Monday, February 1, 2010

A rather formal call to all independent booksellers.

Less people read books these days. We all know that. More often than ever, the books that are bought, are done so online. The problem for lovers of artbooks, is that the best way to know if an artbook is worthwhile is to thumb through it in a bookstore. The bland selections at the chain stores leaves much of the burden on dwindling independent bookstores to give art lovers their fix. The pressures to stand apart from the chains while serving the store's community seem considerable. When making choices about art related books to order for an independent bookstore, one must establish the reasons the books are carried in the first place. In my mind, a bookseller with integrity should try to include a fair representation of books relating to artists who are "relevant". By what standards can this be judged? Here are a few issues that come into play.
1) Popularity vs. Importance
- It is obvious that if something is popular, it is "relevant" to a large number of people. Many chain booksellers make the mistake however, of letting popularity be the number one criterion for choosing art books. I have often lamented the fact that there are some artists who seem over represented while others seem forgotten. These seemingly ubiquitous artists include Monet, Rembrandt, Klimt, and Van Gogh. There is an understandable impulse for progressive buyers to reject these artists because of their seeming overexposure. I would argue however, that certain artists are so important, that they can never be excluded because of their influence not only on other artists, but because of their influence on the culture. With this in mind, it is crucial that popularity be filtered through the more useful criteria of an artists' importance. This should be left to the well informed. Salvador Dali and MC Escher are invariably carried by booksellers with the most meager art section. While these artists remain popular with the masses, they are much less "important" in relation to Art History than artists like Manet or Cezanne who are universally recognized as essential to the development of western modern art. An artist's popularity, in other words is a partial indicator of their relevance, but it is a distracting one. Van Gogh, according to most experts in the field earns his high visibility while Thomas Kinkead does not. In the realm of contemporary art, Banksy is more popular than Larry Pittman, but is he more important? Independent booksellers would be wise to focus on more scholarly books of well known artists while avoiding the commonly carried superficial treatments of them. Additionally, they should be counted on, in championing the most interesting, if less well known artists and movements. In both cases, the independent bookseller remains uniquely valuable.

2) Community or Trend
-An independent bookstore's strength is it's ability to serve the community that surrounds it. Too few neighborhoods seem able to support independent booksellers. From most accounts, the areas where such booksellers thrive seem to host more educated and engaged clientele. It would be reasonable to conclude that a fair percentage of these customers are either artists, collectors, or individuals with an interest in art history. As with fiction, it must be assumed that a number of buyers simply want a book to enjoy as a bit of entertainment, but no comprehensive bookseller would ever consider not having a literature section. Classic Literature by authors like Steinbeck , Shakespeare, Melville, or Joyce are not only considered required reading for future authors, but for anyone who reads. Why should art books be chosen by a different standard? Individuals with a real investment in the art world are not only interested in books about the newest art trends, but in the origins of these trends. It is naive to assume that artists spring fully formed into the world without learning from art history. In music, the band members of Green Day might sight Neil Young as a primary influence. Similarly, a contemporary painter like Peter Doig sights earlier artists Edvard Munch and Gauguin as inspiration. For a bookseller to serve it's community, it must allow the context of art to be available to be explored and understood by it's visitors. Independent booksellers must also take the lead in representing artists and cultures that have traditionally been underrepresented. (Women, minorities, the underclass etc.) Like both music and literature, the area of fine art deserves to be treated comprehensively by our culture. A well stocked, independent bookseller should provide such a place.

John Singer Sargent
"Man Reading"
oil on canvas

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