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Will Gompertz: In thrall to the art world

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.

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