I’m Married to those Men Over There

Bruce Nauman, Burning Small Fires (1969)

The bibliographic category referring to limited-edition, artist-conceived objects is a contentious one. In working on BOOKISH at MIT’s Rotch Library, taking a political position on the matter was inevitable. I chose the term “artist books” because that’s the term that’s used in the MIT Libraries’ Catalog.

Operating on a short schedule and with a limited body of materials I needed a ready-made working definition in order to get the job done. As much as I was hoping to avoid entering into the more contentious end of library science, I will admit that I have gained a certain fondness for the term “artist books.” I think it has something to do with the grammatical implications of the apostrophe.

The Getty Art and Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) offers four terms for “books made or conceived by artists:”

  • artists’ books (preferred)
  • artist’s book
  • artists books
  • artist books

Grammatically, each term offers a different statement on the relationship of the artist to the co-referenced book. The apostrophe in the term in question has been the subject of such fierce debate because its placement has a momentous impact on the meaning and applicability of the term. This, I believe, has more to do with grammar than library science. For example, the English novelist and poet Kingsley Amis, on being challenged to produce a sentence whose meaning depended on a possessive apostrophe, came up with three:

  • Those things over there are my husband’s. (Those things over there belong to my husband.)
  • Those things over there are my husbands’. (Those things over there belong to several husbands of mine.)
  • Those things over there are my husbands. (I’m married to those men over there.)

I lack Mr. Amis’s wit, but bearing his example in mind here is how the the four terms offered by the AAT describe four different categories of book:

  • artists’ books (a body of books whose authorship rests with a body of artists; the idea of artists as a type of author is primary)
  • artist’s book (a book whose authorship rests with a single artist; the idea of artists as unique authors is primary)
  • artists books (books by artists)
  • artist books (a group of books, each of which is by artists)

I chose the last term on this list because my interest, as an art historian, is in how individual artists operate within the medium of artist books. By showing the diversity of these operations from in last 50 or so years, I hoped to provide an idea of what might be a part this rather nebulous category and what this group of objects might mean to people interested in the present and future of the book. Since what is on display is essentially coextensive with the Rotch Library’s collection of such items, I had the luxury of picking the term I felt best suited the objects. I’m sure if I was interested in, for example, maintaining a catalogue or in the prospect of having a term flexible enough to describe unknown future acquisitions I might have chosen differently.

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