21st-Century Art Books: Considering the "Whomp Factor"
One spring morning in 1998, Susan Rossen, the estimable executive director of publications at the Art Institute of Chicago, addressed a packed conference room in a New York hotel. I attended because I knew that, whatever the topic, she would be engaging, wry, and well worth hearing. The session's title gave no hint that its message had the potential to be earth-shaking, and I had no reason to expect that my entire notion of art book publishing was about to be turned on its head.
Taking her place behind the lectern, Susan hefted an enormous two-volume tome just published by the AIC: The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler. We received a short slide tour that included a few of Whistler's lithographs, some interior spreads, and related images. She briefly told of the book's history—that many years and much exceedingly fine scholarship and research had been devoted to bringing this catalogue raisonné to publication; that a museum patron had funded the book's development and production; that the folks in the AIC publications department had pulled out all the stops to make it the remarkable, luxe publication it obviously is. To wrap up the introduction, she cited specifications—992 pages with 864 illustrations bound in two volumes that together have a spine width of 3.5 inches and weigh 11.4 pounds.
I'm willing to bet that few of her listeners were prepared for what came next, however. Susan dropped the catalogue onto the adjacent table. A resounding whomp echoed for seconds as she asked
In this day and age, why do we continue to produce publications like this one?
I'm not certain she used the term whomp factor—it may have been thud factor—but I came away from that address with a new resource for judging relative merit and need for a proposed book project. While it has served me well in terms of metrics, its true value is its capacity to raise important questions and present conundrums about contemporary art book publishing that constanly require attention.
Susan's litany of hours, dollars, and materials struck at the heart of what art book publishing had been all about—and also caused me to ponder where it was heading. With technology for scanning, storing, and viewing images constantly improving, did it still make sense to produce mammoth, traditional printed books on rarified subjects for the handful of scholars and collectors who can afford them?
Looking back, I see that I had fallen into an already outdated art book publishing mindset. By the time of Susan's presentation, the 1980s' exuberance of that particular niche was as difficult to explain as waxed-repro-on-boards production practices. The recession of the early 1990s caused the speedy eclipse of the previous decade's publishing excesses. The "doorstop" book devoted to a single museum's collection and priced at $100 or more no longer topped holiday-gift lists and were filling up remainder bins. By 1998, only a couple of trade houses still unveiled significant semiannual lists of high-quality art books.
But the major game changer—the Internet—was only just beginning to influence the nature of art book "content" (as it has come to be called, sadly) and publishing. My colleagues in the field felt, as I did, fairly well insulated from what other publishing professionals perceived as the "threat" of digital media, even though they had yet to be able to see it as handwriting on the wall.
In the 1980s, a number of art historians with whom I worked still balked at reproducing artworks in color. They were concerned (sometimes justifiably) that photographers' and printers' capabilities and practices wouldn't render sufficiently fine pictures to make printed images reliable. Although color printing had advanced by leaps and bounds, a kind of snobbery had taken root that suggested that color pictures somehow connoted substandard scholarship. By the mid-1990s, of course, this sentiment had dimmed noticeably, and the majority of art book authors expected—many even required—inclusion of color reproductions in their books.
When it comes to digital publications, I've found no reliable way to comprehend which way the wind is blowing. Every guru who states that marketing is now predominately social media driven is countered by another who points to statistical evidence that a mere 27 percent of Fortune 500 companies utilize it. How, then, are we to arrive at a realistic understanding of contemporary interest in and opinion about electronic art publications?
Even though it seems that I learn about new leaps in digital-image technology every day, I find no indication today that the electronic publishing of quality books about art is poised to lead to any brave new experiments. And it is just such wariness that makes it clear just how prescient Susan's whomp-factor message was and how its corollaries bear careful, repeated consideration.
Picture credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com