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 lacquerware 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 literature.
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 coffee table, their covers opened, their pages leafed through, the artwork within allowed to beam itself through your eyeballs 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,” “photobook.”
Another problem stems from intimidation. Many of us feel perfectly comfortable thinking of ourselves 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 people.
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.
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.