In 1975, Tom Wolfe published an essay called The Painted Word in which he argued that art theorising had taken over from art-making as the visual pursuit of our day. Where theorists once applied themselves to artworks, the reverse was now true. In a time when art schools are departments of universities and award degrees like any other discipline, artists start with a Big Idea and work backwards. Their art is shaped – the material in which they shape it is immaterial – to fit their concept.
So the underlying premise of the V&A's show Blood on Paper is more complex than it sounds. Artists have worked on (and with and from) books for ever, but the battle between word and image has never been pitched as now. In the 19th century, the big threat to image-making was the photograph. Since the mid-20th century, it has been the word. This means the 60 art books in Blood on Paper are not the simple homage of one creative form to another you might have thought. All kinds of struggles are going on in the V&A's show, between seeing and reading, intuiting and understanding, between literature and art.
At the traditional end of the scale are the livres d'artistes of painters including Picasso and Matisse. Works such as Matisse's Swimmer in a Tank, from his 1947 artist's book Jazz, are, in effect, fine prints that happen to be fine-bound. This certainly allows for a different use from traditional prints – like travelling altarpieces, livres d'artistes make art portable – but cannot be said to engage with the book-ness of books in the way that, say, Ed Ruscha's Twentysix Gasoline Stations does.
Published in 1962, Ruscha's mini-masterpiece is just what it says: a series of photographs of American petrol stations, sold at supermarket checkouts at a dollar a time. This, intentionally, pitched Twentysix Gasoline Stations mid-way between Matisse and the National Enquirer. Art (and, by extraction, artists' books) are elitist; supermarket paperbacks are not. But what of a work that combines all of these things?
Thirty years later, Jeff Koons raises the same question in his Jeff Koons Handbook. You might see Koons's book as the central text to this show, an artist writing a guide to his own work hinting at variously subversive things about contemporary art. Word-based artists such as Fiona Banner agonise over the battle between the visual and the literary by painting words on canvas. Koons, as ever, goes one better by telling the viewer what to think outright. If Ruscha's photo-book is a penny dreadful, Koons's handbook is a self-help guide. Give readers the theoretical background to your art, and its mysteries will be revealed – a piece of faux-disingenuousness that suggests the relative importance of theory and making in our day.
It sounds carping to say that Blood on Paper could have done with tighter curating, that more might have been made of context. Sol LeWitt's take on Borges's Ficciones, say, is more interesting if you see LeWitt as a patriarch of the word-art crossover. Forty years ago, the American started getting gallery assistants to make his murals for him, issuing them with instructions – "A line not straight corner to corner" – jotted down on scraps of paper. It marked an epochal shift in modern art, the moment when words won out over images. As LeWitt chillingly put it, "The execution [of an artwork] is a perfunctory affair. The idea is the machine that makes the art."
Seen in this way, the mooted death of the book at the hands of computers might be expected to fill artists with glee, and Charles Sandison's Carmina Figurata does feel quietly gleeful. A flickering dado of Powerpoint words, the work takes its title from concrete poetry – one of those rare moments where images shape literature rather than the other way round. Freed from bindings and covers, Sandison's "book" changes shape and meaning with equal alacrity. It suggests a time when words and images may be friends again, when neither will threaten the other.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7 (020-7942 2000) to 29 June