Defining Book Art: What's in a Name?

Even after nearly three decades of making books, I still get asked what I do. I also have to give it a name, and I have to describe it so people who don't make books will understand. It is still a puzzle to me why explaining and defining are such complicated activities.

Keith Smith writes in The Structure of the Visual Book, "Definitions are not ageless laws, but current understanding. They grow with usage through insight and error" (23). The following terms have not been codified, institutionalized, signed, sealed, and delivered by a large group of nodding people, but I do believe that these definitions are commonly used within the field today and may develop and continue to change. Johanna Drucker devotes the first chapter of The Century of Artists' Books to "The Artist's Book as Idea and Form." She writes, "…a single definition of the term 'an artist's book' continues to be highly elusive in spite of its general currency and the proliferation of work which goes by this name" (1). The forms of book art continue to evolve; I know that the potential for pushing the boundaries is what keeps me riveted to the book as an expressive medium. The book's dynamic nature makes that single definition impossible.

In any case, here is a list of terms and a stab at how I use them…

  • Book Art. Artwork inspired by qualities or concerns of a book such as, but not limited to: sequence, opening, text/image, flow, rhythm, shape or form, movement, interactivity, memory, layering, breathing, revealing/concealing, relationship of materials and structure to content.
  • Artist's Book. Same as above. With the apostrophe where it is, I use it for one artist, one book.
  • Book Arts. Any of the crafts and arts used in the making of books, usually linked to: papermaking, printmaking, letterpress, calligraphy, paper marbling, paste papers, and the like.
  • Artists' Books. Many artists, many books.
  • Artist Book. This is starting to be a more common term when talking about artist's books and artists' books because everyone would like that apostrophe to go away.
  • Livre d'Artiste. Book designed to hold images, most commonly prints, by a famous artist, or illustrations by the same. For starters, think Picasso, Matisse. They are usually deluxe, meticulously produced editions using the finest papers, the finest printing, etc.. Not usually crafted by the artists themselves.
  • Handmade Book. Some people prefer this term to artist's book, however, it has come to be an all-encompassing term for books that are made by hand and by anyone, including blank books.
  • Fine Press Book. Fine letterpress printing made up the bulk of the earliest European-style book art: it employed fine papers, a good design, and excellent printing, not unlike a livre d'artiste, but the content was and is often generated by the maker or in collaboration. It can be combined with other terms, such as fine press livre d'artiste, or fine press artist's book.
  • Livers d'Artistes. A satiric artist's book by Marie Dern.
And then, when I am asked "what is this crazy thing called making books?" I say, "I'm an artist who uses books as my expressive medium." I say, "I'm a bookbinder, writer, printer, and artist and I get to do all of these things in the books that I make." I say, "I make books with pictures for adults (but not adult-books)." I say, "Making books is the bridge between my writing and my art." I sigh and say, "look at my website."


I love what you have to say about book arts! I hope you don't mind, I quoted your definition of Book Art in my post about making tunnel books. I linked it back to your post and gave you full credit. Please let me know what you think, Thanks for making your ideas and work accessible to us all!