There is no official definition of what is meant by the term, artist book, nor is there any agreement on when it was introduced historically or where artists’ books fit in the Craft vs. Fine Art debate. The most that can be agreed upon is that they are visually expressive objects that function like a book in the conveyance of information which may or may not be of a textual nature. Simply put, they are works of art realized in the form of a book. For a scholarly essay on artist’s books see Johanna Drucker’s first chapter, The Artist’s Book as Idea and Form, from her book, The Century of Artists’ Books.
What is it about the book form that attracts artists? I would say, everything. The definition of a book from the artist’s point of view is very broad indeed, ranging from the traditional codex form to books that could be described as sculptural. It would appear that almost any art form or technique can, with a certain degree of adaptation, be used in the creation of book structures and the content within.
Artists' books are a hybrid form. Artists make them for all kinds of reasons, and with different intentions. Artists' books may be rich and fancy, or they may look as common as supermarket circulars. There is no one look about them.photo, William Blake, The Temptation of Eve, perhaps the earliest example of a book artist in the modern sense.
The simplest definition of artists' books is: "books made by artists." Though bordering on the tautological, this is a good working definition for a rich and complicated genre.
One of the reasons discussions of artists' books begin with efforts of definition is that they are a subset of a medium: the book. Paintings don't exist outside of art, but books do. All paintings are made by artists (arguably of varying degrees of talent and professionalism; trained elephants and schoolchildren notwithstanding). Defining what is meant by the term artists' book is a necessary requirement for a form whose related (non-fine arts) members include TV Guides and the Bible.
It's important not to confuse artists' books with art books, or books about artists (monographs, for instance). In the last several decades many artists have made books, and used the book form as a primary tool of expression. This movement into a relatively unexplored medium or genre needed a new descriptor. Artists' books is the result, and though its definition is not entirely fixed, it is the term most often used to describe recent or contemporary book productions by artists.
Thinking of the artists as being responsible for both the text and the physical realization of that text as a book may be a helpful construct in understanding the field. The difference between an artists' book and a book illustrated by an artist has to do with intentionality and degrees of control. The illustrator may be one of several subordinate collaborators who is responsible for one aspect of the book's realization. In general, the book artist conceptually controls the whole publication.
What is it about book form that attracts artists? The books' physical nature is one inducement. Structurally, the book is a gathering of bound, usually printed, pages. The properties of portability, sequence, and containment are of particular interest to visual artists. Other allures of the book form that have been exploited by artists have to do with function: readers invest books with authority; their use is known, and their presence is ubiquitous.
Silver Buckle Press
Artist's Books: Highlights from the Kohler Art Library