When we visit strange cities and their museums as tourists, it is quite common to buy an album, a book about cultural history or something else to take home with us. Hundreds of publishing houses are trying to package the culture of their country in the most accessible and democratic way as possible into books, nowadays also into CD-ROMs, in order to market it. The publication of an extensive, thorough monograph is a luxury that only a few companies can afford, because financing the preparation work is very expensive. This fact is known to all publishers and probably no one in the publishing world is surprised that there is not a constant flow of fundamental treatises on art emanating from the Baltic countries. Rather, people are surprised that such books are published here at all.
The publishing house Kunst
When Kunst Publishers Ltd was founded in 1957 its main objective was to publish books about Estonian art. The publishing house had its council, which (leaving aside their role as an instrument of party control) helped to make plans, proposed projects, put forth ideas etc. When the publishing house was not interested in a particular manuscript, the author might always seek help from the Estonian Artists’ Association (at that time, it was the Artists’ Association of the Estonian SSR, of course). Even now I often hear reproaches about why some book or other has not been published and think in despair – for what reason? Where is the buyer, for whom a small publishing house with limited resources will publish a book which is extremely expensive and is of interest to a very narrow specialist circle? At the same time it is obvious that the publication of books that meet specific interests is not a question of the income and expenses of one publishing house but an issue of wider cultural policy.
Everything is different for small nations. They pay more for the survival of their culture, and they are willing to do so, because it is the only guarantee of their identity. In many ways, small nations are more idealistic; this is not due to their naivity, but is the product of history and circumstance. In Estonia there is a relatively efficient system for the publication of such exclusive books; they are usually supported by the Cultural Endowment and the Estonian National Culture Foundation, there is also a council of publications in the Ministry of Culture. Nevertheless, everything is not so simple as it seems to be. Writing a text for an album or treatise on art takes at least a year, or with today’s work load, several years. When the publishers commission such a manuscript, they take a big risk, because none of the foundations or endowments will support a book that has not yet been written. And commissioning the pictures that one needed for such a publication is also very expensive, the photographer has to be highly professional and the work often includes travelling. Once again, the publishing house invests tens of thousands without knowing whether the project will ever materialise as a book. Undoubtedly, the next problem is multilingualism. There is no sense in publishing an art book today without a longer summary in a foreign language. Translators have to be familiar with the terminology in order to switch from Gothic vaults to Impressionist painting or a discourse on feminist art. When everything is finished, the manuscript translated, edited and graphic designers have completed their work, and the book is ready to go to print, then the publisher discovers that the preparations have taken too much time, that one editor and one artistic editor have been fully occupied with this one, splendid book that will not make any profit (this is not allowed by the ethics of subsidising) and during the same period at least three profit-making books might have been published. Apart from the lack of profit, the indirect costs of art books are also too large. Nevertheless, the publishing house keeps on making plans and preparations, applying for support and bringing art books to print.
There are rational reasons for this. First, the image and ideology of the publishing house originates from art and history-related literature. A definite image creates a definite group of customers and is a guarantee of quality. I think that the editors who work in the Kunst Publishers are among the very few who are really “trained” to deal with complicated art publications.
Second, naive though it may sound, the publishing house feels that they have a moral responsibility for publishing books about Estonian art. Almost nobody else does it, when we leave aside the collection of theoretical writings which is published by the art historians’ section of the Estonian Artists’ Association and the occasional publications of the Art Museum of Estonia and Tartu Art Museum which are undoubtedly very important.
Third, though this is not a rational reason, the genesis and production of an art book is an event everyone feels sympathy with and the publication of such a book makes the frantic working days brighter.
At present, the manuscript and photos for a book about August Weizenberg, one of the founders of Estonian sculpture, is waiting in the publishing house because we have not yet succeeded in finding financial support for the publication. The same problem has hindered the publication of the memoirs about an Estonian painter Andrus Johani which have been compiled by Helene Johani and might become an interesting document of cultural history. At the same time, Ilya Kabakov’s monograph about Ülo Sooster, an Estonian artist who strongly influenced the Moscow underground in the 1960s, will soon be coming from the printers, as will The Churches of Saaremaa by Kaur Alttoa. In March, a comprehensive art history for secondary schools by Jaak Kangilaski, and in May a collection of articles by Leonhard Lapin, are due for printing. Meanwhile we are getting ready to publish an extensive album about Estonian art nouveau which should go to the printers at the end of the year. The publishing house continues to publish Kunst, an almanac of contemporary Estonian art which does not have a very active position in the Estonian art press now due to the irregularity of its publication.
Catalogues, catalogues, catalogues
In addition to the plans of a professional publishing house, a large number of catalogues have been published that are usually produced and edited on a voluntary basis and the professional level of which is sometimes questionable. But they have become an integral part of the information about Estonian art and every branch of art attempts to promote itself through catalogues. One could divide the catalogues into three groups; first, there are universal catalogues that have been compiled by particular branch, one of the best being the catalogue of the Estonian Glass Artists’ Union that was recently printed in Finland. Second, there are personal catalogues that have been published with support from different foundations. As examples, one could name the catalogue of Jüri Arrak’s art which was published in 1996, or the catalogues of Leo Lapin, Jaan Toomik and Ando Keskküla who participated in the São Paulo International Biennial (published by the Soros Centre of Contemporary Art in Estonia). Third, there are exhibition catalogues. Over the years, the catalogues of the annual exhibitions of the SCCE with their good bibliographical data have become one of the best records of contemporary art. At present, three of them have been published and one is due to be printed soon. Other good examples are the catalogues of the Saaremaa Biennial which took place in the summer of 1995, the catalogue of the Tallinn Graphics Triennial et al. In 1997, the SCCE is planning to publish bilingual surveys about 25 Estonian artists in Estonian and English that will include bibliographies and numerous reproductions.
There are also some very exclusive books such as A Small Dictionary of Modern Architecture by Jüri Okas and The Night and The Way by Tõnis Vint and Peeter Ilus which by their nature are works of art in themselves, rather than art literature.
Where are art books sold?
The publishing houses sell their publications primarily in the book shops, of course, but booksellers are not interested in art catalogues because of the lack of storage space. So one has to look for them in the shops of art museums and in Tallinn Art Hall (Vabaduse väljak 6). One can also obtain information from the SCCE (Vabaduse väljak 6).
If someone asked me, whether it is possible to get an overview of Estonian art through books, I would say, yes, granted that one has most of the published works. Of course, Estonia is not such a rich country that it can produce periodical overviews of contemporary art. There is, as yet, no comprehensive history of post-war art available, but undoubtedly putting it together takes time and the shortage of money sets its limits too.
Finally, I return to the notion that the publication of art books, or more widely, books about cultural issues, should not depend solely on the benevolence and enterprise of publishing houses or artists. The generally positive attitude that various foundations have towards publishing art literature is principally a part of cultural policy. It is a normal reaction of self defence by a small nation. It is important that there should be many sources of financing, because there are many ways of writing about art, just as there are many genres, styles and ideologies.