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Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism
London: Phaidon. 2003. 707 pp., 343 b/w ills. $75.00
Far and away the most pressing problem facing the discipline of art history is the prospect of world art history. And yet the first thing that needs to be said about that troublesome expression is that there is no consensus about its meaning or even its value. The common alternatives and near synonyms for world art history are also problematic: multiculturalism carries with it the air of a compromised relativism; (1) visual culture is currently an unstable field, subject to intense debates; (2) and global art has the unfortunate connotation of conceptual imperialism, as if art history is already adequate to all possible occasions. (3) It remains unclear how a world art history might be related to its neighboring disciplines. It has been proposed that art historians take anthropological theories as models, but it has also been urged that art history define itself by its difference from anthropology. (4) It has been said that art history should remain distinct from visual studies, but it has also been predicted that the two fields will end up entwined. (5) It has been suggested that literary theory is the best resource for the expanding discipline, but it has also been claimed that literary theory is a wrong direction for art history. (6)
Despite this conceptual disarray it remains absolutely essential for art history to ask about its limits and its future, and those questions inevitably lead to the problem of world art history. It is a cardinal virtue of Real Spaces that Summers dares, as few art historians have, to tackle the problem of world art history in a single book. In 2000, John Onians organized a conference at the Clark Art Institute on the theme of art historical writing that keeps to the local and particular, as opposed to writing that tries, in Onians's phrase, "to put the world in a book." (7) The conference began with speakers whose work "expanded" local subjects into specialized monographs and progressed to the most "compressed" attempts to address the problem of world art in its totality. I was on the final panel, along with Onians, Summers, and David Freedberg: we were said to have tried "to put the world in a book." Only Summers did not deny the charge. (8) The panel would have been more representative and problematic had it included Marilyn Stokstad and other authors of one-volume freshman world art survey texts, because then it would have been apparent that Summers's book is unique: it is the only recent attempt to write about the entirety of world art history without relying on chronology as a central ordering principle, and as such--aside from all the issues I will raise in this review--it is crucially important for the current state of the discipline.
Real Spaces is Summers's magnum opus, the intermittent and concerted project of about twenty years' work. It has been circulating in manuscript for some time; I had seen an earlier version that stood a good foot and a half high on my desk. The book is compact by comparison and its argument is cogent and polished. Even so, Real Spaces has a complex structure, so it is best to begin with a tour of its contents. Afterward I will turn to larger questions of the book's relation to existing writing on world art and to the general project of a world art history.
Summers divides Real Spaces into seven chapters, six of which introduce concepts that can be made applicable, according to its argument, to art produced anywhere in the world. The first chapter is "Facture," understood as an indication that an object has been made. Real Spaces proceeds throughout at a high level of abstraction: at times it is nearly a conceptual lexicon for art, and it never strays far from etymological analyses of the Greek and Latin roots of common terms. "Facture" itself, Summers writes,
is the past participle of the Latin facio, facere, to make or to do; it thus has the same derivation as "fact," which might be defined as something evidently done. Understood in this way, "fact" and "facture" are closely related; to consider an artifact in terms of its facture is to consider it as a record of its own having been made. (p. 74)
Throughout the book Summers points out when words used in apparently unrelated contexts are etymologically linked to facture; Claude Monet's painting Impression: Sunrise, for example, "has the effect (another facture word) of instantaneity" (p. 623). In that way facture, like Summers's other critical terms, becomes a versatile critical tool.
In the chapter on facture, Summers considers concepts of form, seriality, diachronicity, "distinction" (defined as "effort superfluous to function," p. 88), refinement, ornament, play (it "explores the absolutely possible," p. 102), difficulty and facility, "notional" limitations ("abstract and generalized dimensional relations," p. 107), and models (objects that resemble others "by virtue of relation alone," p. 114). Some of these concepts, including facture itself, are given wholly new definitions; others, including ornament, are adjusted in relation to the existing literature; and still others, such as diachronicity, are taken over without important changes. As he proceeds, Summers builds interdependence among the concepts. The development is rigorous and not well suited to the abbreviations of a review. Speaking of notionality, for example, he remarks. "As pure, thinkable relation, the notional is to the actual size of one artifact or another as ratio and proportion are to measure"; later in the chapter he proposes, "Movement is from real spatial to notional ..., abstraction from size to ratio as notional, possible elaboration at the level of the notional, and back to social space" (pp. 108, 115).
The other six thematic chapters are just as involved. It may be helpful to potential readers if I simply list the chapters and their leading concepts, before returning to the discussion of world art history and the consequences of this approach to art.
Chapter 2, "Places," turns on the proposal that "places, as real social spaces, provide the possibility for the actual statement of relations of difference" (p. 123). The chapter discusses the concepts of difference (emphasizing its spatial meanings), sex (understood not as biological difference but as setting apart, the "basis on which social spaces are divided within a group," p. 127), centers and diasporas, shrines ("from the Latin scrivium, a cupboard or box for books or papers," therefore stressing "housing, preserving, or keeping," p. 139), precincts, boundaries, paths, alignments and orientations, and the idea of a periphery and division of land outside the sanctum.
Chapter 3, "The Appropriation of the Centre," gathers Egyptian, Akkadian, Roman, Khmer, Chinese, and French examples to articulate the change from cultures in which rulers appropriated the center to those that tend toward "inclusive and non-hierarchical" arrangements based on a notional framework of metric space. Of the book's chapters, this is the one that most resembles a history, in that it depends on a series of case studies.
Chapter 4, "Images," opens with a realignment of discussions on the origins of images, proposing that "images are fashioned in order to make present in social spaces what for some reason is not present" (p. 252). They are therefore substitutive, and it is important to study their "conditions of presentation" and "the relations of those conditions to our own spatiotemporality" (p. 253). The chapter contains meditations on traces (marks "continuous with their cause," p. 255), "images of traces" (p. 256), and abstraction (which is taken in an Aristotelian, not a Platonic sense). Summers then discusses "real metaphor," a central concept for the book as a whole; it is a way of pointing to the actual spatial origins of metaphor and the role of art in enacting the primary significance of linguistic metaphor. Shape, contour, resemblance, and other terms are brought to bear to explain how the metaphoric relation is recognized as such. Monumental, sometimes aniconic images are contrasted with images small enough to be manipulated. An especially important category of manipulable images are votive objects, whose "fundamental values" include "proximity" (p. 280). He then turns to icons (where a "real metaphor is specified by powerful materials or resemblant elements") and effigies (which work through a "causal or indexical relation to what they reproduce," p. 284); and he uses those ideas to open a meditation on iconoclasm, masks, theater, character, and comedy. The final portion of the chapter discusses "metric naturalism," defined as "the making of resemblance according to measure and ratio" (p. 312). The chapter concludes with sections on mental images and planarity, automatons, the facingness of images, virtuality, the imaginative completion of images, and the origins of notions of succession and narrative.
Chapter 5, "Planarity," follows the development of planar orders "as they shape and enable all kinds of routine, second-natural practices and activities" (p. 344). Concepts that follow from planarity include order (which is one of the basic relations between parts of an image, but is also "analogous to the order of the parts of something to which the image refers," p. 358), measure and proportion, hierarchy, framing and division, symmetries, oppositions, profiles and frontal figures, harmony, ratio, grids, and maps. Of all the chapters in this book, this one is closest in its content, if not its purpose, to the work of Rudolf Arnheim. (9)
Chapter 6, "Virtuality," concerns the capacity to complete images by seeing three dimensions in two or by perceiving what is absent from what is given. Virtuality raises the problem of illusion, and for Summers it also conjures several concepts he had introduced earlier in the book: effigics (because virtual forms "are evidently of or from what they represent," p. 431), narratives (because any such reference implies a temporal gap), and doubting or skepticism. The chapter includes discussions of relief space, ground lines, occlusion, foreshortening, the viewer's space, stage space, functional light, modeling, scenographia, linear perspective, and quadratura. Up to this point, this chapter is the one most specific to Western art and least amenable to world art history, although Summers's opening examples come from Egypt and China. In that respect it is similar in structure, but not in purpose or interpretation, to E. H. Gombrich's Art and Illusion.
In this sampling of the book's contents I have omitted the introduction and the final chapter, which frame the project and contain Summers's large-scale claims regarding history, art, and interpretation. It is in the nature of a book as ambitious as Real Spaces that part of it can be explained in the terms it sets out, and part requires a shift in …