A charismatic account of the past 150 years comes from BBC Arts correspondent Will Gompertz. But, asks JACK DUNLEAVY, how did modern art end up embodying so many contradictions?
The general public’s view of contemporary art has become something of a paradox. In the media it is portrayed at times as a money-guzzling demon, and at others as the one saving grace for a culture in decline. The government recently staged a ‘Cultural Olympiad’, a celebration of British art in an anticipation of the Olympics, in an blatant attempt to deflect the public’s attention away from the cuts that will undermine it.
Contemporary artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin are loved and reviled in equal measure, often by the same people. The list of examples could go on, but the paradox is best exemplified in the case of Banksy. Banksy is a grey area for government (often local councils); grafitti is illegal, yet his work is often put behind protective glass. They cannot outright condone his actions, but are willing to risk hypocrisy if it scores them points with the public.
Who do we have to blame for this mess? The past 150 years or so of Western culture, it would seem. Paradoxes have always existed in society but of all eras it is our immediate predecessors who brought them the most nakedly into the light. The intentions of modern artists (another paradox – we now live in an age where ‘modern’ is a historical term) vary, but a great many of them sought to break down the barriers surrounding art as a way of heralding a brighter, clearer future.
Buildings were stripped of all ornament to promote ‘purity’, even if it was the purity of naked brown concrete. Sculpture was taken down from the pedestal to bring it closer to the public. The tyranny of marble and bronze was toppled and replaced with more or less anything the sculptor pleased – the only problem being that when a sculpture has no plinth and no sign of craftsmanship, it can be quite hard to decide what counts as a sculpture and what does not. Modernist painters attempted to go straight to the heart of emotion through geometric abstraction or conscious childish naivety.
Many people both then and now are inclined to see the beauty of simplicity and assume it is simple to execute, so painting too became the subject of both revulsion and exaltation. Modern art both has and has not changed the world forever. We are too easily convinced that the future will be a place where life is simple, without realising that our every action and expression can only serve to make the world more complicated.
In What Are You Looking At? Will Gompertz seeks to reconcile modern art with the public and to make sense of the beautiful mess which is 20th century Art. He is careful not to let his reader become swamped in concepts and isms, the chapters on Cezanne and Cubism are particularly effective in this regard.
Gompertz’ breaks down Cezanne’s achievement into a number of clearly definable points, his laborious clarity at this stage of the book serving as a strong foundation for when it becomes increasingly complicated later on. Likewise his enthusiasm for Art post 1970 is infectious. It is not uncommon when reading a history of Modern Art to find the author becoming less sincere towards the end of the book; they are so enamoured with the breakthroughs of early modernism that the subsequent years seem to have little to offer.
The advantage Gompertz has here is the time in which he is writing. Books such as Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New suffer because they were written at a time too close to the period of study. On the other hand, What Are You Looking At? is able to view modernism as a historical period, when even the latter strands may be viewed and categorised from a safe distance and without disdain, in fact, one of the weaknesses of this book is Gompertz’ limitless enthusiasm for every major artist from Delacroix to Hirst.
Perhaps this is excusable given that the aim of the book is not to change the way we see art so much as to make us look in the first place (it certainly wouldn’t be all that encouraging if he hated it all), but at times Gompertz is reminiscent of a teacher faking enthusiasm for a subject that they are required to teach. Gompertz’ attempts to relate the period to the modern day are at times a hit (his description of Henri Rousseau as ‘the Susan Boyle of his day’ is inspired) and at other times a little less pertinent, perhaps simply seeking another bonus in reviews.
Gompertz’ modern perspective also leads to a strong emphasis towards conceptual and performance art throughout the second half of the book. On one hand this is sensible, as these are the areas in which have gotten the most attention in recent years, but it comes at the expense of some of the great painters of the latter half of the twentieth century; Bacon and Hockney are only referenced in relation to their influence on other painters, Lucien Freud is not mentioned at all.
This book is, as its title describes, a history of modern art ‘in the blink of an eye’, Gompertz gives a good survey of the more prominent and influential artists of the period, but leaves little room for less well known but equally talented artists. A summary of the work of many artists is covered in about a page’s length.
This, coupled with a severe lack of illustration throughout the book, means that even if the key figures in the period are made clear it is easy to glance over the rest. Still, Gompertz is able to extract the importance of the artists he does focus on simply and clearly. Ultimately this book is intended as an introduction, and in this regard it is a success. If you want in-depth analysis, an alternative view or a wide survey of modern art, look elsewhere.