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What Are You Looking At?, By Will Gompertz

Modern art for us dummies

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.