Seeing is Believing

The narrative of Will Gompertz's history of modern art faithfully follows the Serota tendency, claiming modern art always trumps that which it supplanted

Jacob Willer

Modern art is “one of the great pleasures of life”. Will Gompertz “started by knowing nothing” of it; but he spent seven years as a director at the Tate and now he would like to share the fun. The ambition of his book is clear. He wants modern art to seem accessible, interesting, important, and he wants people to cheer with it, not laugh at it. He aims to engage the intelligent younger viewer who, in the modern museum, might find himself curious but a little lost. Gompertz will show the way, as he found it, and from there you might know how to navigate through all new art you find: “I don’t think the real issue is about judging whether or not a brand new piece of contemporary art is good or bad — time will undertake that job on our behalf. It is more a question of understanding where and why it fits into the modern art story.”

Gompertz’s approach is non-judgmental. Rather than seeking out reward in the subtle qualities of an artwork, we should first enjoy the arguments around it — how the work is justified, by progressive theory, into art. The book is divided neatly into chapters of about 20 pages, each of them dedicated to a new art movement, from Pre-Impressionism to Postmodernism and beyond. But before that chronology there is a chapter called “The Fountain”, in homage to the apotheosis of a urinal. After Duchamp, “art could be anything as long as the artist said so. That was a big idea.” From here, Gompertz’s job is to get us excited about this idea and convince us of its bigness. 

The outline given for the 19th-century avant-garde is conventional, from Courbet to Manet, then Impressionism. Pains are taken to convince us that the Impressionists were “radical, rebellious, barricade-breaking, epoch-making” despite their paintings being “suspiciously easy on the eye”. What is suspicious about their pleasing us? Surely the question is whether Impressionism is as good to the eye as older art, not that it appealed at all. But, remember, we are not here to appreciate qualities; we are to appreciate the progress of antagonistic attitudes. And the Impressionists had one such attitude — they were against the Academy. Their (justified) objection to the Academy would provide “the grit in the oyster for the pearl of modern art to form”. This is fair, even though I would not call modern art a pearl. Gompertz, however, has no doubts: “The truth is that exceptional works of art created today, and over the last century, represent some of Man’s greatest achievements in the modern era.” Only a fool, he tells us, would denigrate the geniuses of Modernism.

Van Gogh is thoughtfully treated. Gompertz likens him in character, and art, to El Greco, and shows how he inspired later expressionists like Bacon. This sort of cross-period comparison is always enlightening to the student. And Gompertz writes well on Cubism. He has an obvious interest here, and so out go the dollops of references to pop culture, in comes some critical bite. The Bauhaus chapter is useful too. His taste, inevitably, becomes quite clear through the book, so it is no surprise when he is enthusiastic about Minimalism, particularly Judd — he had earlier professed his admiration for Apple computer designs, comparing them, oddly, to the paintings of Seurat. But he cannot be exciting about Minimalism: “There are the twelve steps and the eleven spaces between them. Each step is 22.8 centimetres deep, separated by 22.8 centimetres. Unlike traditional sculpture, there is no hierarchy to this work.” It may read like a description of Ikea shelving, but that is not Gompertz’s fault — the work, Judd’s Untitled (Stack), looks just like Ikea shelving. This problem of dreary description runs right through the chapters on Suprematism, Pop Art, Conceptualism, Postmodernism; but how are you supposed to write substantially, and entertainingly, about things of no substance? Gompertz makes a brave effort, but the starkness of print only emphasises the shallows, and it suggests that the fun Gompertz — and so many others — found in modern art was more the glamour of the museum than its exhibits.

Unlike most who have championed modern art, Gompertz mentions the sceptics’ view. He understands that the vulgarity of the art market is off-putting to the public, and accepts that the “price is being driven up by freshly minted bankers and shadowy oligarchs, ambitious provincial towns and tourist-orientated countries wanting to ‘do a Bilbao'”. He also understands how tricky it is for contemporary artists to shock the establishment — as, of course, they must — now that they belong to it. Gompertz may know about scepticism, but he has none of it himself. The humility of his tone is a strength of the book; but it comes from real awe at the authorities of Modernism. He needs us to know that “museums are academic institutions full of very clever people”, and if they often resort to pretentious jargon it is only because of the stress of having to communicate their subtlest understanding to a “first-time visitor”. Fitting Duchamp into a layman’s brain is as impossible as pouring the ocean into that sandy ditch.

Gompertz is totally in thrall to the art world. Of a smashed auction record, he writes: “The price is a testament to the lasting power of Giacometti’s expressive sculptures.” What could the price have to do with the expressiveness? He believes that Malevich, of the black squares, “is asking a great deal of the viewer”. Really? More than Rubens? No. Much less. But we will give Rubens more because he gives us so much more. Gompertz believes and believes, and is upset by anyone “blithely dismissing a revelatory work” because they lack “the courage to believe”. There is courage to believing in the significance of a black square, for sure — the black square was one of art’s “great seismic moments, to rank alongside the discovery of mathematical perspective[!]… and Duchamp’s urinal” — but there is also courage in doubting, especially now. He asked us not to judge art as good or bad, but to leave all that to time; well, time in this sense is only the record of human judgments. Really, he is asking us to leave all the judging to the authorities of Modernism, they who nowadays judge for time. They decide what goes in a museum, and therefore what lasts. They actually ensure that time never has his natural say on Modernism. “Modern art… is not a long-running gag being played by a few insiders on a gullible public.” No, often it is the insiders themselves who are the gullible victims. 

Gompertz should not be so tentative. He writes with a soft tone, but the people he praises did not. Their own manifestos show them for the violent imposters they were, seeking legitimacy in scandalously fashionable poses. To read what they wrote is to see that their intellectual level was that of the average internet ranter. It is bitter adolescent drivel — even if Gompertz would call Dadaism just an ironic “celebration of childishness”. It is artistic extremism (a term Wyndham Lewis used later in life, acknowledging his own guilt), and it is uncoincidentally linked to other sorts of extremism. Gompertz apologises for Futurism’s dalliance with fascism, but, unsurprisingly, no apologies are made for Soviet art. For him, revolutionary Russia was fertile for art because it had an “avant-garde intelligentsia”.

Really this book has the wrong title. It is a faithful history of avant-gardism, not a history of modern art — if modern art is just the art of the modern period. It is the story of how, because of Duchamp, art went from being something “man-made, typically of aesthetic, technical, and intellectual merit” to being “pretty much whatever the artist decreed it to be”. You may, however, not see too much wrong with that older definition, and you may have no interest in an endless game of redefining something that can now, by definition, be anything. 

Gompertz comes out of the Tate, and so does his book. The cover design shows it as well as the argument. Tate Modern is not a museum of modern art; it is a monument to avant-gardism, with all the minor isms inscribed on the wall “in memoriam”. As it has gradually given more space to installations, and hidden away its good paintings, preferring radical riddles to refined achievement, so does this book, on 150 years of modern art, manage not to mention the mature work of Bonnard and Matisse, not Beckmann, or any of the other Modernist painters of saner, serious intent, let alone the many milder artists who kept away from the movements altogether. Artworks worth just looking at are largely ignored; apparently, enjoyment of art is not aesthetic, it is only in approving of the artist’s politicised attitude. Gompertz sees that today’s art world is “more commercial than ever: artists tend not to starve in garrets in the 21st century, several are multi-millionaires… Art today is a business, a career choice.” There are plenty still in garrets, painting away, for whom art is no career. They are where the rich avant-gardists were. This book is evidence of how that happened. It is a committed introduction to, and explication of, the Serota tendency. And Sir Nicholas Serota is duly thanked at the end. Duchamp “emancipated art from the darkness of its medieval bunker as Galileo had done for scientific discovery 300 years earlier, enabling it to flourish and unleash a far-reaching intellectual revolution.” In which case, we might say: show us back to that darkness, please, from which Raphael and Rembrandt shone so bright.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"