Review: What Are You Looking At? The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art

By Will Gompertz


Inspired by his one-man comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, this book is Gompertz’s chatty retelling of the last 150 years of modern art. It isn’t academic, he promises, then playfully links up the “isms” of art history, from Impressionism onward. Gompertz calls his book “factastic” on YouTube, mirroring an art trend he identifies in the book’s last chapter. And, with Gompertz striking a readable balance of scholarly detail, art anecdote and pop culture references, readers will make it to the last chapter.

Gompertz wins points immediately by daring to talk about money and, by extension, class. Soon after, he breaks what may be a code of silence by describing—almost satirizing—the tensions that play out when curators try to name an exhibition and why, as he puts it, “curators talk bollocks.” It’s impossible to forget Gompertz is a Brit, as he laces his prose with words like “blimey” and “bollocks.” The lad-like banter, coming from an author who was a former director at the Tate gallery and is now the BBC arts editor, adds accessibility. Winningly, he folds in hip references to Jonathan Ive, head of design at Apple, David Lynch, Tom Ford, Bang & Olufsen, Franz Ferdinand, Harvey Weinstein, Google, Dennis Hopper and Susan Boyle.(“As it turned out, Rousseau was the Susan Boyle of his day.”)

After examining why the public suspects modern art is a sham, he intelligently explains the seemingly outrageous prices of some work. His introduction to Minimalist sculpture is hilarious, and his lengthy treatment of Jeff Wall will warm Canadian readers’ hearts.

But where are the pictures? Twenty-eight colour plates are not enough. Why would the publisher print a book about art without an adequate budget for photo permissions? Bloody shame, that.

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