Modern Art is not rubbish

What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye by Will Gompertz

The BBC’s Arts Editor, Will Gompertz, is unusual for an arts commentator – he has a sense of humour and a mission to enthuse us about his subject. He is uniquely qualified – having worked for the Tate Modern and performed a stand-up show about modern art at the Edinburgh fringe. A colleague of mine met him at a recent charity event, and said he was wacky and brilliant company – he sounds a great guy, and he always comes across as if he enjoys his job when you see him on the TV.

I love art – ancient and modern. I know what I like, but I don’t know enough about most of it to set it into context properly, especially modern art.  In that, I have taken after my father, who enjoys modern art for what it is – which in some respects is what many abstract or minimalist artists intended, but I haven’t needed to take it further – until now, when I managed to get my hands on a copy of Gompertz’s new book.

What are you looking at offers a personal introduction to the subject aimed at a wide audience. Gompertz is the perfect guide through the web of all the ‘isms’ and movements of modern art.

After a sketch outlining the first true avant-garde act of modern art – Duchamp’s 1917 work, ‘Fountain’ – a signed urinal, we divert back to the Impressionists, the previous band of art rebels, to set the scene. Talking about abstract art in general, Gompertz says:

You could argue that Manet started it all back in the mid-nineteenth century when he began to remove (abstract) pictorial detail in his painting The Absinthe Drinker (1858-9). Each subsequent generation of artists eliminated yet more visual information in an attempt to capture atmospheric light (Impressionism), accentuate the emotive qualities of colour (Fauvism), or look at a subject from multiple viewpoints (Cubism).

From then on it’s a broadly chronological journey up to the present day from the Impressionists through Bauhaus and Surrealism to Pop-Art and bringing us totally up to date with the YBA (Young British Artists). A helpful fold out ‘tube map’ of the isms and key artists shows how all the different schools of modern art grew out of each other and how they interlink, and a handful of colour plates and a few monochrome pictures help elucidate the key works described.

Gompertz’s style is clear and easy to read, chatty and humorous when needed and it is full of anecdotes which bring the artists to life. Whether you agree with him or not – I’m afraid that no-one will make me enjoy the paintings of Bacon or De Kooning – I did appreciate reading about them.  He also has no sacred cows:

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 injured, arts folk talk bollocks. Among the main culprits are museum curators, who have a tendency to write slightly pompous, wholly incomprehensible passages exhibition guides and on gallery text panel.  At best their talk of ‘inchoate juxtapositions’ and ‘pedalogical praxis’ baffles visitors: at worse it humiliates and confuses and puts people off art for life. Not good. But in my experience the curators are not trying to be deliberately obtuse; they are talented individuals catering to an increasingly broad constituency.

There are omissions – the Op Art of Bridget Riley only gets a passing reference, as does early David Hockney. Others who don’t feature include Georgia O’Keefe, giant scribbler Cy Twombly (another artist I don’t get!), much of sculpture, photography in general except for the work of Cindy Sherman, and installations of the kind that tend to win the Turner prize, which is another thing Gompertz doesn’t comment on.  A book of this kind can’t hope, or want, to be all-inclusive however, and all the key artists and art movements are there and will give you a path for further personal research.  An appendix lists where you can see the works mentioned.

I found the chapter on Post-Modernism particularly useful. For instance, you have to know that Cindy Sherman’s photographs are designed to be stills from non-existent movies that reference other films. Gompertz says: “But the truth is that Postmodernist art rewards knowledge much like a cryptic crossword, where comprehension comes from solving the puzzle.”  

While I know this is not per se a picture book, a few more illustrations scattered through the text would have been welcome. I didn’t really need the occasional cartoons that pop up here or there – the only slightly heavy-handed nod to remind us this is a book for everyone. There are two sections containing around 20 colour plates, plus another fortyish illustrations in black and white.  Given that the book’s RRP is £20 (not £19.99!), another insert of colour plates, even if it added a couple of quid more, would have been nice – someone willing to pay £20 would probably part with £22 say, (or it’s on-line discount price equivalent).

I’m lucky enough to have seen works by many of the artists mentioned, so I could visualise most of the broad styles from Gompertz’s great descriptions. I learned a lot, and I’d recommend this book thoroughly for its lucid text, (another good Christmas present idea).

Going to see art is better though, and my next visit to the Tate Modern will be a very different experience – which is, of course, what the author hopes we’ll all do having read his book.  (8.5/10).

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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye by Will Gompertz. Pub Penguin, Sept 2012, 435 pages incl indexes. Semi-hardback.

0 thoughts on “Modern Art is not rubbish

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    This sounds great and the excerpts you quote are very readable. Like you, I take modern art as I find it – some things I respond to emotionally, some things I don’t. I can’t help feeling art is always going to be a deeply personal thing, but any book that helps you make sense of it’s got to be good. As you say – maybe a Crimbo list special!

    • gaskella says:

      As you say, our responses to art are personal, and I never used to think beyond what I liked and didn’t. I’ve grown to appreciate, if not like, a lot more of it by making sense of it, and this book is a great overview.

  2. Sarah Daly says:

    Great review – shall have a read. I also find the language around art slightly cringe-worthy at times – adding a spot of humour to an industry that is at times altogether too navel gazing sounds wonderful!

  3. Juna says:

    I’ve never heard of Will Gompertz, but will look for his work and also appreciate his take on curator-speak (I think you picked a great quote). Did you see the Damien Hirst exhibit at the Tate Modern? I’m both fascinated and repelled by much of his work, though I’ve only seen it in photos. I’m sure the impact in “real life” is even greater.

    • gaskella says:

      Gompertz is a relatively new face on the BBC news – the past year or so, and you don’t see him on other programmes much (yet). I like him – quite refreshing in style.
      I’m a bit ambivalent about Damien Hirst – I like his art’s concepts generally, but struggle with his millions and celebrity.

  4. Can-C Eye Drops says:

    The book ends with BritArt, discussed in a fairly non-critical fashion, and the rise of street art (and, inevitably Banksy). Gompertz believes now that modern art is very market orientated and is dominated by a new –ism: Entrepeneurialism (a term he has personally coined) with its new emperors being artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons and the ‘Big Daddy’ of contemporary art dealing Larry Gagosian, who now has galleries in New York, Beverley Hills, Paris, London, Hong Kong, Rome and Geneva.

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