BBC arts editor dymystfies Modern Art world

Will Gompertz takes us from the Impressionists up to Ai Wei Wei in a comprehensive history for the beginner

If we are going to trust anyone to condense the complicated, 150 year history of modern art into a sizeable yet neat tome, Will Gompertz would be a strong candidate.

The BBC arts editor was formerly a director at the Tate Gallery for seven years and as such seems firmly planted in the art world- a conduit along which lofty transmissions become palatable to the everyday viewer and reader.

This book is an example of just that: Gompertz sets himself the mission at the beginning to tell us the story of Modern Art in such a way that we will never look at a piece again and complain: ‘my five year old could have done that.’ And to that extent, he succeeds.

Beginning with the Impressionists and sailing through to the present day, Gompertz creates a narrative arc for the myriad movements of modern art history, to some extent also setting them against historical eventsand trends. It’s a tall order to cover the entire art world globally and as such this is a selective work, broadly covering most significant art movements in a helpful chronological way.


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Gompertz departs from his chronology only to hark back to his main thread: Duchamp and the art of the idea. Perhaps this is a good thread to keep to- understanding that the power in Duchamp’s fountain was the idea behind it helps the average passer by to understand why Kazmir Melvich’s Black Square is more than just, well, a black square. As Gompertz’ critics have pointed out though, it is an angle at the expense of other highly significant art movements that are given less kudos here. This is not an unbiased document.

Aside from being a guide for those who don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of art- What are you looking at? is also tacitly a map of the art world itself and how it has mutated into the beast that we face today. Gompertz makes noises about the academically competitive nature of curators and the commercial instincts of present day artists compared with their radical, revolutionary forebears. This gives a neat window for outsiders to view a closed world. Some of this however does seem over-simplified, even to an outsider, both in theory and in the barebones writing (there are a few hackneyed phrases which are almost certainly avoidable).

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Gompertz presents us here with what is essentially an enjoyable contextual introduction, full of colourful threads for anyone interested to follow. What was wrong with the picture of the art world has to some extent been rectified- let demystification commence.

What are you looking at? 150 years of Modern Art in the blink of an eye by Will Gompertz published by Penguin Viking �20

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