Viking Penguin £20
What Are You Looking At?, By Will Gompertz
Modern art for us dummies
Sunday 02 September 2012
For seven years, Will Gompertz sat in on meetings at the Tate, kicking around possible titles for the gallery's exhibitions: "I Kid You Not" and "No Word of a Lie" stick glumly in his mind.
"It was ridiculous, of course," Gompertz writes, "but it does highlight a central tension in the art world: public engagement versus scholarship."
Whoever picked the title for his book seems not to have read this part of it. "What Are You Looking At?" has the kind of TV-chatshow ring that suggests its author, who left the Tate to become the BBC's arts editor three years ago, is going to patronise his readers rather than educate them. Which is sad, because this romp through art from the 1860s to now is both hugely accessible and old-fashionedly educative.
Things start off worryingly. "The real issue," Gompertz writes, "is [not] about judging whether a brand new piece of art is good or bad" – a piece of breeziness that sounds as though the author may have gone to one of those schools where every child gets an automatic gold star. But no. Having let us off one hook, he puts us straight back on another. What matters, he goes on, "is understanding where and why [the work in question] fits into the modern art story".
That is a seditious claim. Ever since Duchamp magicked a urinal into a sculpture nearly a century ago, art has ceased to be about skill. So, too, responding to it: if anyone can make an artwork, then anyone can write about it. Gompertz is having none of it. People visit Tate Modern in their millions, he notes, yet few of them feel any need to educate themselves about what they are looking at. "The most frequent response I get when starting a conversation on the subject," he says, "is, 'Oh, I don't know anything about art.'"
With the publication of this book, there is no longer any excuse. Gompertz writes about difficult things – the birth of conceptualism, the link between the pyramidal compositions of Géricault's Raft of the Medusa and Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People – without letting on that they are difficult. And he does so without the blokey wink-and-nudge of other TV pundits. Most of all, he writes by eye: one moment, we are looking at the empty absinthe bottle in a Degas, the next at unshaved underarm hair in a Manet. Blimey! Or, rather, not.
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Lucy Hawking: Stephen Hawking's daughter writes impassioned open letter to Katie Hopkins about rights of disabled people
- 2 #NotGuilty: Second Oxford student writes of brutal rape by two men who then threw her in a bin as part of campaign against victim blaming
- 3 Indonesia executions: Death row British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford will refuse to wear a blindfold when she faces firing squad
- 4 Oxygen-starved 'dead zones' with no marine life up to 100-miles long discovered in the Atlantic Ocean
- 5 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
The C-Word - review: Sheridan Smith shines in a warm, honest adaptation of Lisa Lynch's book about living with cancer
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 4 - review: Sansa is in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Adam Sandler's The Ridiculous Six: Make-up 'used to darken skin of actors to make them look Native American'
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils