Review of “What Are You Looking At?” by Will Gompertz

As readers of this jointly-authored blog may have divined, one of our favorite activities is arguing debating, and art and music are two of our favorite topics about which to differ. I was eager to read this book, since it has the stated goal of helping readers understand modern art and why it is really more complicated and worth looking at than many of us (read: Jim) may think.

The author, Will Gompertz, is the BBC Arts editor and former director of London’s Tate Gallery. He takes us on a tour of modern art that is chronologically arranged, but focused on the question of what constitutes “art” and how that idea has unfolded over time.

He includes a lot of fascinating gossip and background about the artists of the “modern” period, and very informative vignettes about how they influenced one another. The competitive Picasso, in particular, responded to the achievements of his artist friends first by being mesmerized by them, and then trying to better them. (And succeeding time after time!)

Picasso, Self Portrait, 1907

The author shows quite clearly how each movement in Modern Art segued into the next, as the artists – often working together – tried to solve problems that arose, such as, for example, representing three-dimensional subjects on a two-dimensional canvas. What he writes of Braque and Picasso during the Cubist period could apply to other groups of artists as well:

…they were like a pair of jazz musicians, improvising with all manner of material and riffing ideas off each other.”

Even if you just go through the book to note the evolution of how artists defined art, you can get a sense of its general development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The concept of “what is art” changed from skill in exact representation, to getting to the “heart” of what was being seen, to excelling in design rather than illusory deception, to conveying concepts rather than materiality, to making an immediate and memorable connection with the viewer, to focusing on insight rather than sight, to prompting us to pay more attention to the everyday and the overlooked, to trying to create order out of chaos, to getting us to see that the viewer is as much a part of the work of art as the work itself.

And what about art that is totally abstract? Just lines and squiggles and colors? Gompertz maintains:

It’s a surprisingly tricky thing to pin down exactly what it is that makes those lines any different from the lines you or I might draw, but there is a difference. There is something about their fluidity, or composition, or shape that has millions of us flocking to modern art galleries to see abstract paintings by the likes of Mark Rothko and Wassily Kandinsky.”

Wassily Kandinsky, Transverse Line, 1923

He explains how each generation of modern artists removed more and more traditional details in their paintings so as “to capture atmospheric light (Impressionism), accentuate the emotive qualities of color (Fauvism), or look at the subject from multiple viewpoints (Cubism).”

Eventually, of course, the details were removed altogether. Artists came to see themselves as not in the business of “reproduction” at all, but rather of exploring new ways to represent truth “that might provoke previously untapped thoughts and feelings in the viewer.”

My favorite chapter (that is, the one from which I learned the most) is the one dealing with Pop Art. My reactions themselves could have been transformed into a pop art canvas: “Wow!” And “I never thought of that!” And “How devilishly clever!”

Pop Art by Nicki Smith

A recurring theme in the book is how advances in the other arts (especially music), the sciences, and even politics echo, reinforce, and reverberate with, changes in art. Sometimes abstract art is meant to be like music; sometimes it is meant to be like the mind; and sometimes, it is meant to suggest sociological commentary and/or change. And similarly, giants in the fields of music, psychology, science, and politics have been stimulated in their thinking by ideas they gleaned from artistic trailblazers.

Laudably, Gompertz also lets us in on a rather disappointing fact about modern art. He writes:

And yet, for all the rhetoric about creating new utopian societies and smashing the old elites, there has been one voice that has gone largely unheard. … Where, you might wonder, are the female artists?”

He includes a section on the marginalization of women artists such as the great Freda Kahlo, while noting that this situation continues even today, in an art world still largely dominated by white men.

Gompertz begins and ends the book with musings about Marcel Duchamp, the artist whom most contemporary artists cite as an influence, and whose seminal work “Fountain” is, according to the author, “the single most influential artwork created in the twentieth century.” The author concludes that whereas Picasso may have been the dominant force in the first half of the 20th century, “there is no question that the second half has increasingly been played out against a backdrop of Duchampian mind games.”

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

Discussion: The subtitle of the book is “The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art,” and this is so apt. I must have said “who knew?!!!” at least twenty times while reading this. (Moreover, Jim’s occasional challenge of details in the book sent me off to google many times as well, finding not only that in every case that the author was indeed correct, but also thereby exposing me to even more fascinating bits about the item in question.) (FYI, the biggest question was about the feasibility of the production of 100 million porcelain individually hand-painted sunflower “seeds” by Chinese artist Wei-Wei and 1600 assistants, a brilliant exhibit as explained by Gompertz, but also one requiring that each artisan had to have produced 62,500 seeds. How did they do it and how long did it take? Read an interview with the artist, here.)

Chinese Artist Ai Wei-wei showing some of the 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds in his exhibit at London’s Tate Modern in 2010

Evaluation: Gompertz is excited and passionate about his subject. He wants us to love and appreciate art, and his enthusiasm is infectious. His prose is animated and entertaining. (In fact, this book was an outgrowth of the author’s standup comedy show in the UK about modern art.) There are a gazillion fascinating and eye-opening (both literally and metaphorically) concepts presented. Since most of them have to do with visual communication, however, the book clearly would have benefited from more illustrations. Even the few full color plates included are so helpful that it’s a sin there aren’t more!

It is not a book once can (or should!) scan or race through. Rather, I think it should be sampled and savored and contemplated, bit by bit. I could see it as a text [non-traditional in the sense that it is not academic in tone at all] for a delightful evening class on art that meets once a week, and during which we see many slides while discussing the salient points of each chapter. (And then we break for wine and cheese and fruit, artfully arranged on a tilting table….)

Cezanne, Still Life with Apples and Oranges

Rating: 4/5 (I would have rated it higher had there been more illustrations, although in truth, there would have had to have been so many, it would have trebled the size and cost of the book. Maybe it would make a better online book, with hypertext links….?)

Highly recommended!

Published by Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., 2012

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14 Responses

  1. I love, love, love these kinds of books. My parents have an awesome collection of art books and I would spend hours looking through when I was young. I’ll have to make a note to look for this at the store or the library.

  2. Oh man. You got me so excited about this book!! Though I could see wanting more illustrations. Your enthusiasm shines through and is contagious.

  3. I’m pretty jacked about this one. I always feel like such a slob around my artist sister, like I have absolutely no culture in my body at all. This book MIGHT assist me in making a clever observation or two!

  4. I love looking at art but I mostly don’t know what I’m looking at, LOL. This seems like a good read but I’d have to be in the mood I think. I still remember we were at this museum (maybe the Guggenheim?? That or a museum in NC, lol, I don’t remember) and the very last part was an entire room.. where you entered there was a curtain of gold beads, and in the middle of the floor a square of gold foil. That was the display and everyone would walk over and look down at it. I have NO IDEA what it was (other than a piece of gold foil on the floor of a room) but I thought it was funny. Anyway, it would be great to improve my knowledge about art. :)

  5. I enjoy art but don’t know as much about it as I’d like to. I’ve never even heard of Duchamp so didn’t know he was so influential. This book sounds endlessly fascinating.

  6. You’ve totally sold me on this one, Jill! Definitely putting it on the to-read list.

  7. This sounds great! My husband is an artist and he gets really frustrated with people who look at modern art, especially abstract art like Jackson Pollack, and say, “What’s the big deal – I could do that.” And since I’ve been listening to him rant about it for 15 years, now I get frustrated with those people too. LOL I think reading this book could help me better articulate why, no, you can’t make a Mark Rothko painting yourself, even though it just looks like some stripes.

  8. Looks pretty cool to me. I’m sure it would take me some time to get through.

  9. Sounds like a great read–and something I need. I visited MOMA not too long ago and found myself wishing for some knowledge and background information on the artists and installations. I wandered around without a real grasp of what I was looking at and it drove me crazy. I knew what I liked, but understanding some of the more abstract works would have made me feel better. This sounds like a perfect read for someone looking to gain an appreciation and some background information. :)

  10. I have a love (well, maybe just really like)/hate relationship with modern art. Jeff likes it a lot more than I do what with having a brother who is an artist and our middle son (who is majoring in studio art) is constantly trying to explain it to me. I’m going to pick this one up for a Christmas gift, although I’m not sure yet who, exactly, will get it!

  11. I enjoy most modern art, and this book sounds fabulous! I’d love to be in your art group! :) And I’d love to hear that comedy routine the book grew out of.

  12. I debated reading this one because I’m sure I’d learn a ton. I know next to nothing about art!

  13. I know you’re right and it would be crazy expensive and long, but oh how I would love this exact book but with pictures. I love modern art museums but don’t have the patience for the audio tours — I can’t skim past information that bores me, is why.

  14. I’m always Googling some ridiculous thing Jason says and then having to suck it up about half the time to admit he was right. Men!

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