Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism

By Elkins, James | The Art Bulletin, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism


Elkins, James, The Art Bulletin


DAVID SUMMERS 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 lacing 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." 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 ear lier version that stood a good fool 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. …

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