“Let’s stop treating visual content like window dressing.
Instead let’s start immersing ourselves in the glorious mental bath it is.”
In Praise of the Coffee Table Book
An art book editor
invites us to open that
tome on the coffee table
By Bridget Watson Payne
coffee table, their covers
opened, their pages leafed
through, the artwork
within allowed to beam
itself through your eye-
balls and into your brain.
Otherwise you may as well
be looking at a nicely
designed slab of stone.
Why did we (or, just as
often, someone who loves
us) spend a chunk of
change—often a considerable one—on
this heavy thing? Was it so it could sit
there in the middle of the living room,
silently proclaiming to whoever walks by
that we are people of taste and class? Let’s
be honest: quite possibly. But, hey, it can
fulfill that function and also realize its
deeper purpose as a thing to delight and
disquiet our souls.
From impressive photography books
such as Richard Misrach’s Golden Gate
(Arena Editions, 2001), David Hilliard:
Photographs (Aperture, 2005), and Lauren
Greenfield’s Girl Culture (Chronicle,
2002) to exciting volumes of modern and
contemporary art such as Leap Before You
Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957
(Yale Univ., 2015), Jean Michel Basquiat’s
The Notebooks (Princeton Univ., 2015),
and The Thing the Book (Chronicle, 2014),
art books are beautiful, thoughtful, carefully created pieces of art in themselves.
Sometimes it seems like maybe people
use “coffee table book” as a catch-all term
because they’re not comfortable using
the word art to describe anything other
than the painting or sculpture they’d
find in a major museum collection. Now,
personally—and professionally, for that
matter—I take a broadly egalitarian view
of what art is and can be. But if you want
to reserve the term “art book” to mean
only books about fine art,
that’s okay. You still have
myriad other terms ready
to be deployed: “visual
book,” “illustrated book,”
Another problem stems
from intimidation. Many
of us feel perfectly com-
fortable thinking of our-
selves as the sort of people
who have a few coffee table
books lying around, but balk at the
notion of self-identifying as an art book
buyer, let alone an art lover. Art is viewed
as being something for other people,
more cultured, fancier, more snobbish
Nonsense! Art is for everyone. Art books
are for everyone. Not everyone can afford
to splurge on museum admission regularly, but everyone can get a library card.
Check out an art book from your local
library, bring it home, spend two weeks
inside its pages, and I can virtually guarantee that the quality of your inner life
will be improved.
Let’s stop treating visual content like
window dressing. Instead let’s start
immersing ourselves in the glorious
mental bath it is. Let’s soak in art. Let’s
wallow in art. Let’s throw the coffee table
and all the stuff on it out the window.
Let’s stack art books by the sofa, on the
desk, near the bedside—wherever we can
lay hands on them and riffle through
them with impunity. Relax into their
images and let the power of art overtake
us. Art, and art books, are just waiting to
make us happy. Let’s let them. ■
It’s high time we retire the term “coffee
table book.” It’s a reductive and belittling
moniker that diminishes an art book—a
piece of culture worthy of being taken
seriously—to mere furniture.
Everyone understands that a coffee table book sits on the coffee table (or perhaps, these days, an oversize tufted ottoman) looking attractive.
And the artwork inside—whatever it
may be—is also, at best, merely decorative. If, that is, anyone even bothers to
open up the book and look at what’s
inside, which of course no one does
because it probably has a nice lacquer-ware box and an unusual seashell sitting
on top of it.
No one reads coffee table books; rarely
does anyone even look at the pictures.
Instead, they dust them, because coffee
table books gather dust.
As an art book editor (who has worked
on more than a hundred volumes of art,
design, photography, and illustration),
and as an art lover and author of a book
about how art can make you happy, all of
this bugs me quite a bit. Art books are
cultural products as vital in their own
way as paintings hanging on gallery
walls or books containing works of
In order for art to make you happy you
have to actually look at it. The art books
have to come off the shelves and off the
Bridget Watson Payne is senior editor of art
publishing at Chronicle Books and the author
of How Art Can Make You Happy and
The Secret Art of Being a Grown-Up.
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