Interview: Will Gompertz author of What Are You Looking At: 100 Years of Modern Art
WILL GOMPERTZ – high school dropout, now BBC arts editor – tells Susan Mansfield why he’s an evangelist for modern art.
New York, April 1917. Three young men heading along West 67th Street. One of them is a tall, elegant Frenchman with dark hair swept back from a high forehead. This is Marcel Duchamp, and he is on his way buy a urinal. He will turn it upside-down, give it the title “Fountain”, and exhibit it as a work of art. And the story of art in the modern world will take a new direction.
This, it could be argued, is the moment at which art rips up the rule book. Or, depending on your viewpoint, the moment when it all goes wrong. From this will spring art as a Campbell’s soup can, a pile of bricks, a moustache on the Mona Lisa, a dead shark in a tank of formaldehyde. So this is the place BBC arts editor Will Gompertz starts in his book What Are You Looking At? 100 Years of Modern Art.
“You’ve got to lance the boil,” says Gompertz, sitting opposite me in an Edinburgh cafe, another tall man with a high forehead, though his hair is divided into unruly tufts part-way down either side. He has the mad-professor-ish ability to be at once deeply knowledgeable and boyishly enthusiastic. “You’ve got to start with Duchamp because that’s where the problem is for everybody, isn’t it? The ‘Is this art?’ conversation. The ‘Why is Tracey Emin’s unmade bed a work of art when mine isn’t?’
“This is seismic. This is where it all goes anti-retinal, as Duchamp said, when it stops being about beauty. Duchamp gave artists permission to have the idea first and then choose the medium upon which to communicate that idea. The range of things we now consider artwork is much broader. Deal with Duchamp and you deal with most of the problems of modern art.”
Gompertz, who took up the top BBC arts job at the end of 2009, is passionate about removing barriers between people and art. Currently, we make more, buy more and see more contemporary art than at any other point in our history, yet no matter how cool art has become, the barriers are still there. “Usually, people are quite happy to riff on almost any subject, but when you get to modern art, they say: ‘Oh, I don’t know about art’. It’s clearly not true: they know Rodin was a sculptor, they know that Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, they know Damien Hirst put a shark in formaldehyde. I think what they really mean is: ‘I don’t get it, I don’t like it, and I think I might be being duped’.”
Contemporary art, in particular, is shrouded in what Gompertz calls “artspeak”. You’ll have seen it, littering art catalogues and exhibition statements: heavily theoretical, barely grammatical, frequently impenetrable. A person doesn’t get it, so they feel ignorant. They also feel suspicious. They suspect the joke’s on them, but they don’t want to be the first to say so.
This, says Gompertz, is not art. Art is life. “What comes through to me, having written the book, is just how much art informs life, and life informs art. We’re sitting at this table drinking coffee out of these cups which are influenced by modernism.” And he proceeds to draw a line from Impressionism, through Cézanne and cubism via Bauhaus to modern design. And while we’re on the subject, he thinks that Jonathan Ive, the designer of the iMac and iPhone is “a great artist”.
“All the great modern artists wanted to break down that barrier between art and life – the Impressionists, Modernists, even the Minimalists. I think museums force us to view art in a reverential way, while cinema, literature and music don’t get put on the same pedestal. It’s an odd way to engage with one human being communicating with another human being, which is what it’s about.”
His book, then, is an lively train-ride through the art movements of the modern period, beginning with Impressionism, ending with Banksy. There is a fascinating chapter in which he credits Edinburgh-born Eduardo Paolozzi with inventing pop art, influenced by the bright images of packaging and advertising which were all around him in his parents’ ice cream parlour. He went on to make pop art collages in the 1940s “way before Warhol or Lichtenstein. No Paolozzi, no pop art. No Paolozzi, no Warhol.”
While he doesn’t dumb down the subject, he does take a fresh, energetic approach. He thinks its important to see modern art in its context, whether that’s Einstein or Freud or two world wars, photography or advertising or technology. He has no art history qualification, (no qualification, in fact – he left school at 15) and calls his approach “journalistic rather than academic”.
He explains movements and “isms” with clarity and humour. The Impressionists’ decision to paint ordinary life was as strange in the 19th century as “Spielberg doing wedding videos”. Conceptual art is likened to the offside rule. Rousseau, middle-aged and self-taught, is “the Susan Boyle of his day”. A Jackson Pollock painting is “100 raw eggs thrown against a concrete wall full of graffiti”. And none of this is in the least dismissive, because he clearly loves them all.
The humour is perhaps no surprise given the beginnings of the project in stand-up comedy. Before he was recruited to the Beeb, while he was head of Tate Media, Gompertz did an eight-week comedy course “to see if the tools and techniques of stand-up comedy could be reapplied to speaking about art”. Performing a stand-up slot at the end of the course was “the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life because you know immediately if you’re succeeding or failing”.
This led to a show on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009, Double Art History with Mr Gompertz, where, he hoped, “even if they didn’t crack a smile for an hour, they might know the different between Manet and Monet by the end”. Indeed, the Gompertz of the book is something of a teacher, the best sort, who can enthuse you about a subject and give you the building blocks to deal with what you don’t understand, all the while making you laugh.
However, this brings us back to the problem of Duchamp. Many suspect that the man and his urinal were taking the piss, which would mean the dominant art movement in the second half of the 20th century was founded on a practical joke. “You’d be absolutely right to get that sense,” Gompertz says. “Duchamp was the stand-up comedian of art. He was getting to the truths of the world we live in by using comedy in art. He was challenging every single quasi-liberal broad-minded approach to art, and he proved them to be bogus. [He submitted “Fountain” anonymously to the allegedly open-entry Independents Exhibition of which he was an organiser – it was rejected.] If that isn’t a brilliant work of art I don’t know what is.”
Gompertz believes that Damien Hirst is doing something similar. “Hirst is brilliant. Like Duchamp, he’s taking the piss, but in a good way. So much of his work has been pointing up the market for what it is.” In the process, Hirst has made himself a multi-millionaire. Gompertz writes a fascinating section on the Young British Artist, describing them as “Thatcher’s children”, young people from mainly working-class backgrounds who seized control of their own destinies and made the market work for them. The word that links them most, he says, is “entrepreneurialism”.
But Gompertz is a bit of an entrepreneur himself. After being “chucked out of school at 15”, he worked at Our Price records, then as an entertainer in the holiday camp where Hi-De-Hi! was filmed, and as a stagehand at Sadler’s Wells. At 22, he launched a video-magazine called Shots, which he later sold to a major publisher before launching the hardback quarterly arts magazine Zoo.
But when Tate supremo Nick Serota offered him a job, his art history education began in earnest. “You can’t help but get the bug because you’re rubbing up against a collection of such significance. And hanging around the Cornelia Parkers and Jeremy Dellers, the Damien Hirsts, the Jeff Koonses, it’s invigorating. You have to up your game, get stuck in, know your stuff. Having gathered all this information, the compulsion to share that is irresistible.”
So he approaches his subject with a kind of evangelical zeal – to the extent that he has written a 400-page the book in his holidays while holding down a top job in arts broadcasting: “As a dad with four kids and a wife, it was a pretty antisocial thing to do.”
He says that of the thousands who flock to the Turner Prize show at Tate each year, too many still come to sneer. “To look at an artwork briefly and say it’s rubbish is to look at a book cover and say it’s rubbish. You cannot properly enjoy a great work of art by glancing at it, it deserves a look and a think and probably revisiting many times. Unless you know the rules of the game, it’s difficult to know what ideas are being presented to you.”
We all need to hone our critical faculties, because, Gompertz believes, if anyone is to decide what is art and what isn’t, it is us, the viewers. “Nowadays, there’s more art produced and bought than there ever has been in human history, and a vast proportion of it isn’t very good, just like a vast proportion of the books written, music performed and movies made aren’t very good. To be able to make a reasonable judgment, you have to be informed.”
• What Are You Looking At: 100 Years of Modern Art, by Will Gompertz, is published by Viking, priced £20
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 16 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 12 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: East