By Raashika Goyal
“The Art of the Book,” a recently revived art history course at Union, is an undertaking to understand the rich and varied culture of books. Unlike a similar class that was previously offered at Union, it only covers the history of printed books, not the history of manuscripts.
While the topics of both of these Union classes hold significant interest for Visual Arts Professor Louisa Matthew, selectively focusing on one part allows for a more detailed investigation into the meaning of books in the past, present and future. In particular, she says, the main purpose of the highly interdisciplinary and visually oriented course is “to question whether or not books, in their physical form, still have an identity in this day and age, with everything being digitized” and thrown online.
For Matthew, the answer is simple: yes. In order to convince her students of this fact, she will go through how books relate to power, authority, censorship, politics, religion, literature and ideological revolutions of the modern world, all while examining the rich history of artistry behind them, starting from the invention of printing in 15th century Europe and ending at the present-day revival of old techniques.
She firmly believes that since books are representations of the “transmission of knowledge” in society, they will always hold the keys to profoundly influencing the building of new cultural foundations, just as they did for the new disciplines of the scientific revolution.
In terms of the technical aspects, the class entails a thorough design history of typefaces, fonts, illustrations and how their alterations over the centuries relate to the construction of books. Matthew delightedly exclaimed that since Schaffer Library’s Special Collections includes many artist books from the 15th century to the 21st century, the class will make extensive use of resources from there, especially when working on a project to construct their very own books.
Matthew’s father was in the book-printing business, so she has always been told that books should be respected—in fact, as a child, she was never allowed to dog-ear her pages, since that was a form of disregard for her books. With this class, she would like to spread the message of how essential books are to civilization, because they can communicate such a wide range of issues and ideas—social and aesthetic—and, at the same time, be used for political repression, limiting who can and cannot have access to them.
Matthew stresses that while “The Art of the Book” is not an easy course, it is a highly rewarding one, and will encourage students to think about books in a whole new light, since “there is as much history in the book itself as in the text and illustrations it contains.”
While it may seem as though books are becoming irrelevant due to technology, she said it was technology that allowed books to flourish in the first place, and technology that will continue to play a role in expanding the definitions of art.
This is the fundamental idea that she would like to convey: Art is not just what is affirmed, and hangs in museums—it is visual culture that surrounds us all the time. In fact, it may even be in your lap.