What Are You Looking At? ~ by Will Gompertz

I’ve got a fair background in art history – about 12 graduate units for teachers via the Getty Program and Fresno State University  –  those were wonderful day-long summer classes filling 2 or 3 weeks for 2 separate years.  Plus I taught teachers in a mentor program so this is just so right up my alley.   I always was more oriented toward the history and formal analysis than the production.


What Are You Looking At:  The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art
by Will Gompertz
2012/  436 pages (Kindle)
rating –  8.5   / Nonfiction – Art history 

Will Gompertz,  the author,  is the art director of BBC and a writer –  used to be the director of Tate Media.  He’s well respected in the field.

The “Preface” explains the author’s inspiration and background and after that we get a formal “Introduction” which opens with a story – like quite a lot of the narrative.   This one deals with   the public’s (taxpayers) not understanding  a sculpture consisting of a rectangle comprised of 120 bricks laid out on the floor at the Tate.   That’s still a problem – how to comprehend and/or evaluate modern art.   Is it good, bad, meaningful, etc?   What is it about?    And answering this question for the layman  is the general point of the book –  to help the reader/viewer adjust himself to the ideas behind the modern and contemporary art he sees in books and museums.

What is art?  At this point,  it seems that’s really just a question of  “Where a piece fits into the modern art story and why .”    If you understand the historical context you’ve got it – just apply that to the works of a specific movement and why those ideas were explored.

From Chapter 1 where Gompertz describes Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917) –   a urinal as sculpture – and its effect on the art scene,  and Chapter 2 with the difficulties in the French Salon system,  all the way to Chapter 20 where the new “entrepreneurials” of the 21st century have entered the scene,   the book generally outlines the schools and most important artists of the last 150 or so years.

Over time,  the idea behind the work became more important than the piece of work displaying it.   This is important.

The “ideas”  opened several art movements including Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Conceptualism.   Marcel du Champ is unquestionably the most revered and referenced artist among today’s artists from Ai Weiwei to Damien Hirst.

The idea is more important than the medium –  more important than the skill – so this is basically a matter of putting philosophy over technique.   Has it produced dogma in the colleges at the expense of craft?  –  Is du Champ a genius who liberated art as Galileo liberated the intellect?

In the remaining the chapters Gompertz looks at the art world starting from the Impressionists who had the idea that the realism of the immediate outdoors with light were important.  The Impressionists, following ideas hatched during the French Revolution,  were probably the most radical of all artists in the history of art and they were fighting the Salon which was stuck in the art of the 17th century – the art of the Kings – the art of war and religion – the art of the aristocracy.   The Impressionists challenged all that  –  and they won.

I’ll quit the spiel now and let you read the book-  it’s good – for many levels of reader,  interested layman through professional.

Gompertz’s style is chatty and informal – no dryness here,  but at the same time there’s a LOT of information.  Reading one chapter at a time was about as much as I could take.



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3 Responses to What Are You Looking At? ~ by Will Gompertz

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    I’m going to link to this from my post about postmodernism in art!


  2. Pingback: Postmodernism, a Very Short Introduction, by Christopher Butler | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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