From ‘ism’ to vision

What Are You Looking At? 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye, by Will Gompertz, Viking, RRP£20, 464 pages

On April 2 1917, Marcel Duchamp purchased a urinal from a plumbing firm on Fifth Avenue and contemporary art was born. The premise of Will Gompertz’s What Are You Looking At? is unargu­able. Without “Fountain” – as Duchamp’s acquisition came to be known – there would be no pickled shark, no unmade bed and possibly no Tate Modern, the institution whose parent organisation employed Gompertz as director of media before he became the BBC’s current arts editor.

As Tate Modern finds itself compelled to expand because it has more than doubled its original visitor estimates, you might think that the job of making contemporary art accessible to the public was done. Gompertz disagrees. Too many of us, he declares, are still intimidated – a problem he locates in our failure to understand art history. “Each movement, each ‘ism’, is intricately connected, one leading to another like links in a chain,” he writes in the introduction to a book that aims to elucidate those connections.

Unfortunately, Gompertz is no poet. Ideas are chopped up into awkward phrases that show no regard for grammar. Dozens of sentences start with “which”; clichés and clunky metaphors abound. Brancusi’s “Sleeping Muse I” is “the ultimate sleeping beauty”. Turner is “cutting-edge”. Van Gogh applies paint “like a drag queen on a Saturday night”.

The worst examples come from the earlier chapters. Gompertz’s mistake is to retrace territory already covered by Robert Hughes in his bible on 20th-century art, The Shock of the New, which captivated millions of inexpert art lovers thanks to its literary panache. (When the Australian critic looked at a Van Gogh, he saw “nature ... opening its veins”.)

Gompertz is spot-on to open with Duchamp’s foray into bathroom furnishings. But rather than backtracking to Monet and then plodding through to abstract expressionism, he should have leapfrogged straight to the neo-Dadaists.

Born in 1965, Gompertz is a child of his time, effortlessly explaining the paradox – part-rebel, part-wannabe – that was Andy Warhol, before marching confidently through conceptualism, minimalism and postmodernism. His critique of Bruce Nauman – “Nauman is the object representing humanity: never learning, never moving on” – is notably assured, clarifying why that artist’s mirthless rigour is both repellent and irresistible.

Particularly interesting is a discussion of “artertainment”. This refers to interactive art, such as the slides installed in Tate’s Turbine Hall by German artist Carsten Höller. Theoreticians claim that such works provide “a social context for human interaction” but Gompertz perceives “nothing more than a bit of fun”. His observation, however, that such installations reflect the slippage between “modern art ... and more mainstream entertainment-based leisure activities” highlights a critical issue for the art world today.

It also dovetails with his astute consideration of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, who demanded that his sculpture of a meteorite-struck Pope should be displayed only in a museum. For Gompertz, institutions now “provide an environment in which the public is willing to suspend its disbelief ... And that puts artists today in a privileged position based on trust”.

While a Leonardo will hold its aura in any environment, Cattelan’s pontiff is merely a piece of mischief beyond the museum’s walls. Understanding the history of art behind that state of affairs will not banish our doubts about Cattelan’s validity. Yet the success of institutions such as Tate Modern suggests that for millions such ambivalence does not matter. Why not? Should it? Gompertz could tackle those questions in volume two.

Rachel Spence is an FT art critic

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