay for your materials or your time, let alone your art. I eventually felt comfortable pricing in the $45-$65 range (about $80-115 of today's dollars). And I still prefer those price points under $100 for my simple folded or sewn or glued editioned works (multiple copies of the same book). My books stayed at a lower price for a long time, and I traded more often then. 

As prices rose, I found I couldn't ask to trade because  while I kept my books low, other artists' books went up. I saw how it might look unequal to them. The stakes seemed higher. As the field grew, many of the books themselves became more elaborate. (To me the analogy is that these more elaborate books are like novels, while I make the art equivalent of the poem and short story). Eventually, I raised my editioned book prices and also began making more complicated, one-of-a-kind box projects that I price around $750-$1250, but each is unique and hard to part with; the price somehow justifies the loss. 

Having watched art galleries that featured book art close because they just couldn't make enough on those $80 books*, I understand why prices have risen to the $500-$5000 range. (Pricing books higher to gain respect or so that book art will be taken seriously, or to stay with one's peers is, I think, a related but separate issue.) Gallery owners are totally happy selling the higher priced books: galleries generally yield 50-60% of the sold work to the artist anyway, and it leaves them with a profit that might even help sustain their rent and operating costs. That's their business. Of course it is.

A couple years ago, a book artist remarked that $125 was the "sweet spot" for her, when she would almost always buy a book she was interested in. But what has happened is that book artists—some of the best buyers of book art—are priced out of the art market. This is where trading just might come back in.

Islam Aly and I traded books that we normally price in three digits, and we were both happy about it. It worked out. So I feel hopeful.

*during the 1980s and 1990s, these California galleries/stores existed solely to sell book art: Artworks in L.A.; Media in S.F.; Califia in S.F.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Book for a Book: A Trade with Artist Islam Aly

As prices have risen in the book art world, I've found that I've stopped thinking about trading books. This means most of my collection, the one I show students, is from the 1990s, although now, because of the Codex book fair, it's been getting updated. Recently, I was contacted by book artist Islam Aly, originally from Egypt who is studying and living in Iowa City. He wondered if I wanted to trade books with him. After looking over his books on the Vamp and Tramp website and on his website, I determined that yes, indeed, I did want to trade. In fact, he had been a 2015 exhibitor at Codex.

He chose my 2014 book, In the Wake of the Dream.

I chose Islam Aly's book, Crucial Perimeter I. He wrote: "there is no text or images in the folios. It's about the beauty of a specific style of Arabic calligraphy 'Thuluth Style' showing its distinctive shapes and characteristics, you can see them on the edges and embossed on the covers." Considered "powerful," this style is often used for titling and on buildings. The sculptural quality of this little book makes it like architecture itself, which connects the content and form even further.  Although it is a Coptic binding, it also has endbands. There's a nice online tutorial for making those here. They look terrific on Islam's book because it is so long.

When closed, you can see the beautiful shapes on the head and fore edge; when opened, the designs disappear. The inner pages are blank. The book can only be understood when it is closed: the notion of having to open a book to read it is challenged. Yet, even closed, it doesn't make sense: the letters do not form words. The letters stand in for the concept of beauty. Or: the letters become beautiful images and the mistake is in trying to read them intellectually at all. Marks on a page aren't writing here, but art.

I am generally a word person. I like to read. But this is a book that celebrates letterforms without needing to be read, a celebration of beauty.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Reading Frank O'Hara

The first bit of reading I did on campus today cheered me.

Text me 206 --- ----
I will meet you anywhere on campus
and read you a Frank O'Hara poem
This week only.
Then I have to return the book.

(I blocked out the number for privacy purposes.) Because this was probably the work of a student and I am a teacher, I did not attempt to make contact. It occurred to me after class, though, that I should have gotten one of my students to have the person come read to us. Ah, well. 

I love this: "This week only. Then I have to return the book."

Interesting choice, Frank O'Hara. I just read him for the first time last summer and wrote a little post here. I recommend that you get a copy of Lunch Poems and read one to anyone who will listen. Oh, of course! It's National Poetry Month, folks. Copy one over for Poem in Your Pocket Day and carry it around on April 30, 2015.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Reading Judy Chicago

I just began and finished Judy Chicago's 1975 memoir, Through The Flower: My Struggle as A Woman Artist. She was born as Judy Gerowitz in 1939, my mother's generation, changing her name in 1969 "as an act of identifying myself as an independent woman" (63). Reading the autobiography was fascinating, giving me a glimpse of the adult world that existed while I was in elementary school, giving me a glimpse of just how hard it was for a woman to be an artist in the 1960s, and 70s, and before. I knew I wanted to be an artist when I was about four years old, and it never occurred to me that I wouldn't be one. But Chicago's story is different. I'm still on the edge, the outskirts, except for having heard of The Dinner Party and having seen a video of the 1974 pyrotechnic work, A Butterfly for Oakland at the Oakland Museum last year, I don't know her work very well, although I feel I should. But the book helped me comprehend just what Feminism meant at the time and makes the work she did understandable.

I knew Feminism as "Women's Lib," and thought that it was about equality, which made perfect sense to me. I grew up with a strong sense of independence and the desire that people just be allowed to be people, without labels. Chicago's sentence articulates what I felt, too: "I had learned  early that the world's perceptions of a person are not necessarily true, so I tended to discount comments and attitudes that conflicted with my own sense of what was right" (29). I was also too young to know about the "male gaze" (coined by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay, "Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema" which you can read in the collection, Visual and Other Pleasures), that objectifies women. I'm highly sensitive to it now, particularly as I read stories by or for young men.

If you don't know much about Judy Chicago, you should know that she did not start out with the idea to separate herself and create "women's" art. She was ignored, belittled, and harassed along the way to becoming a serious artist. "I was continually made to feel by men in the art world that there was something 'wrong' with me." In her relationship with a male artist she writes, "If I showed work and Lloyd didn't, then I was held responsible for his not being shown." Among other things, she was called "bitch" and "castrater" (39). Although she spoke her mind and seemed confident, the word that appears most frequently in the book is "frightened." And sometimes she used the word to describe her feelings about the art she was making. She was taking a risk using imagery not generally found in art: imagery that related to female genitalia from a female perspective. Sometimes it was disguised, often overt. From the book I don't get the feeling that her work was meant to shock, but rather meant to be seen in a particular context. Always, to her, she was attempting to express an emotion, pulling from deep inside herself, something that was not done at the time and that seemed to disgust her male professors.

Who had the power? The politics could not be separated from the art. What Chicago ultimately did was to gather women together so they did not feel alone, so they did not have to figure out how to negotiate an art world that was hostile towards them, that wouldn't take them and their work seriously. The women had to start by accepting themselves and their stories and seeing them worthy of being expressed and formed. "We wanted to train women to educate other women, to move out into the world and establish classes based upon the techniques that had helped them to become independent, confident, and productive human beings" (196). Chicago herself has been productive since 1975. You can see her work and read more at her website.

Chicago's writing resonated with me, perhaps more than pictures of her art. "I couldn't go to a movie without encountering the most distorted female characters, women who didn't bear any resemblance to this 'person' I felt myself to be" (51). While now, in 2015, we do have female characters who are strong, articulate, who age, who are comfortable in their bodies and with themselves, we also still have those "distorted female characters," and it has been forty years since she wrote that sentence. As a child I remember thinking that we had solved a problem, had changed the world, and now we could move on. But it doesn't work that way. We don't get to rest. Certain fights for dignity and rights are constant. They are political rights. And they are the rights to be heard and seen and taken seriously as artists, as women, as people. Although it has been forty years since it was first published, Judy Chicago's book and artwork still stir up the issues, a good starting point. The discussion must continue. Or begin again.