Book Review: ‘What Are You Looking At?’ by Will Gompertz

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Note: I’m reasonably well informed on the Impressionists—the Art Institute of Chicago and the Musée d’Orsay have fantastic collections of them. I did also have to do a quarter of art theory and a heap of art classes, along with a couple of art history classes. So while I think this book is a good primer even if you know nothing about art, I could be wrong.)

Any book that opens with a comment on how pretentious the art world can be—and this from a director at the Tate—is a promise of good times ahead. And the whole narrative, beginning with the Impressionists and ending on a 21st-century art movement Gompertz isn’t conceited enough to define (although the name he suggests could end up used one day, who knows), keeps the mood lighthearted.

Even without knowing what his career is (I always read the author blurb for nonfiction before reading the book, so this is a little a posteriori), Gompertz is clearly in love with the modern movement. (In particular, I would guess a fondness for Pollock and the Pop Art movement in general, as well as Damien Hirst. He comes off as even more ebullient about these guys than their contemporaries. To me, anyway.) And yes, he does start off the book saying he thinks all of it is art—but he shows awareness of why people don’t get it and discusses the latest trend of this gap between the gallery and the real world closing as exhibitions on the road itself become more and more popular. (See: the giant rubber duckies in Tokyo harbor; Strandbeest; and also I had the pleasure of seeing one intersection in Chicago turned into huge blocks of color before it turned out the materials were getting too wrecked to leave it up.)

"Color Jam," at the intersection of State and Adams, Chicago, IL

“Color Jam,” at the intersection of State and Adams, Chicago, IL

So overall, the relationship between art and society, and especially political trends when they are relevant, is reasonably discussed. Is this the book you should use to write your thesis? Obviously not, but it also doesn’t pretend to be. Gompertz gives a high-level overview of the motivations and major players in different movements, including a call-out for women artists, whom he acknowledges as rare before more recent times. There are also some nice full-color plates of different works, as well as some black and white reproductions (that are unfortunately pixelated for the most part).

If you do decide you want some insight into this stuff, and you do go with this book, I recommend keeping an Internet connection close at hand. A ton of art is discussed in this book, and there are plenty of reasons not to include all of it, but one of few downsides I found here is a tendency to wax flowery. There is somewhat of an academic standard for describing artwork (or we used one at university, anyway) and Gompertz breaks from it by mixing his personal interpretations into the piece. Of course he does have that proper academic background and this is his professional field, so it’s not like he’s some unqualified nobody saying these things, but I did still find it annoying to not have the chance to view a piece a priori, free of Gompertz’s idealization of the subject matter. And yes, he does bring up the cynical view that maybe it is all just a big joke, but presumably you’re reading this book because you’re willing to give it another chance.

The other big letdown here are the brief attempts at historical novelization. Gompertz has a great voice and blends the academic and more journalistic tones nicely, but the dialogue segments made me wince. They clash strongly with the professionalism of the rest. Fortunately, there aren’t so many that the book is impossible.

All in all, I had to give this book a better than average rating because it actually made me want to visit a modern art museum. Since my art theory class made their motivations sympathetic to me but did absolutely nothing for that, I’d count that as a win.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘What Are You Looking At?’ by Will Gompertz

  1. Hey great review! I agree with a lot of what you say. It’s a shame about the pictures isn’t it? I read a lot of it on my commute to work, and it was frustrating not having the images to hand! If you’re interested, I have a short review of it on my blog from last Dec.

    • Thank you! And yes, I made sure my phone was fully charged before sitting down to read it 😀

      There’s more of a detailed conversation about some of the movements he leaves out on the Goodreads link there, too. Checking out your blog now.

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