Sunday Times, 02 September 2012
What Are You Looking At?
150 Years o Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye
by Will Gompertz
Viking, £20.00. Pp 435
This book starts badly but gets better. The cover is a horrible version of that multi-font, wacky-arty, retro style to which publishers are mystifyingly attracted. Worse is to come. Inside there is a fold-out London Undergound-style map with the big station names replaced by art movements – constructivism, vorticism etc – and the little station names replaced by artists. This immediately reminded me of a wall in Tate Modern on which are painted the names of all the art ‘isms’ that critics love. I have pleaded with Tate boss Sir Nicholas Serota to get rid of it and he has said he will.
There are movements in poetry, fiction and music, but nobody ever talks about any of them except, perhaps, modernism. In the visual arts nobody talks about anything else. Curators, teachers and pundits are stricken with ‘ismitis’, the compulsive desire to look not at the work, but at the movement to which it is said to belong. There are no less than 23 movements on Gompertz’s tube map and, trust me, if you want to understand art you will ignore all of them. Which is the more interesting question: what is the difference between impressionism and post-impressionism or what is the difference between Monet and Van Gogh? If you think the first is more interesting, you do not like – or you are afraid of – art.
Then, having slipped on the handcuffs of ismitis, Gompertz proceeds to Taser himself in the first paragraph of his preface. He draws attention to two masterpieces covering the modern period – Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New and E.H.Gombrich’s The Story of Art – and then says, “My aim is not to compete with such learned tomes – I couldn’t…” Okay, he is being pleasantly modest, but anybody who has read Hughes and Gombrich will, at this point, be filled with an urgent desire to drop this book and go back to the masters.
In fairness, I think this is intended as a book for art beginners. Gompertz is not a great intellectual like Gombrich and neither is he a brilliant prose-stylist like Hughes.
“Rousseau,” he writes at one point, “was the Susan Boyle of his day.” Yuk.
He skims the surface rather than plumbs the depths and, occasionally, he uses the word ‘iconic’, a felony for us all but a capital crime for an art historian. Never mind, this is a straightforward tour guide and, as such, once the author and the publisher have stopped doing their best to drive you away, it works well enough as a conventional history of modern and contemporary art.
We start with Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a urinal – “the single most influential artwork created in the twentieth century” – go back to Monet and then dash forward to Banksy and Emin. The story is straightforward. The impressionists broke the bonds of stuffiness imposed by 19th century manners, drawing attention to ways of seeing. Cezanne restructured the painted surface, the Cubists included time and shattered perspective, the Dadaists …. and so on.
Then, having slipped on the handcuffs of ismitis, Gompertz proceeds to Taser himself in the first paragraph of his preface
The climactic ‘ism’ in this story is conceptualism in which the idea behind a work is more important than its execution. Gompertz locates the origins of conceptualism not, as most critics do, in 1917 when Duchamp showed his Fountain, but, rather, in 1912 when Picasso and Braque started using real world things – wallpaper etc – in their cubist paintings. Well, sort of. But the important point is that conceptualism is the edifice before which we still cower. Gompertz says he does not know what name to give to the last twenty years of art, but, for me it is definitely conceptualism. Or perhaps financialism.
“We are living through a modern art boom,” writes Gompertz, but he simply does not pay enough attention to why this might be. The answer is the flood of hot money, much of it dubiously acquired by bankers, into the market. There’s more art because there’s more money in it. Nothing wrong with that – the same was true of the Renaissance – except that it doesn’t fit with the offical art history.
What does fit is the ascendancy of the Young British Artists of the nineties – Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin etc. They are overwhelmingly conceptualists and they continue to represent the climax of art history in the imagination of the British establishment. The fact that their total output is dwarfed by that of Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter and a few others, none of whom are conceptualists, seems to go unnoticed. Staggeringly, I can find neither Kiefer nor Richter in Gompertz’s index. A Freud is in there, but it’s Sigmund not Lucian, and Hockney only gets a few cursory mentions. Perhaps more amazingly, having beatified Duchamp, he does not once mention The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, his greatest work and certainly more important than Fountain.
This is, in short, a very very conventional history and perhaps this befits Gompertz’s public role as BBC Arts Editor and his past role as a Tate executive. He is a supreme establishment figure. As a result, I didn’t learn anything new nor was I startled by anything in these pages. (Plainly this was a problem for Viking which resorted to ‘Picasso is a genius (but Cezanne might be better)’ as a shock line on the back cover.) But, in the end, I did find a competent account, decorated with the right kind of stories, of the establishment view of the last 150 years in art.
The strange thing is that, as he makes clear, a series of angry, insurrectionary moments are essential to that view, all of them following on from the impressionists’ storming of the stuffy old academy with which modernism in art began. But there are no revolutionaries now and no Bohemia in which a new brood may be incubated. The capacious maw of the marketplace can embrace and normalise all things. So this history is over, this is a story with an ending, it is the day the avant-garde died. What – if anything – comes next is unknowable. The best we can hope for is that it isn’t an ism.