Special Project of The Fourth Congress “Global, International and National in the History of Art”

David Summers

Open-ended multiplicity of histories of art

The meaning of the terms “global, international, and national in the history of art”, and comparison to the meaning of such terms thirty or forty years ago must immediately raise the issue—or galvanize the ghost—of the old idea of style.  Styles—about which we read much less in art historical and art critical writing than we did thirty or forty years ago--were formal. With the rise of social art history, “form” ran into trouble because forms were assumed to have an autonomous history.  Forms themselves could “evolve” from linear to painterly, or from haptic to optic, from archaic to classic to baroque, irrespective of revolutions, coups, booms or depressions, and irrespective of the socioeconomic  roles of art and artists.

Form was not only assumed to be autonomous, it was expressive apart from subject matter.  The “expression” in question could be individual and autographic—the style of Kandinsky, for example-- but also collective, and the relevant collectivity was usually national, and often racial, to the degree that the two could be separated in the 19th century, when these ideas became current.

In fact, art history as the study of national styles played a major role in the intense and catastrophic nationalism and racism of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Art historical criticism made it possible, it was believed, to understand the collective “spirit” in works made on one or another national soil through the centuries. Alois Riegl, for example, argued that the purest expression of collective spirit was non-representational ornament.  People who made agitated ornament were not just agitated, they were essentially agitated, and their art was an expression of that agitation. Few books are now written with titles like The Englishness of English Art, but such essentialist ideas are still very much alive. We may consider the example of “eclecticism.” Forty years ago the term “eclectic” was a strongly negative critical term precisely because it implied impurity, like racial impurity. “Eclectic” is from a word meaning to choose or select, and a work made up of such choices and selections could only be compromised.  “Hybridity”, a more recent positive category for the combination of styles does not seem to have caught on (and I think all such biological metaphors should be avoided as a matter of principle.)  Even the emergence of interest in so-called “primitive” colonial art can be seen as the attempt, not simply to “appreciate” that art, but to reclaim the psychological standpoint of the presumed originators of styles in the invention of modern national styles.  Germany, to take that example, became a nation in 1871, an event preceded and coupled with great anxiety about the definition of German national character and spirit, heightening concern about other national characters and spirits.

Turning to the example of Picasso, was his painting French or Spanish, or was it neither or something else altogether?  Regardless of Picasso’s origins, his example was followed in many places, and was in fact international.  Cubism was modern, and modernism was international.  The abstraction of Kandinsky and Mondrian, whatever its local or national origins, was a precedent for art in many countries, and quickly morphed into “design”, thus to determine the appearance of innumerable objects and devices.  In fact what came to be called the International Style in architecture has shaped the skylines of  major cities throughout the world.  Internationalism has of course also been strongly resisted, for very much the same reason that nationalism and racism were embraced.  The “international” from such a point of view was rootless, deracinated.

When I wrote Real Spaces. World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism, the book that must have earned me the invitation to this congress, I argued as strongly as I could that the kind of formalism I have described in my opening paragraphs should be rejected, and more importantly, that the unities and continuities it explained should be explained in other terms.  Some years later, I wish the title were just a little different.  Now the title would be Real Spaces. World Art Histories and the Rise of Western Modernism. “History”,that is, would be plural.  The book is premised on “shapes of time”, independent artifactual solutions to local problems.  Groups of people make characteristic things in characteristic ways, and they also distinguish some of these things in characteristic ways.  An ordinary bowl may became a ritual vessel by refinement or ornamentation.   Relevant skills are passed from one generation to the next.  This can only occur locally. 

It was essentially important for my project that local ways of making were isolated, and that the world I was writing about was pre-modern in the sense that cultures were isolated, and isolation alone accounts for differences in artifactual solutions to common problems.  There are any number of ways to make a bowl, or to build a shelter or a house, even more ways to distinguish a bowl for ritual use, or to distinguish the house of the local deity from other houses. Isolation was not absolute, of course, and it is one of the advantages of the assumption of isolation that contacts are clearly evident.  The uncovering of an Indian sculpture at Pompeii makes us think at once of trade routes.   We are, however, no longer isolated, although we are connected in just the ways we are, in distinctively modern, technological ways.

I do not think there will ever be a global history of art, nor do I think there ever should be such a history, which, as the French might say, could only be terroristic.  In my view, what might be called a world  history of art should arise from the acknowledgment of an open-ended multiplicity of histories of art, carried out from the standpoint of a more or less common understanding of what a history of art might be.  I do not know how likely it is that any such changes will take place.  The old essentialisms of nation and race have hardly been given up, and have now been joined by identity.  These three essentialisms present a formidable barrier of mutual cultural untranslatability, and they can only result in exclusion, separation, and conflict. Cultural criticism has reached such depths of suspicion that even stratigraphic or factural evidence is dismissed.

If a global history of art is neither possible nor desirable, what would “world art histories” be?  To think about this, we should turn away from both “form” and “content”, and look much more closely at format and medium. 

“Format” is of course related to “form”, and is from the past participle of the Latin formare, “ to shape”.  In these terms a “format” is “already shaped”, and its origins are culturally specific in the sense that they were made for culturally specific purposes, and for specific social spaces and times.  An altarpiece was not made to be seen in a museum, and beautiful as it might be, in historical terms, it is “out of place.”  “Canvas” is now a synonym for “painting”, and painting has been a medium in which fundamentally important changes in the uses to which paintings are put are most evident.  There are now few significant modern religious paintings, few significant modern mythological paintings, even few significant modern portraits, but there are innumerable subjectless paintings on canvas in airports, auditoriums, museums of contemporary art, or lobbies of corporate  headquarters.  The canvas has thus been an accommodating format, and painting has thus been a remarkably accommodating medium for over 500 years.  Not only that, as the subject matter of painting profoundly changed, the format not only persisted, but spread through the world, at the same time that the act of painting itself assumed political significance.  There has been a steady stream of literature about the “death of painting”, but much less about the death of its format, because the format has not died. But the canvas, like the easel that holds it up , is significant in its own ways, and may be more or less invasive in relation to the art traditions to which it is added.  Painting entails new instruction, new skills,  and new implications for what it means to make art.   An international art market has made it possible for a “canvas” painted anywhere to find its way to a collection almost anywhere else.

I may turn more specifically to the subject of medium by returning to the title of my book, Real Spaces.  World Art History—or Histories--and the Rise of Western Modernism.  The “rise of Western Modernism” is essentially important because it has meant the introduction of new media, principally photography and film, followed by the electronic technologies that ended earlier isolation.  To an important degree these new media fulfilled the ancient Western aim of the imitation of appearances.  Photography was literally indexical, immediately recording the slightest surfaces to which a light-sensitive surface was exposed.  It was a commonplace in the earlier tradition to praise an image by saying it lacked only the breath of life, that a portrait was following your movement with its eyes, or that it was about to speak.   Electricity put an end to that, supplying virtual life and movement to images.  This is an extraordinary change, made possible by a long Mediterranean tradition of optical investigation and speculation, then by the application of chemistry, and mass production.  After 1900, “cameras” immediately flooded the world.

We are very inclined to think of a culture as one thing.  The old idealistic notion of  Weltanschauung, “world-view”, posits a deep single viewpoint occupied by all members of a culture, each of whom is representative and typical of the whole.  This is true to a degree—we say “the Russians do this, the Americans do that”-- but it is not true enough, both because of individual and group variations within any culture, and because some innovations, although they arise within one culture or another, leave the cultures in which they began.  The wheel diffused from a source; writing, numeration, and alphabets all emerged somewhere, as did paper and printing, but they jumped their cultural boundaries and became general, part of a broader cultural heritage able to assume many other specific cultural forms.  This has been true of photography and electronic media.  Smartphones are portable, and therefore circumstantial, so that an event can be recorded immediately, and, since the image is compatible with  other forms of telecommunication, may “go viral” and even topple a government.

 Distinctively modern words like telephone, telegraph, or television--the whole system of “telecommunication”--incorporates the Greek word telos, at the center of a cluster of words having to do with ends or purposes, with a stress on the distance in time and space necessary to achieve them. We go to the store to get food, travel to see friends, tasks and performances take time, fruit has ripened at the end of the summer. Telecommunication neutralizes spatial distance, and approaches simultaneity.  Within the limitations of the Earth’s size, the speed of light and the resistance of means of transmission, we are now, at least in principle, all in the same time. Telecommunication, whether we are writing and reading, speaking and hearing, seeing or being seen, effectively suspends spatial distance.  In principle, we are aware of the joys and sorrows of the world, and the whole world is aware of our joys and sorrows. 

The history of art is cultural history.  This does not mean that it is not also social history, because the two histories are inextricable.  But just as there were contacts among earlier cultures, so some innovations are potentially extra-cultural, and therefore potentially pan-cultural.  It may be that discovery of the nature, production and use of electricity happened in the West, but, like the wheel, from Mesopotamia and southern Russia, numbers from India and Islam, and paper from China, it has transformed, and is transforming, the spaces, times, and consciousnesses of the world.  Inhabitants of one culture might resist some of the practices of other cultures, but do not consider electricity or television alien.

 In the description of this congress, the question was raised of new trends and tendencies.  Together with the habit of thinking in terms of uniform, inviolable cultures, there is a related tendency or habit of thinking in terms of historical necessity.  This, as many have pointed out, is a bad Hegelian habit, which obliges us to think that the later has always supplanted the earlier.  To say, however, that photography and electronic media have supplanted and surpassed earlier media is to eliminate possibilities for the exercise of imagination offered by earlier media, which is no doubt one of the reasons old media continue to exist alongside the new.  The more possibilities, the better.