Cultural value and the aesthetics of publishing.

Author:Leaman, Michael R.
Position:Money, Power, and the History of Art

Most authors of scholarly books seem to lack basic knowledge of the motives that drive publishing. They write books without having a particular audience in mind nor a consciousness of the book's possible impact on society. On the other hand, the present generation's over-exposure to media stimuli had handicapped their ability to distinguish between the valuable and the vulgar. It is because of... (see full summary)


The earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes, but spirits will hover over the ashes. - Wittgenstein(1)

This aphorism, written in the 1930s, seems in the 1990s to be a prophetic vision of destruction. Just as culture exists in a confused and directionless state after the turmoil of the twentieth century, so the mechanisms by which culture is diffused in society serve to scatter the ashes in all directions. Both visual and literary productions are affected and directed by state, corporate, and commercial bodies, yet on the surface, artists and writers appear to have all the freedom possible to choose their idiom. The forms available for artistic and literary endeavor in the age of postmodernism are, in principle, endless. But the system under which these forms function determines to a large extent their content and direction. The apparatus of art and literature - and publishing is one such apparatus within the media - has the potential to stifle, nurture, or assist in cultural innovation.

Here, I will raise some issues about the marginalization of intellectual life in society, focusing on book publishing and the specialism of art history, which is a small fragment within academic endeavor. As a publisher, I have been puzzled by the paucity of awareness among authors of the mechanics of publishing and the wider context within which their writing activity is situated. The ignorance here is not just of the production process, or the means by which books reach their markets, but an even more fundamental lack of comprehension of what the audience for their books might be and the cultural impact of what they are undertaking. And while it must be acknowledged that the answers to such questions are not simple or reassuring, it seems strange that so little thought is directed to them. Does this matter? Does it matter as long as books are produced that sell a requisite number of copies - another title added to the author's curriculum vitae and another twenty millimeters of spine width added to the libraries around the world?

I would maintain that all this should matter, and that there is an intricate and fragile relationship between the form, function, and cultural value of the publishing process. Just as there is an aesthetic of paper and ink and typography and computerized Heidelberger Speedmasters, so there must be an aesthetic of thought, or perhaps just a pleasing combination of word and image on the page and in the mind of the reader, the writer, and the publisher. The multiplication of texts and pictures need not necessarily lead to a degradation of the inherent message or aesthetic content, so that no one atomic detail when reproduced by any particular method of reproduction need be privileged over another; it is a question of the appropriateness of the technique and medium to the intended effect and audience.

All this is fine in theory, but in reality, in the mechanical age of overproduction, the media, once scrutinized, shows itself up as largely a failure, for only a small proportion of production can be described as successful. There is the badly produced, often hideous typography of "great works," the carefully packaged presentation of intellectual disasters - all those books written in ignorance of their intended readers, or written for readers who do not exist. How has this come about? Junk has always been published, but it has become easier and easier to become an author, as high culture no longer holds the high "moral ground." In the late nineteenth century, artists and writers - the proponents of high culture - began to appropriate the materiality of popular culture in their work, and this tendency spiraled in the twentieth century: from Cubist collages pieced together with newsprint to torn Metro posters to graffiti, from the imagery of Apollinaire's poems to superimposed advertising typography to computer graphics. Today, in the television and high-tech age, as American-influenced popular culture seeps into the soul of every nation, we are bombarded with print, type, and images. And we have lost the ability to discriminate. In J. B. Twitchell's words, "We live in an age distinct from all other ages that have been called 'vulgar' because we are so vulgarized that we have lost the word in common use, and in a sense the aesthetic category. It is not that we think it bad manners to criticise someone else's taste, as much as it is that we have lost the concept of taste as a measure of criticism."(2) Today, there is no release from the material goal, we have severed all our links with...

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