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The Vitality of the Art Book in the Age of Digital Publication

A close up of a bookcase
The author's bookcase. Photo courtesy Rebecca Morrill.

HENI’s Commissioning Editor Rebecca Morrill marks DACS’ 40 years of licensing art, with an essay highlighting the importance of physical books in an era of digitisation.

Around 25 years ago, an undergraduate history of art and architecture student at the University of East Anglia was up against a deadline writing an essay about the twentieth-century architect and designer Eileen Grey. The only book in the university library was on long-term loan to a PhD student and an inter-library loan would take too long. She went to check Norwich Art School library. No joy. The city’s public library. Nothing. She called her mother in a panic and asked her to check libraries back home. Nada. Nor were there any relevant books readily available in bookshops and ordering one could take weeks. Back then, there was no doubt of the importance of printed media as the repository of knowledge. If you didn’t have access to a physical copy, you were scuppered.

In the same way that we might ask ‘is this paper responsibly sourced?’ perhaps we should be encouraged to ask ‘is this image responsibly reproduced?’ and consider who is actually benefitting when it is offered to us ‘freely’.

Rebecca Morrill

This story undoubtedly says something about how undervalued women’s histories were: I’m sure there would have been more material on Grey’s contemporary Le Corbusier – but what I mainly think when I recall this incident (no surprises: that student was me) is how much easier research is now the Internet has come of age in terms of both content and convenience. Indeed, my tale of fruitless book-hunting must sound like the dark ages to today’s young students who can access libraries’ catalogues on their smartphone; locate second-hand copies from anywhere around the world and have them rapid-delivered to their home; or perhaps dispense with books entirely. I just googled ‘Eileen Grey’ and got 80,300 results in 0.38 seconds.

Such changes in the way we access information make me ponder periodically whether the world needs any more art books. Now that I work as commissioning editor in this field, initiating or acquiring fresh titles each season, I have to wonder what physical books can offer that digital publishing can’t. Are books a soon-to-be obsolete technology? Or if they do survive, will artists and authors be replaced by AI-generated content anyway?

Why are there no sliding scales of fees for the number of virtual views, just as there are for different print-run quantities for book publishers? Which enterprise actually generates more pure profit?

These issues are not solely financial, it’s also about the rights of artists (or their Estate representatives) to opt out. The rule seems to be that anything published digitally can ‘always be taken down later if someone complains’ – but this overlooks how many views, or further reproductions, have occurred in the meantime. Having commissioned and conceived thematic art surveys – ranging from those focused on the gender or geographic backgrounds of artists to the medium or subject of artworks – I have always considered it important to respect the right of an artist to decline participation if they consider such overarching theme to be too reductive, inappropriate ideologically, or simply not the right fit at the moment the ask was made.

At the same time, however, I must advocate for the importance of writers being allowed to interpret art through their words. Since the explosion in popularity of image-led social media platforms (Instagram, Tik-Tok and YouTube) where prior permissions are rarely sought, there has been a growing tendency for artists, estates and representative galleries to double-down on those who do still formally request permission in advance of publication, with the insistence on ‘text approval’ before authorization will be granted to reproduce images. The challenge of online misinformation (which then gets duplicated across the Internet) is certainly a solid reason for texts to be fact-checked, but withholding permission because interpretations by professional art writers do not match existing ‘approved statements’ is missing the whole point of art writing. I could cite numerous accounts of fellow art book editors being asked to replace a newly commissioned text with what basically amounts to a hyperbolic press release or sanctified artist statement.

Perhaps part of the problem is an overinflated art market (for contemporary work especially) that defied wider economic downturns of the last 15 years, having shifted power from the public to the commercial world, leading to a miscomprehension of how art gains value, and indeed what value actually means. Beyond purely financial terms, art gains its worth via a process of critical endorsement by a wider industry of art professionals – curators, critics, writers, academics, editors – who need to be allowed to make connections and observations that situate art within a wider context of society and history, even when those interpretations may differ from the artist’s originals intentions (or indeed, how a dealer has positioned an artwork, in order to make a sale). Asserting control over the narrative only closes down meanings and reduces the audiences for an artist’s work. Part of the thrill of art is what each viewer brings to their encounter with an artwork, in terms of their own experiences, knowledge and interests – not just what they take from it. That should be the case whether in real life or in the printed book. As we move towards a new era when AI-generated text may come to dominate the new material we are offered to read, lovers of art – itself a form of independent and uniquely human expression – must find ways to safeguard the autonomy of human-generated writing, in all its varieties. Recent debates about how AI draws on existing, digitally-published materials (without accreditation or permission – to the anger of the creatives whose work has been plundered) further demonstrates the potential homogenising effect of AI. One interpretation is learned as ‘most accurate’ and, soon, room for variety of thought and perception is squeezed out. Just as those keen to avoid data-mining in every retail transaction are returning to cash, might the analogue book become a sanctified realm that seems more shielded from exploitation than that which exists in cyberspace?

When the visual content on which one relies to earn a living is largely, in fact, the creative output of others – how is it acceptable that the latter isn’t consulted?

Rebecca Morrill

To return to my earlier question of what books can offer that digital publishing can’t, I can – of course – wax lyrical about their physicality and the quality of reading from the printed page. As much as e-readers have tried to match the sensation, it will never be the same as the feel of a cuboid block of paper held together by thread and glue that is catnip for book fetishists. (I use this term affectionately, being one myself. I have been known to audibly swoon in bookshops at beautifully designed volumes that I am unable to resist buying.) I can also point out that in relation to art books, in particular, there is the additional fact that reproductions on screen cannot match the printed page: the backlighting and variability from one device to the next impacts how an image appears, and part of the joy of a well-produced book is the verisimilitude of its reproduction (and here I must acknowledge the huge talent of the production controllers in art publishing who work tirelessly to achieve the highest standards).

But my main belief in the importance of the printed book lies in their immutability: for art books exist in time as well as space. As I wrote in my introductory essay to Great Women Artists (Phaidon Press: 2019, p.14), “While they [books] record history as a written account on the page, they also capture and represent the moment in history from which they came, unlike their volatile online cousins, which can be modified repeatedly and without warning or declaration. In an era of fake news and retrospectively doctored internet content, the constancy of the printed word has revitalized worth.”

What springs to mind here is a day in 1990 when I visited a blockbuster exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts (with my parents on a day trip to London from Newcastle – by coach a 14-hour round-trip!). The exhibition was Monet in the 90s: The Series Paintings and it set me on a path towards an art-focused career. The show revealed a conceptual side to the Impressionist that transcended my previous understanding, teaching me the importance of curating: the wall of Rouen Cathedral paintings – never before united in one place – literally took my breath away. Almost 35 years later, however, what has endured of that experience, aside from my memories, is the catalogue: a weighty tome of research, scholarship, and illustrations. In a world of rapidly changing technology, where so much about how we experience visual culture has shifted in ways that we couldn’t have ever imagined, there is something hugely reassuring that this book is just as it was. I can no longer access material I backed up on CD-RW a decade ago, yet this book’s words and images are the same as they were the first time I looked at it. Furthermore, it has become a historical artifact of 1990; the graphic design, the choice of typeface, the style of writing, and indeed the fact of the book being made at all – all reveal something about that moment in time. Meet me here in 35 years, and let’s see if any of the online content published today is still around – unchanged and easily accessed.

As a final thought - if I had one suggestion of how to ensure the continued vitality of the art book into the future, it would be that they should receive more attention from art critics. I would never claim that a book surpasses or replicates the experience of seeing art in real life, but it is a parallel form of art encounter – one that can unravel more slowly and be revisited perpetually (so long as fire or flood are kept at bay). Yet books rarely get reviewed in the way the exhibition does, even when their content is equally ‘curated’ and when bringing such material together is equally challenging (something I can comment on, having been an exhibition curator prior to an art book editor). Exhibition catalogues are often seen as an add-on to the main event, a ‘souvenir’ for visitors rather than something with their own worth. Other types of trade (as opposed to academic) art books seem to fall into a gap in mainstream arts coverage, rarely reviewed by their critics (perhaps one annual ‘best books’ of the year). And given that most independent art book publishers don’t have the colossal publicity budgets of the ‘big five’ to buy column inches on the books section, art books are seldom featured there. Even within the specialist arts press, substantially more space is given over to reviewing exhibitions (temporary and accessible to the few) than books (long-lasting and accessible to the many), and when they are reviewed, there is often a failure to consider who the intended readership is, and that not every art book is being produced for industry professionals like themselves. Instead of sneering at ‘standard coffee-table fare’, those making a career within that same arts ecology might consider it positive that art books are still desirable and giftable objects by a wider public.

When wider society sees the value in art, everyone’s lives are made richer.

Rebecca Morril

I don’t remember how I completed the essay on Eileen Grey, though I know that I somehow did. And if today’s students have an easier time accessing research materials, I’m glad for them (they also have fees and debts, whereas I had a free degree and a maintenance grant). I also reflect on the fact that a lot of information that has found its way onto the internet got there via books – Wikipedia is awash with citations and references. I also know from anecdotal feedback that artists still find the printed book a hugely valuable tool to showcase their art, reach new audiences, and make sales of their work: being selected for inclusion in a book still matters. And those tech-savvy youths who have fashioned a career online? Even they seem to consider a book deal as the peak form of validation. Who doesn’t want to see their name on the cover of a book? Perhaps all book publishing is vanity, after all.

Rebecca Morrill is Executive Commissioning Editor at HENI Publishing. From 2013–2023 she worked at Phaidon Press as Commissioning Editor – Art Surveys, and prior to that had roles in the curatorial teams at the Serpentine Gallery and Whitechapel Gallery. The opinions expressed here are her own, and do not represent those of her employers, past or present. Her favourite art book is a catalogue for an exhibition she didn’t see: “Genealogies of Art, or the History of Art as Visual Art” (Fundación Juan March: 2020). She was seduced by its cover then fell in love with its contents and bought multiple copies as gifts.