Response: how is the past in the present?

Author:Summers, David
Position:Art history; Chinese art

I, of course, belong to Jonathan Hay's hoped-for vast majority of readers who are nonspecialists in Chinese art, and my response to his arguments will be shaped by those limitations, which must check comment at many points. I am also, however, a writer cited in the course of the essay, and so, in a way rather contrary to the essay's gist, I have something like an Archimedean point from which to begin, or perhaps better, toward which to work. I will begin by briefly stating my understanding of "The Mediating Work of Art." The essay engages in continual play on the words "medium" and "mediation," and, although it is not framed in these terms, the treatment of medium strikes me as a running critique of the formalist assumption that medium always conditions representation and is always, therefore, a means of expression, transparent to those sensitive to its ways. Hay's semiotic stance neutralizes such expression, although there is in the essay a considerable quotient of inference from something like formal analysis (ground, "vectors," "spiny" trees). "Methodological eclecticism" is avoided when medium (and the results of such analysis) is included under the more general category of "mediation."

Mediation is a first corollary of dialectics, but this connection is never made explicit. Hays describes his scholarly formation in relation to the kind of social history of art that took shape in the 1970s, but then distances himself from these beginnings. As the argument unfolds, it becomes clear that the mediations he has in mind are, so to speak, free-floating, and the tensions, near ruptures, and palliative "sutures" (I am never sure whether this real spatial metaphor refers to sewing, surgery, or the--already metaphorical--joining of the bones of the skull), the aporias and symptoms are largely internal to his example, which is presumably paradigmatic for all painting. They are "largely" internal because some tensions arise from the application of more traditional art historical methods, including methods for dealing with questions of social context. Mediations (tensions between ground and boundary, for example, but there are a great many more) define the work as self-reflexive, and this reflexivity is actualized in the "event," the final mediation: the encounter with an observer. Mediation entails endless openness to interpretation and also reveals all representation to be ultimately arbitrary (and, as I shall discuss, absolutely arbitrary), thus to undercut Euro-American centrism in approaching the art of other cultures.

At note 36 of "The Mediating Work of Art," my book Real Spaces is cited after the sentence reading as follows: "Medium itself is an inherently mediational concept; as a technological means to an end, any medium necessarily mediates between the viewer and the 'real spaces' of the world by creating possibilities of other kinds of spaces." As I have said, Hays considers medium to be an inadequate basis for interpretation, and I would certainly agree (although medium should not simply be set aside; medium takes many significantly different historical forms, and it certainly has its own mediations in Hay's sense of the term).

I am not sure whether those are "scare quotes" around "real spaces," and I am also not sure that I meant what Hay seems to think I did by that term. Perhaps he means that virtual spaces can never be real spaces, and that a disjunction necessarily exists between any social space and its two-dimensional representation. But my uncertainty provides the opportunity to say that in my formulation, "real spaces" are always social spaces, culturally specific constructed places. What in the book's terminology are called "virtual spaces," those spaces we can be made to see on surfaces, like that "in" the painting under discussion, are always integral...

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