Making the Unfamiliar Familiar – Many Thanks to Will Gompertz

One of the job requirements of a provost is the ability to communicate with faculty across the disciplines and sound moderately intelligent and informed.What Are You Looking At? You cannot  present as more informed than the faculty – that simply shuts down conversation and fosters resentment (see Larry Summers at Harvard). One the other hand, if you don’t know enough to ask solid questions, you are rightly judged as useless. Staying informed and being able to talk across areas of inquiry and expertise  is one of the more engaging and enjoyable challenges of deaning. Some areas are more accessible than others, even with the most assiduous study. And you have to remember – acutely – that a little information is a dangerous thing.

Navigating the world of contemporary art poses particular difficulties. Traditional and classic art is well-known, as are the major artists and works of the past 100 years. Warhol did soup cans, Lichtenstein’s art looks like comics, and while some of Jeff Koons’ work is good for kids, others is not. These high-profile arts have secured a place in the public sphere that guarantees some familiarity. But to say anything intelligent about them? Or to veer into a discussion about lesser known artists? How does one talk about a sculpture made of string or a painting of a spot? It’s a tricky endeavor.

Happily, Will Gompertz has crafted a well-written and easy to read guide to address this problem, What Are You Looking At? The surprising, shocking, and sometimes strange story of 150 years of modern art. Gompertz, former director of Tate Media, is a practicing journalist with a felicitous way with words. Mixing anecdote with theory, he offers a narrative history of art that is accessible. Gompertz also is able to achieve two discordant aims simultaneously: he very much thinks through the art, taking it seriously, and he gently satirizes, too, freely acknowledging the absurdity of some of the extremes. Working through high-level but accessible chronology, the connections between and among modern art and artists makes sense. And Gompertz does it in wry English prose.

What disappoints is not the book, but the consequences of Gompertz’s thesis: a tautological understanding of art. We know something to be “art” because it is made by artists and shown in galleries and museum. If something is known to be “art” and shown in a gallery and museum, then the person who made has to be an “artist.” This sort of self-referencing understanding is problematic, especially as Gompertz makes clear that the genealogy of modern art is through white northern European males. In drawing his connections, Gompertz tightens circles of influence. Art that might seem liberating at first glance turns out to be a response to another work of art. In fact, Gompertz’s history becomes graspable through repeated emphasis of two kinds of relationships: artist to artist and work of art to work of art. The map a solipsistic and self-referential art world does not make me want to visit.

On the bright side, having digested the book, I can now discuss why the Tate Modern purchased a pile of bricks in the 1970s and so many people have lined up to look at them.

David Potash

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