Real Spaces

World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism

A fresh theoretical approach to thinking about art and its history.

David Summers


Price: USD$75.00

This edition is temporarily out of stock

Look Inside


About the book

David Summers sets forth that current formalist, contextual and post-structural approaches fail to provide an adequate account of all art, particularly art produced outside the Western tradition. He argues that there are profound problems right at the heart of Western thinking about art, and his new framework is an attempt to resolve these problems.

At the core of the argument is a proposal to replace the notion of the 'visual arts' with that of the 'spatial arts', comprising two fundamental categories: 'real space' and 'virtual space'. Real space is the space we share with other people and things: the fundamental arts of real space are sculpture (the art of personal space) and architecture (the art of social space). Virtual space - which always entails a format in real space (thus making real space the primary category) - is space represented in two dimensions, as in paintings, drawings and prints.

Adopting a wide definition of art that in principle embraces anything that is made, and underpinning his arguments with detailed examination of artefacts and architecture from all over the world, Summers develops his thesis in a series of chapters that broadly trace the progress of human skill in many different traditions: from the simple facture of the first tools to the sophisticated universal three-dimensional grid of modern technology, which he describes as 'metaoptical' space. In a sequence of far-reaching and revealing discussions of facture, places, centres, three-dimensional and planar images, virtuality and perspective, and the centreless metaoptical world of Western modernism, Summers creates a conceptual framework that always relates art to human use, and enables us to treat all traditions on an equal footing within universal categories.

At the same time, this infrastructure can help to understand the dynamics of opposition and conflict both within and between cultures. Formalism and other theories of art are not rejected. Rather, in this wider context they can be identified and evaluated within the Western tradition whence they originated, without some naive universal validity being ascribed to them.

Within this broad plan there is incredible wealth of detail and energy of description. The author's constant engagement with actual works of art is always lively and convincing; his analysis of the concrete metaphors that lie behind our critical vocabulary is revealing and thought-provoking; and his clear-headed and courageous engagement with important issues is most impressive.

Some of the author's language and terminology may, for the novice, prove an alluring challenge at first. However, Summers writes with exceptional clarity: new terms are carefully defined and explained in such a way, that the reader will not only understand them but also appreciate why such terminology is essential to a work of such profound philosophy. What is striking is that the author is always using language in order to think about the real world, and not in order to retreat into a closed world of academic scholasticism. He insists that all art is made to fit human uses, and can never be separated from the primary spatial conditions of those uses.

With its universal scope and its sympathetic understanding of the innumerable forms that art can adopt, this is a book that will stimulate people to think in entirely new and fruitful ways about the human purposes of art, and also to think more deeply and critically about the intricate relations between art, political order and technology.

In The Press
'If we were justified in judging a book by its cover and page design, Real Spaces would stand as one of the wonders of the world...Phaidon has surpassed itself in the production of this book.' (The New York Sun Newspaper)
'If all the world's art was ever to be understood properly, and from a common perspective, the only solution, Summers concluded, was to shred the old lexicon of art terminology and write it anew. Real Spaces is the culmination of that labour: it is humongous, compendious and staggeringly erudite. Summers wants to be remembered for this book, and he probably will be…This is an imposing work of scholarship which makes great demands of its readers, but ultimately Summers sees it as having a wider purpose in attempting to make right a few of the world's imbalances. They all say that, of course, but Summers may just well be good enough to make that difference.' (Morgan Falconer, Modern Painters)

'Summers' stated approach in Real Spaces is unorthodox in the manner in which he chooses to disregard many formal and iconographical principles which have been mainstays of art history…In stark contrast to the current era of dumbed-down and politically correct(ed) textbooks, Summers here weaves an intricate array of intellectual arguments around some essential landmarks of art history…Perhaps this will be a useful guide for either the interested reader on art (if such beings exist and I certainly hope they do) or for the art professional who seeks a more inclusive text in terms of portraying and relating the past.' (Martin Patrick, Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art History at Illinois State University, Art Monthly 

'Deeply pondered arguments on big topics, substantial accumulations of soberly researched and intricately categorized material; and a notable range of detailed cultural reference…an extraordinary and demanding tour de force in the history of art…a radically new conceptual framework for a contextualist and cross-cultural art history…The scope of reference…is impressively broad…an interesting and novel perspective for attacking a long tradition of art appreciation in terms of the 'aesthetic'.' (Martin Kemp and Katerina Reed-Tsocha, Trinity College, Oxford, Times Literary Supplement)
'A conceptual odyssey through the history of art, being half-survey and half-philosophical treatise on the nature of man-made objects…Summers’s has produced a breathtakingly ambitious and constantly engaging inquiry into the nature of human arteacts, and the meanings they hold for us…essential reading…Summers’s newly minted lingua franca creates, in effect, a completely non-specialist space in which any man-made object might be potentially assessed.' (John-Paul Stonard, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, Burlington Magazine 

'David Summers has constructed an entirely new conceptual grid for the study of art. Through examples drawn from all epochs and cultures, without repitition or digression, Summers sustains a powerful thesis…Real Spaces is one of the most substantial and original art-historical books ever published. Its range and rigor of thought, and the integrity and internal tension of its argument, are staggering and humbling. I can easily imagine structuring an entire graduate seminar on art theory or art-historical method around this volume.' (Christopher S Wood, Professor in the Department of the History of Art at Yale University, BookForum)

'[An] erudite, generously illustrated, and sufficiently well-documented survey’ (Library Journal)

'A galloping aesthetic anthropology, a globe-trotting exercise in vast erudition and dizzying equivalences…The book…offers a repositioning of the very idea of art.' (Mark Kingwell, Professor of Philosophy, University of Toronto, Harper’s)

About the author(s)
David Summers is the William R Kenan Jr Professor of the History of Art at the University of Virginia. Internationally recognized as one of the most distinguished historians of art and ideas of his generation, he is the author of two major, groundbreaking studies, Michelangelo and the Language of Art (1981) and The Judgement of Sense: Renaissance Naturalism and the Rise of Aesthetics (1987). Judgement of Sense won the Forkasch Prize for the best book in intellectual history published in 1987. In 1996 Professor Summers was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Younger than Jesus
Art in Time
The Story of Art
Painting Beyond Pollock
The Uses of Images