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(Conference paper given at the lecture theatre of the Victoria & Albert Museum,

13th May 1989. The conference had been organised by Wimbledon School of Art.)


My main concern as a writer on art is with contemporary art and the situation of

living artists in Britain, consequently, my talk has been written with this focus in

mind. In the 1960s, the American art critic Harold Rosenberg wrote an essay

entitled 'Art books, book art, art' in which he argued that as the totality of the

world's art expanded exponentially, the only way an individual could keep track of

it was by means of a 'material that permits their simultaneous delivery

everywhere'. (1) That is, via the reproduction of works of art in the multiple-copy

media of magazines and books. Rosenberg acknowledged the drawbacks of a

museum-without-walls, a museum of substitute images. And he remarked: 'It

seems to me that the current vogue for art books arises from an appetite for

knowledge which the book is better suited to satisfy than are art works themselves.

It coincides with the emergence of art as a branch of learning and as a source of

data for other branches of learning'. The implication of his essay was that there

was no alternative and it is indeed hard to see how visual art could detach itself

from the discourses of publicity, criticism, history-writing and publishing within

which it is now imbricated.

Since the 1960s, art book and magazine publishing has itself expanded to such
an extent that now the individual who wishes to keep track of publications about art

has to rely on the several published specialist indexing services (such as Art Index).

Furthermore, there have been significant expansions in parallel media such as

television, plus new technological extensions of television such as video-recording.

There are now more media, more channels of communication, but also the different

media have tended to converge or to function in tandem. This process began in the

art field with BBC 2's 1969 blockbuster TV series Civilisation presented by Kenneth

Clark. This TV series has since been sold to 65 countries around the world. The

book of the series, the first TV tie-in art book, sold over a million copies in the

United States alone. Since then every major TV series about art or architecture has

had its book of the series: John Berger's Ways of Seeing, Robert Hughes Shock of

the New, Sandy Nairne's State of the Art. Berger's book Ways of Seeing is still in

print. I recently contacted Penguin to ask how many copies it had sold since 1973:

the answer, nearly half a million.

This example demonstrates that a polemical, neo-Marxist critique of art when

published as a cheap paperback and with the aid of a TV series can reach a huge

readership. So often, it seems to me, the democratic potential of printing and

reproduction is negated by the policies of art publishers who conceive of the

potential readership for their books in terms of hundreds - niche marketing with a

vengeance I suppose - and consequently publish art books costing £40 or £50 each.

I am an avid reader and consumer of art books but I cannot afford most of them.

Not only is art for the rich, so it would appear is the art book.

As one looks around art bookshops and fairs one can only be astonished at the
tremendous range and variety of volumes on sale compared to the situation in, say,

1950 and yet one is aware of many worthwhile texts which never find publishers,

or if they are published, are not distributed, or are not stocked by art bookshops.

Commerce, the market, makes many art books possible, but we should also

remember that it also suppresses intellectual expression. We hear of censorship by

authoritarian governments but not the censorship which market forces themselves

impose every day as a matter of routine when publishers declare - 'this idea is

uneconomic, there is no demand or market for such a book‘.

To cite an example. I published a book on Van Gogh at my own expense because I

could not find a publisher to take it on even when the subject was such a popular

artist. I was then surprised to discover that shops like the one in the Tate Gallery

would not stock copies because, they said, it was 'too specialist'. Of course, a large

number of businesses fail because of market forces and this includes publishers. I
have myself suffered financial loss three times as a result of the failures of

publishers and distributors.

While on the one hand, publishing firms grow larger and larger through take-

overs and mergers in order to tackle the challenge of the global marketplace, on

the other hand, developments in computer technology make possible small scale,

desk-top publishing, so perhaps we will see even more of a polarization in the

future between the kind of material issued by conglomerates and the kind of

material issued by individuals or co-operatives.

The majority of art books, of course, are not linked to TV series. What many of

them are now linked with are exhibitions - either directly by being published as the

catalogue of the exhibition, or indirectly by being published to coincide with an

exhibition. We are all familiar with the heavy, glossy, expensive catalogue which we

buy hoping that the scholarly articles it contains will make up for the weaknesses

of the exhibition we have just visited. German publishers like Prestel collaborate

with art institutions like the Royal Academy to share costs and risks. The

readymade audience of the exhibition guarantees a certain number of sales. The

exhibition generates publicity and the catalogue remains as the tangible record of

the exhibition. There have been many extremely useful exhibition catalogues, so I

do not wish to criticize this form of publication unduly, but it should be pointed out

that many such 'catalogues' are ceasing to be guides to exhibitions, and also there

are many worthy artists who never seem to get retrospective exhibitions in major

galleries and consequently never have book-catalogues published about them.

The increase in importance of the exhibition catalogue has had one negative
result I feel, i.e., it has resulted in a reduction of the most common type of art

book: the monograph, particularly the cheap series of topical profiles designed to

introduce students and the public to the work of contemporary artists. This may

not be true in the United States where virtually every major contemporary artist

has a book published about them but in Britain in terms of living artists one can

only find monographs on Caro, Hockney, Bacon, Hamilton, Lucien Freud, Richard

Long and Gilbert and George. Not a single book on John Latham or Stuart

Brisley, or David Mach, or Bill Woodrow, or John Stezaker, or the Art-Language

Group. A few days ago I studied the Spring Bookseller for 1989. The only book on a

living British artist I could see apart from the Thames & Hudson text on Gilbert &

George was a book on Raymond Mason issued by Lund Humphries to coincide

with an exhibition of his work in Birmingham. I can only accuse British art

publishers of a lack of patriotism: they do not seem willing to support the work of

living British artists beyond a few established figures. Similarly, histories of British

art since 1945 are few and far between.

If one looks to the new developments in culture in Britain in the last two

decades then the record of major British art publishers has been pathetic. They

have been conservative in outlook and slow to respond to new intellectual and

cultural developments particularly those with a radical and critical dimension. In

relation to community art, no major British art publisher issued a book about it. In

relation to feminist art it was the women's press and general publishers who issued

the first books of feminist art and feminist art criticism/history. In relation to

themes such as the interrelation of art and mass media, art and Pop music, it was
the small left-wing and media publishers who encouraged these projects; in

relation to art dealing with homosexual issues it was Gay Men's Press which issued

Emmanuel Cooper's history. In relation to the work of artists from Britain's ethnic

minorities there is not a book about contemporary Black art in Britain by a major

art publisher. Rasheed Araeen had to found his own press - Kala Press - and write

and publish his own book. It was new publishers like Camden Press who first

responded to the so-called 'new art history' not the established art book

publishers. T. J. Clark's books on the social history of art for Thames & Hudson

were a notable exception to this and it seems strange they have not followed up the

success of his books. No art publisher has issued a book about the recent crisis in

the art schools or about the impact of Thatcherism on British visual culture in

general. Where is there a history of British photo-text work, British video art, a

survey of contemporary copy art? A book about the remarkable achievements of

British arts television?

As we all know, public sector funding in Britain is now diminishing. But Arts

Council's grants and the framework of public educational institutions such as

Polytechnics, has played a vital role in encouraging a variety of new art magazines

such as Block, Art Monthly, Artscribe, Third Text, and AND (Journal of art and

education). Brandon Taylor's efforts at the Winchester School of Art Press deserve

praise. Winchester is publishing paperbacks at affordable prices on significant

aspects of contemporary art such as Public Art. Apart from the art magazines,

Winchester School of Art Press, and Aporia Press, there seem to be no paperbacks

by British art publishers dealing with topical issues in the realm of contemporary
visual culture. Britain appears to have nothing equivalent to the American Bay

Press in Washington, or the DIA Foundation in New York which has published some

notable anthologies on the subjects of modernism and post-modernism. Admittedly,

post-modernism and deconstruction has been debated in terms of Architecture

(Academy Editions) and in design (a Thames & Hudson anthology). Design seems to

have attracted more attention than art in the 1980s. I believe that Thames and

Hudson's book on Neville Brody was their best-selling text of 1988. Yet it seems

ironic that the experimental typography and design Brody evolved via The Face in

the early 1980s has had no impact on the staid appearance of art book design in


Earlier I mentioned AND magazine. This journal has received some subsidies

from the Arts Council. I have often written for AND without any payment

because I support its aims. This small fact demonstrates that not all human

actions are motivated by personal gain and private profit as some would have

us believe. The editors of AND - Jenni Boswell-Jones and Ismail Saray - have

avoided advertising in order to remain independent of the art gallery system

and free from the need to review current exhibitions, and in order to devote all

their pages to editorial content. The have deliberately kept their magazine at a

low price so that even art students can afford it, they have encouraged the

involvement of the contributors in the design and policy of the magazine thus

breaking down the distinction between editors, artists and critics. They have

published the magazine in conditions of personal poverty and have ploughed

back any money received into computers so that they can take advantage of the
new technology to improve the magazine still further. This example testifies to

the fact that new forms of culture, new critical perspectives continue to survive

in the margins of British society no matter how hostile the social and economic



(1) H. Rosenberg, The Anxious Object, (London: Thames & Hudson, 1965), pp.


NB. My paper seemed to be well received by many in the audience especially

younger people. The convenor of the conference introduced my paper as likely to be

‘controversial’. It seemed that my role was to spice up an otherwise staid event. My

remarks about the censorship effect of capitalist market forces and the lack of

patriotism on the part of many British art book publishers certainly incensed

representatives of Thames & Hudson (who once commissioned me to write a book -

Art since Pop) who were present because they later made angry refutations and

denials. In the 1980s I tutored a fine art student who wrote an excellent dissertation

on Jeff Koons which I thought could be expanded into a book by the student and

myself. We wrote a proposal and submitted it to T & H. Their response - ‘Who is

Jeff Koons?’ - revealed how out of touch they were with contemporary art. We

replied by sending them copies of a dozen periodical articles on Koons. Still they

were not interested. Of course, a few years later they published The Jeff Koons

Handbook (1992), a non-critical book.

John A. Walker is a painter and art historian. He has written and had published a
number of books - most of them were subsidised by research funding provided by

Middlesex Polytechnic/University grants. His book on the history of Arts Television

was partly funded by the Arts Council. Later volumes were funded by the writer

himself because the illustration fees and cost of printing colour illustrations made

the books uneconomic as far as most publishers were concerned. Small left-wing

publishers are more receptive to critical books written by academics but they are

often tardy about paying royalties and one editor of such a company once told

Walker it was common practice not to pay their authors at all!

Walker is also an editorial advisor for the website: