Viking, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

What Are You Looking At?, By Will Gompertz

For all its breezy style, this canter through modern art tells the orthodox curator's story.

In my ten years before the mast on the Tate Members' Council, I enjoyed fantastic treats. Access to people and paintings, half-learning how to do curator-speak, seeing the Tate's conservation workshops in action (how do you restore the elephant dung on an Ofili?). And seeing Tate Modern emerge as the most visited modern art gallery in the world.

There were two particular treats in our meetings. One was having Nick Serota ask for the Members' money towards a major acquisition – it made us all feel like Medicis. The other was looking at Will Gompertz's long face and Professor Brainstorm hair, a tonsure surrounded by long blonde bits. At his Tate leaving do, before going off to become the BBC's Arts Editor, they showed a video in which everyone wore a Will wig.The Arts Editor' job is a new big role, created for parity with, say, Robert Peston as Business Editor or Nick Robinson as Political Editor. The story was that a trio of arts panjandrums had bullied the DG, Mark Thompson, into creating this role to recognise the arts, at last, as central to British wealth and happiness. On-screen, Will is breezy, faintly blokey and seems to be engaged in outreach (as in "don't knock it, you might like it").

What are you looking at? is his breezy, faintly blokey, out-reachy summary of 150 years of modern art – or as breezy as you can get with nearly 400 pages of text. I'm not quite sure who it's for. It reads quite like television in the making. There are very TV-ish anecdotes about Marcel Duchamp buying the revolutionary urinal (in New York, 1917) and Eduardo Paolozzi in his Italian parents' ice-cream parlour in Edinburgh, but it remains quite densely plotted as well. The market here should be for something beyond the late Robert Hughes's 1980s series The Shock of the New, but the writing and the insights don't work at that level.

Gompertz starts, rightly, with that Duchamp moment: that declaration that modern art is about the primancy of ideas, rather than craft skills. That a clever idea can be realised in any way that works, and still be compelling. After that he backtracks to the Impressionist breakthrough of the 1870s and explains that, however comfortable the group's work looks now, there was a real struggle against a real Establishment, the Academy, with a real power of veto. By comparison, the YBAs were simply young marketeers following an old business-art model with an eager, global audience.

Then on, through the "isms", the canon, to a final chapter covering 1988 (Damien Hirst and his Goldsmiths' friends 'Freeze' exhibition), and to September 2008, when the big Sotheby's Hirst sale just pulled it off. It sold £111 million of work on the day that Lehman Brothers was falling apart, the end of turbo-capitalism as we knew it. Between those points it's quite a slog, however, because the expectations raised by the breezy prose and the mass-culture references is that we'll get to a new take on the development of audiences and markets: something beyond a competent walk through the isms.

But despite the obligatory acknowledgement that "art people talk bollocks sometimes", his approach remains relentlessly conventional. And he is relentlessly positive about practically all the consecrated major works. Like that McCann advertising theme, "It's all good".

The problem with following the isms – what Tom Wolfe called "the trend that walks like a man" in his brilliant right-wing polemic on art criticism, The Painted Word – is that, however demotic the language, you're still following the curatorial-critical priesthood's version of events, and the media version of value.

I wanted more than this perfectly acceptable tour. I wanted more cross-reference to the 150 extraordinary years of social, technological and economic change behind all these developments. I wanted more about markets – the kind of global money that buys art as an asset class in an investment portfolio now. I wanted more about audiences, and the expectations visitors to, say, Tate Modern or MOMA New York bring to their experience. I wanted some acknowledgement of the world outside art-land and artists.

My other problem is with the coverage, not of isms but artists. This is clearly a book for the Anglosphere because it barely acknowledges that whole parallel universe of contemporary art outside the West (Frida Kahlo and Ai Weiwei mainly). Yet when we get to Blighty, great swathes of "Modern British" artists – who define the Englishness of English art – are cheerfully ignored in favour of the received canon. I'm not making a case for the second-tier Bloomsbury artists, nor even John Piper or Paul Nash; but what they represent, though hardly an ism, does amount to a cultural insight.

This year the Tate mounted a wonderful exhibition. Picasso and Modern British Art showed how a range of British artists from the first tier – Francis Bacon, Henry Moore – and the second – Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis – had produced work quite slavishly imitative of Picasso before they variously found their feet. What this tells us about ourselves and the momentum of the art market is one thing I'd love to have heard more about. And I'd love to have heard Will Gompertz's take on Nat Tate, William Boyd's compelling, plausible invented American artist. Now that is conceptual art.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy