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
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
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.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor