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The art book as semiotic machine

August 18, 2007

If for Malraux the value of the art book is that it democratizes the experience of art by bringing it into the lives of vastly more people than the elitist museums had done (a value that is exponentially increased by the web in the eyes of enthusiasts of the “information superhighway”) this was not its primary function. Rather it was that by means of its concatenation of photographic reproductions the book recodes works of art from “objects” into “meanings” – as he had said the works gain “the utmost significance as to style that they can possibly acquire.” The art book is a semantic machine then and the photograph is what gives it leverage. For the photograph is the great facilitator of comparison of moving past the contemplation of a work in isolation to the differential experience of it its meaning emerging – as linguist Ferdinand de Saussure had assured it it would – in relation to what it is not.

R. Krauss in Foster et al: Art since 1900 p. 274.