When it comes to modern art, it can be easy to feel that someone’s having a laugh at your expense. Whether it’s the works themselves or opaque explanations given in gallery labels, art of the last 150 years seems to be the ever-shrinking domain of only the most extensively trained and deeply initiated.
Will Gompertz is here to reassure you that this is – at least partly – untrue. In his recent book What Are You Looking At, Gompertz sets out to show his readers that, even though modern art might be having a bit of a laugh, you too can get in on the joke.
His 395-page book, published earlier this year, is anecdotal and chatty. Gompertz, formerly on the staff of the Tate Modern and current art editor at the BBC, doesn’t let his own deep knowledge of art stand in the way of explaining it. Instead, he is cheerfully anxious that his readers, no matter how little educated they are in art to begin with, really gain a basic grasp on what’s been going on since it all kicked off with the Impressionists.
The book opens in 1917 with a look at Marcel Duchamp and his creation of The Fountain. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you – it really is just a urinal with some paint. This isn’t even Duchamp’s original urinal – that one was simply lost along the way and Duchamp created several more.
What’s important for The Fountain is the same concept that’s key to modern art’s development: it’s the thought that counts.
In what follows, the author carefully highlights the most important of those thoughts.
After his opening chapter on Duchamp, Gompertz scoots back in time to 1820 and takes a look at the gradual development away from “academic” art. Everything really gets going in 1870 with the coming of the Impressionists and their interest in recording light and modern life
From there it continues, each page loaded with information on the wacky world of Dada, solid Russian Constructivism, the colourful world of Pop art, brooding Abstract Expressionism, quirky Postmodernism, right up through 2012.
Daringly, Gompertz even offers some key terms for the art of the past 20 years. And while he insists that he is not suggesting a new “ism” or movement name, he summarizes and elucidates just what’s been going on lately with ease and confidence.
Gompertz’s clear style moves the book along nicely, and makes the sheer volume of knowledge he presents easier to digest. He seems genuinely interested in getting his audience to know and enjoy modern art whatever their background. And he’s human about it. Scattered throughout the book are mentions of his family and career, his own opinions on art and the art world, and connections between art and more mainstream popular culture, particularly films and music.
Though the book manages to reach even beginning readers through the writing style, the book does suffer somewhat from a dearth of images. While this is understandable for reasons of length and copyright, it means that it’s not a commuter read. It demands a commitment beyond a few minutes of reading time here and there — and should be enjoyed with Google Images close at hand.
Nevertheless, the point comes across.
The real strengths of the What Are You Looking At lies in the author’s ability to criticize, even while clearly adoring his field. There are times when those of us involved in the arts talk and write pretentious nonsense. It’s a fact of life: rock stars trash hotels, sportsmen and women get inured, arts folk talk bollocks, he writes (187).
So next time you feel the art world is laughing at you, laugh right back at it. You have written permission.