Bookmarking Book Art – in medias res – Diane Stemper

Cell Compendium (2008-2016)
Diane Stemper
The work began with a gallery installation of Cell: Descent and 25 petri dishes filled by gallery visitors with science facts, liquid and solid matter. The installation in 2016 included 75 dishes filled with small altered found text books, drawings, and specimen objects housed in petri dishes.

In the middle of a shelf in Diane Stemper’s Ohio home, Umberto Eco’s Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages sits bookended, on the left, by two books about Francis Bacon and, on the right, by a small monograph on Pierre Bonnard and another book Art and Culture of Japan. The books are not organized alphabetically or chronologically. When she pulls the book out, it feels perfect, not too thin or thick, its dimensions and weight ideal for carrying in a shoulder bag. It has a feeling of secrets and importance.

Since discovering Stemper’s work at the Center for Book Arts (New York, 2014), I have wanted to talk to her about the themes and material that drive that work. Art and science, paper and glass, the universal and the particular, ink and watercolor, the physical and the spiritual. We finally arranged it in medias res, and she agreed to this oblique approach to her mind and art.

BoB: As you open Art and Beauty to its mid-point, what do you hear, smell or see about it or around it?

DS: Well, not sure if you mean inside of the room I am in or the memory it conjures, so I will go with memory. The words “cathedral”, “Chartres”, “vestibule”, “allegory” take me from the immediate space of my front room to the interior of a European cathedral or even perhaps as a child to the pews of St. Paul Cathedral in Minnesota during midnight mass. There is the fragrance of incense, the dark light of an imposing building, chanting and mystery. There are also the many hands of craftsmen chipping away at stone, painting glass and the laborers who put it all together and probably were not treated all that well.

Then there is that word “parabolic” and Eco’s explanation of Aquinas’ description of the arts as being literal, that the poetic image and its meaning were in the mind of the “reader” and that this association was a “matter of habit” – this reminds me that I and my viewers have different habits of mind, from the museum visitors I once toured who loved Impressionism and were hostile to Rothko, to the viewers responding to my specimen series – “why are they dead, did you kill them, that’s icky”. Surface literalism can be a matter of what one is familiar with and fearful of what one does not understand, but it can also be a “way into a piece” if the viewer is willing.

BoB: At the end of his book, Eco sums up his explanation of how the medievals looked at art with this startling statement, “They saw the world with the eyes of God”. What of today’s viewers of art and, in particular, those who look at your art?

DS: When originally picking the book from the middle of the middle shelf and then opening it to the middle, that sentence you mentioned — “The association of an image with a certain meaning is a matter of habit” — leapt out. Eco was referring to the ability of people of the Medieval period to read an image as if it were a literary text, for example, knowing instantly which animals or colors represent which biblical figure or story. However, I am reading Eco’s words from my 21st century vantage point, where there isn’t necessarily a concrete set of universal meanings assigned to objects or colors that every person understands and knows.

He also writes that the medieval mind loved a puzzle, that it was part of public discourse to figure out symbols and the inherent meaning within images. That there was adventure in the act of discovery.  And another phrase that struck me:  “Grasping reality through sense knowledge.”

Universal Sample (2014)
Diane Stemper
Edition of 4, Intaglio and letterpress on Arches

Today’s “matter of habit” is problematic when viewing art. For some of my pieces, in particular Universal Sample and my drawings and prints of specimens, the viewing can be rather cursory, a knowing, habitual glance that says, “oh I see what that is”. The glance sums up the object in very simplistic terms. In this case, for the viewer, the specimen represents death or some distasteful high school experience of dissecting a small creature, and nothing more. It is possible to look at visual art not just with visual sense but in partnership with other physical sensations conjured by the image. Looking at the work as if there is more than meets the eye, that there is an underlaying sensibility to the image that references another experience or feeling or bit of knowledge, a smell, a sound…or that of the animal or that of the instance in which the animal finds itself, or the moment that a curious person finds such an animal. Imagining that moment — “What was it like?”

So, I hope that people will approach my artwork with imagination and not as a matter of habit — to look at my work as if it is a bit of a puzzle, not a straightforward statement or concept but more of a string of thoughts, feelings and visual and sensate information to be arranged and rearranged to come to some sort of conclusion or idea about the meaning, however uncertain that may be.

BoB: Do you recall the circumstances of the book’s purchase? What were you doing when you decided to buy it?

DS: I absolutely remember. I was living in London with my spouse and family as part of a study abroad program my spouse was leading. Each day, after all were at school or otherwise occupied, I would head out in pursuit of art, medical museums, natural history oddities or any number of things and on one day I went to the British Library to see an exhibition, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. This was an exhibition of the several collections representing centuries of books commissioned by kings and queens and to my delight there were books on medicine, science and nature. After spending a very long time in the exhibition, I went to the gift shop where I found the Eco book. The extraordinary detail of the manuscripts I had just seen and the enormity of the exhibition itself put me in the mood to purchase the book.

BoBAs an artist whose work has an intimate relationship to “the book,” could you describe the effect this has on you when you are reading books in general or when revisiting the Eco book in particular?

DS: In general, when I am reading a book versus the screen of a device, I enjoy the structure of the book and understanding the manner in which it is assembled. The type of binding, the quality of paper, the action of the pages, do they lay flat or do they fight. I find the term “perfect binding” ironic as I am reading a book where the pages are falling out. I typically notice the condition of a book, faded covers, mildew or wear on the edges. Books with these qualities I feel a bit sorry for as I wonder where their next home will be, probably not my local library or the used book store, since here in Ohio, we haven’t many of those. Maybe they will live a short while at the Goodwill Thrift Store and from there, the recycle bin. Books are a bit like an endangered species and I am at times concerned that the youth (I have one at home) are only relating to books as they are required to do so at school and not as a place of refuge, ideas and travel. It is hard for books to compete with the ever-present screen and digital speed of information and interaction.

The Eco book in particular is a pathway back to London, to other centuries, to a time when art was the screen of the day and to the Royal manuscript exhibition. The books in the exhibition survived over centuries; the hours and hours of skill, artistry and dedication it took to not only create the books but to also preserve them gives me pause. The Eco book itself is not a great work of craftsmanship as an object, it is, after all, bound as a “perfect binding”. Still, it has not fallen apart yet, so the binders must have used a better-quality glue. Instead, the Eco book is a vessel of ideas and murmurs of what it meant to have art and beauty in one’s life hundreds of years ago. What are my intentions when opening a book? To be lifted away from the present, to enter another time period or another person’s circumstance or to be visually transported.

BoB: Turning the question on its head, when the act of creating a work rather than the act of reading is in flight, how do books feed your working process?

DS: For my series on Darwin, all seemed to fall into a flawless moment. I happened upon dozens of petri dishes and had already been thinking about Darwin’s 200th birthday. It is an instance of form and content playing together without much conflict or negotiation. From that came many books that really seemed to define themselves both in structure and content.

Cell Book #37 (2014)
Diane Stemper

My books built into petri dishes are a different viewing experience for people because the dish itself is so familiar and suddenly the viewer finds the dish in an unusual circumstance, that of being a book. People pause, take notice and naturally ask questions, they seem unleashed from any customary reaction or habit and are open to an idea. The dish is an entry to figuring out a puzzle and not a barrier, such as an image of a dead bird or a dissected lizard might be.

The first books (Cell: Compendium) were in direct response to various nearby communities that were pushing for “creationism” to be taught in the public schools. The petri dish is a universal item repositioned and viewers find it humorous, unique or “creative” and while some stop there, most people are prompted to go further. The recognition of the petri dish spurs and opens the door to more meaningful connections and interpretations.

Compendium of Fact #1 (2009)
Diane Stemper

Mostly however, when making my art work, initially the book structure is secondary, a simple vehicle for the content. Imagery, content, text and the oblique narrative story are primary and the development of the images and content are the key portions of my studio work. I use other books in my work, discarded textbooks and spines, for instance, that I take apart and rework. I also use books as reference, looking for a word or phrase, a bit of information to jumpstart a narrative about a topic I am interested in. I borrow science imagery to create and integrate with my own images. I am an observational artist and that includes observing via books as well as nature.

Discovery Plat 21 – Numbers (2001)
Diane Stemper
A unique artist book. One of four unique books exploring the life of insects as observed on, in, around an Ohio porch. Book 2 (Migration), Book 3 (Pause) & Book 4 (Flight) in the special collections of the Cincinnati Public Library, Hamilton County, Ohio.
Ohio Specimen Cardinal (2016)
Diane Stemper

Once the content and images are in motion, the book structure comes into play and that is when the many possibilities of the structure interact with the content and it is really the most significant challenge of creating an artist book. I do not like to use book forms for the simple novelty of the structure or for the entertainment factor (for instance a pop-up or tunnel book) unless of course it really fits the topic. I want viewers to focus on the images and feeling or message of the work, so the book structure becomes, is, or should be a thoughtful object that houses an idea or an experience, it is in service to the artist, to the viewer, it invites the viewer in and then steps aside.

BoBLet’s turn to Universal Sample in some more detail.  I’d like to ask you to comment on the intersection between the words in Universal Sample (“universal” and “sample”, “chance” and “order”, “moment” and “decay”) as well as the intersection of the words with the prints, their color, the paper you used, and the star structure.

Universal Sample (2014)
Diane Stemper
Edition of 4, Intaglio and letterpress on Arches

DS: First, let me say the entire book, the six images and the text, is meant to present obliquely a life cycle of early life forms. The images are inspired by my own source material comprised of many drawings of specimens that I did at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

The title, Universal Sample, is singular and expansive. A sample is one bit of something larger that is collected and taken from a whole and isolated, universal represents a larger inclusive whole. In this case “Sample” is not numbered or identified. It is in relationship to all else, is composed of and is evidence for all else.

Dispersal  Begins the book and alludes to creation.

Universal Sample (2014)
Diane Stemper
Edition of 4, Intaglio and letterpress on Arches

Vestigial  Ends it and alludes to remains.

Universal Sample (2014)
Diane Stemper
Edition of 4, Intaglio and letterpress on Arches

Chance In part I feel the world is a chaotic place where the intentional can be overcome by chance and luck, circumstance and happenstance.

Order – This is about human systems (religious, scientific) within a chaotic world and about the molecular combining and recombining relative to evolution over millions of years which bring about reasonable order within an ever-changing environment.

Universal Sample (2014)
Diane Stemper
Edition of 4, Intaglio and letterpress on Arches

When I place the words “chance” and “order” together, I am referencing religion as a human system attempting to bring order to chaos, to explain the inexplicable. The images progress from an unidentified plasma or bubbly life form to a life form that appears to be lizard like, one of the early animal forms on earth. One print shows three lizards, a trinity of sorts, impaled perhaps, especially as specimens might be. Floating, they represent the substance, atom, molecules, electrons, neutrons that I know exist versus the Trinity as espoused by Christianity that I am not so certain about.  In this way, I am harking back to the root of an entire body of work that I have made that draws upon Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

Moment and Decay are read together with the image of a frog, a frog that is decomposing, reordering and redistributing its cells. I want the text to key viewers into the idea of a space, gap, a line or moment when decay begins. The last print is of an imaginary cellular structure of a life form as it is releasing and redistributing entirely into another space whether that is air, dirt or water or the space beyond our stratosphere.

The book structure, font and print size and paper choices are all subject to various constraints, such as paper and press bed size, size of copper, or availability of type face at the printmakers cooperative where I do my printing. For this book, I worked the structure of the book, image and text placement and layout simultaneously with content development and made at least a few small mock-ups to help me see the possibilities, resolve problems and keep me on track. I like book structures that are straightforward and that are an entry to the images and content. Sometimes, as with the Cell books, the structure is integral to the content of the work. For Universal Sample, what was going to be a simple accordion changed as I saw that the images and text could offer different ways in which to view and read the book. The star structure which consists of a series of three-page short accordions sewn into a concertina spine is elegant, seems like a standard book, a good frame for the images and when opened it can go beyond being a standard book and be manipulated and reconsidered.

Universal Sample (2014)
Diane Stemper
Edition of 4, Intaglio and letterpress on Arches

BoB: Where next with your art?

DS: I like anything that can be described as a collection, the more personal and odd, the better, and I find opportunities to visit natural history or medical museums when I can. Currently, I am finishing a book object that incorporates several of my drawings of backyard specimen finds. This work includes test tubes and refers to the challenge of birds to avoid hazards and remain undetected. I am also thinking about a series of artist books that somehow reveal the dozens, hundreds, thousands of birds that are housed in the drawers of collecting institutions.

BoB: With thanks to Diane Stemper for her time and reflection. To enjoy more of her work, see her site and also:

The Dayton Printmakers’ Cooperative

Miami University Libraries (Oxford, Ohio)

Saatchi Art

Diane Stemper received her B.F.A. in printmaking from the San Francisco Art Institute and a M.A. in Interdisciplinary Arts from San Francisco State University.  Her work is included in the Artists’ Book Collections of: DAAP Library, University of Cincinnati, Ohio; Main Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Cincinnati, Ohio; Special Collections, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio; and the Lucille Little Fine Arts Library, University of Kentucky.

 

Bookmarking Book Art – The Lindisfarne Gospels

Lindisfarne Gospel
The Lindisfarne Gospels

“The British Library is delighted to be a major lender to the exhibition The Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham, which runs from 1 July to 30 September 2013. No fewer than six of the Library’s greatest Anglo-Saxon and medieval treasures are on display at Palace Green Library in Durham, among them the St Cuthbert Gospel, the Ceolfrith Bible and, of course, the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels.”  – via The British Library

“The Lindisfarne Gospels is one of the most magnificent manuscripts of the early Middle Ages. It was almost 400 years old when the Domesday Book was compiled, 500 years old when Magna Carta was witnessed, and over 700 years old when Gutenberg invented movable type.

It was written and decorated at the end of the 7th century by the monk Eadfrith, who became Bishop of Lindisfarne in 698 and died in 721. Its original leather binding, long since lost, was made by Ethelwald, who succeeded Eadfrith as bishop, and was decorated with jewels and precious metals later in the 8th century by Billfrith the Anchorite.

The Latin text of the Gospels is translated word by word in an Old English gloss, the earliest surviving example of the Gospel text in any form of the English language, it was added between the lines in the mid 10th century by Aldred, Provost of Chester-le-Street.

Today the manuscript is once again bound in silver and jewels, in covers made in 1852 at the expense of Edward Maltby, Bishop of Durham. The design is based on motifs drawn from the decoration of the manuscript itself.

This is an eBookTreasures edition which includes all pages from the manuscript and audio narration and interpretation on selected pages.” — via The Lindisfarne Gospels – Complete, published by ebooktreasures.

English: Page with Chi Rho monogram from the G...
Page with Chi Rho monogram from the Gospel of Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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Bookmark — The ABC of Bookmarking

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Detail from Harley MS 4425, Roman de la Rose
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Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum

The British Library‘s “Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts” blog is a reliable source of visual delight and provocation to think about the interplay of the print and digital worlds.  It also prompts the application of Ezra Pound’s critical technique of juxtaposing works, demonstrated so well in his The ABC of Reading.

Earlier this year, Ann Tomalak, Conservator, Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project, posted “Digitising Manuscripts:  The Condition Assessment,” a wonderful essay that warrants reading alongside A Degree of Mastery by Annie Tremmel Wilcox.

I have read A Degree of Mastery from cover to cover twice.  Once in New York between 2002 and 2005 when I was teaching “Professional Book and Information Publishing” at NYU and wanted readings to help provide students with a sense of the history, art and craft of the book. The second time here and now in Windsor looking for the “right something” to include in “Books On Books.”

On both occasions ebooks and digital publishing pervaded my thoughts, but only on the second time around did these questions and observations I want to raise now shape themselves as they have.

Annie Tremmel Wilcox weaves a memoir of her apprenticeship under the renowned bookbinder and conservator William Anthony.  She weaves it with her diary entries, excerpts from an exhibit brochure “Saving Our Books and Words: The Conservation and Preservation of Books,” newspaper articles, correspondence, passages from “Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use” by Toshio Odate, step by step descriptions of mending torn pages and crumbling leather spines and plainspoken observation of fellow workers, conference attendees, librarians, government officials posing with restored documents, children making “books” from striped computer paper with wallpaper sewn on for covers and, of course, Bill Anthony, the “Johnny Appleseed of bookbinding.”

“Weaves” is the precise word for the structure of her book’s narrative, and it would be the right word for her ebook, if there were one.  As I re-read it, this game of word substitution yielded questions that make this memoir a useful means to bookmark the evolution of the book.

Writing about some of the tools she learns to use — lifting knives, translucent bone folders, the spokeshave and others — she says of Anthony’s, “His tools were smarter than mine. They knew the correct way to cut paper or pare leather. By using them I could feel in my hands how the tools were supposed to work.” (48)  For Wilcox and her reader, Bill Anthony is the master “shokunin,” craftsman or artisan.  And when she quotes from Odate “For the ‘shokunin,’ utility and appearance must be enhanced by the tool’s ‘presence,’ that is its refinement and dignity….,” this reader asks,

What are the tools of the ebook maker? From whence comes their refinement and dignity — their “presence” — with which the “shokunin” imbues his creation as a result of his commitment to his craft?  In what tools of the ebookmaker does “the spirit of the tool that records the ‘shokunin’s’ ability through the years to face the uncertainties of life, to overcome them, and to master the art of living” reside?

Too Zen? Perhaps.

An English grad student, Wilcox relished handling the University of Iowa‘s Sir Walter Scott Collection, its Leigh Hunt Collection and The Works of Rudyard Kipling.  Confronted with earlier slapdash and botched work on certain volumes of the Kipling, she writes, “Certainly these volumes of Kipling are found on the shelves of numerous libraries across the country, but the integrity of ‘these’ volumes as a complete set has been lost.” (179)  What constitutes the “integrity” of an ebook or its constituents? Are ebooks so “immaterial” that such a question is nonsensical?

The author’s apprenticeship included collaboration on the exhibit “Saving Our Books and Words.”  In addition to coauthoring the exhibit’s brochure, Wilcox contributed to completing Anthony’s special project of developing for the exhibit a unique collection of models demonstrating “the evolution of the codex – the form of the book as we know it.”(181)  In the brochure she touches on the immateriality and materiality of the Center’s work: “Simply defined, preservation is the attempt to save the intellectual content of books while conservation is the attempt to save both the intellectual content and its vehicle — the covers, paper, endbands, etc. The former is concerned with saving what the human record contains without regard to the forms it winds up in. The latter focuses on the artifact itself, attempts to save this book, this sheet.” (192)

What is the “form” of the ebook as we know it? Is the ebook as much “vehicle” as “content”?  What are its equivalencies to the page or to what “binds” the “text block”?  What does it mean to “conserve” an ebook?  Of a digital copy, what are the materials; what is the artifact to be conserved?

Wilcox ends her memoir with the completion of her “masterpiece,” the restoration of the incunabulum that Bill Anthony assigned her before his death and which she completed after it with the help of “The Restoration of Leather Bindings” by Bernard Middleton, author of the standard text “A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique.”  The work assigned was Pope Pius II’s “Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum,” printed by Johannes De Colonia and Johannes Manthen in Venice in 1477, which when restored was “not a deluxe edition, but … had great integrity.”  In the year 2547, of what will the preservation and conservation of today’s e-incunabula consist?  Will some apprentice conservator understand the “form” of these ebooks “in the cradle” and, master of smart tools, restore them to their integrity?

With Ann Tomalak’s essay, perhaps we can see that future through her present lense on the past.  Give it a read.

Bookmarking The Gutenberg Bible – The Digital in Support of the Print

The beginning of the Gutenberg Bible: Volume 1...

The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin has updated its site displaying one of the only five copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the US.   There is much to admire here, and much to be curious about.  The illustration of the watermarks that distinguish the Pforzheimer Bible, the map of locations of other copies (complete and incomplete), the page-turning interactivity and the inclusion of a kids section are welcome.

The interactive map showing the spread of printing, however, does not compare well with those at Jeremy Norman’s From Cave Paintings to the Internet Database Maps, and an explanation of how the Center’s Bible was digitized, something on the order of Ann Tomalak’s informative essay at the British Library’s site describing what conservators must do to prepare fragile manuscripts for digitization, would enrich the Ransom Center’s offering.   

Equally the history of Gutenberg the man and his work with Johann Fust could have been more detailed as could the history of printing and its spread.  Jeremy Norman’s site is still hard to rival.  Other related sites worth a bookmark:

Sarah McCarthy’s review of Hendrik Willem van Loon’s Observations on the Mystery of Print and the Work of Johann Gutenberg at the New York City’s Center for Book Arts

Jeremy Norman’s speculation on Gutenberg’s possible contribution to stereotype printing

The British Library’s site where you can compare paper and vellum copies of the Gutenberg Bible

The Göttingen Gutenberg Bible site where you can also find reproduced the notarial instrument on the financial dispute between Gutenberg and Fust

The Keio University site that allows you to compare the Keio Gutenberg Bible with that of the University of Cambridge (require Javascript plugin)

And of course the Mainz Gutenberg Bible.

Bookmarking Book Art — Center for Book Arts: Support our Artists in Residence!

Even the “book arts” are having to go back to the future, sort of, to survive.

In the Renaissance, the arts and manuscripts were supported by the patronage of the rich and powerful, intent on securing fame, honor or redemption by association with lasting works.

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Miniature of king Edgar presenting a charter (probably the New Minster Charter) to Christ in Majesty, watched by the Virgin and St Peter, from The New Minster Charter, England (Winchester, New Minster), c. 966, Cotton Vespasian A. viii, f. 2v
– See more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/books-of-beasts-adventure-and-two-from-new-minster-new-royal-manuscripts-online.html#sthash.SlVlrmHW.dpuf

Along comes the democratizing printing press, and eventually (a very long eventually), patronage is replaced by secured copyright and a working market.   Now the democratizing Web has arrived, and content, including art, should be free, so we are told or simply shown by the taking.  Is that the future of the book?

The book arts (and book art) are worth a bookmark in the evolution of the book.  They hark back to the brilliant works of art like those exhibited earlier this year from the British Library’s collection of medieval and Renaissance illuminated codices collected by the kings and queens of England over 800 years.

A wedding present for Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI. The Shrewsbury Book is one of the most remarkable manuscripts in the Old Royal library. It was a gift to Margaret of Anjou from John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury. Margaret is shown with her husband Henry VI. The Shrewsbury Book, Rouen, 1444–45. (C) British Library Board (Royal 15 E. vi, ff. 2v)

In the BL’s ‘Turning the Pages™’ system and ebook versions, we see how the affordances of the web and ebooks can enhance our experience of those works.

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Medieval Bestiary, from the British Library

In a previous post,  we looked at the Center for the Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago‘s offering awards of “two $10,000 commissions for new artworks for the iPad [which] will have physical counterparts that intersect, modulate, or inform the digital components of the artwork.”  From print to digital in one case, from digital to print in the other.  The book, its arts and its art as an object have been and will be the focal point of cultural investment.

The work of Brian Dettmer, gracing the cover of  Christine Antaya’s edited volume Book Art: Iconic Sculptures and Installations Made from Books (Die Gestalten Verlag, 2011), embodies why this is so.  Dettmer’s book art declares that despite or because of our crossing the digital divide, the book’s legacy as a carrier of ideas and communication remains secure in the creative realm.    Take a look.

These are the kind of artists as well as masters and mistresses of the book arts that the Center for Book Arts in New York seeks to support.

Crowdsourced funding won’t provide contributors with lasting fame by association, although there are rewards in the form of invitations to openings and Artists’ Talks as well as a small letter-press printed gift.  Here’s hoping that those who value the arts and books (digital and print) for their own sake will dig into their pockets.

Watch, listen and think about it.