This post is part of an ongoing series of discussion based on my reading of No Longer Innocent – Book Art in America 1960-1980 by Betty Bright.
In the introduction, Ms. Bright refers to Walter Hamady’s idea that artists’ books are “the Trojan Horse” of art. That books, a familiar, comfortable and trustworthy media, have the opportunity to be approachable, and at the same time controversial, in a way that another media might not.
What do you think? Have you made artists’ books that look pretty on the outside but have shocking content on the inside? Or artists’ books that appear to be about one thing but actually cover a more difficult topic?
I agree with Mr. Hamady’s idea that artists’ books are the trojan horse of art and I often use that convention in my own artists’ books. Sometimes my content is thought-provoking, such as in Virtual/Reality where beautiful landscape photographs are paired with poetry questioning our social trend towards experiencing everything through a screen and, sometimes the content is shocking.
For my BFA show, which was largely about violence against women, I made a set of books where each page of each book has a news story from that day about violence against women. January 1, January 2, etc. I paired them with images on alternating pages and, most importantly, I’ve bound them in a traditional post binding with a beautiful floral cover. (Which ironically a reviewer didn’t get – they said the covers should have been plain.) The first impression is a pretty book. As the viewer begins to read the stories it is shocking, sad and physically draining. But the books underscore the reality that violence is happening against women every single day. And, by making them pretty on the outside, people were more willing to approach (even though the content of the rest of the show hinted at what might be inside). Interestingly enough, I never saw anyone leave a book part way through. Although it was exhausting, the viewers stayed with each book, every page, until the end. Many of them looked at all three books or three months of stories. Did the book format encourage this? Was the trojan horse aspect of pretty cover and difficult content the reason for the success of the books? Did the images I put in after each story give the viewer enough of a rest to soldier on to the next? Here are some sample pages from one of the books, Paying for what was not her doing (January 2010):
What format decisions have you made to help a reader handle a difficult topic? Are your books subversive in some way? What do you think of Mr. Hamady’s idea?
I don’t think books are unique in their ability to smuggle a message when you consider books as a member of time-based media. Movies and music share this potential.
Consider the song “Little Green” (Joni Mitchel, Bluel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3wVkbgouJM) with it’s light and dreamy opening which unfolds into the story of a young single mother giving her daughter up for adoption. Consider this song as it follows the previous track, “My Old Man” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNA8683bX64). Taken in sequence you have the hard back-hand of reality slipped into a pair of paeans for youthful freedom.
Thousands of examples could be sited. And for movies too.