Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Two books on modern art: review

Books by Will Gompertz and Susie Hodge show that demystifying modern art is far from child’s play

The joke's on you? Salvador Dali's 'Lobster Telephone'
At last, I thought, when Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That appeared – someone addressing the glib riposte most commonly levelled at conceptual art. It’s a tricky topic. There is no single, convenient comeback to what distinguishes art from hot air. Modern art was and is a game-changer, and like all games, you need to know how to play.

But Susie Hodge’s book is not the only primer at large. Earlier this month came Will Gompertz’s What Are You Looking At?, an essay on where we are and how we got here. Here being: at best confused, at worst in an almighty sulk.
Obstacle number one: Modern art is elitist. It’s hard not to feel there’s a cognoscenti who deem behind closed doors what is and isn’t “significant”. It’s also hard not to think they may be laughing while they do it. As Gompertz says: “Abstract art puts us all at risk of looking like suckers, believing in something that isn’t there.”
He says “us” a lot, including himself in the bewildered camp, even though he is ostensibly from the other, members-only one. He doesn’t hide his former role as media director at Tate, using it instead to win us over. “I started by knowing nothing and… there is plenty more for me to learn.” He even snitches on Sir Nicholas Serota, his former boss. When Serota sees a new work, Gompertz confides, he admits to feeling a little “daunted… I often don’t know what to think”.
Obstacle number two: people who write about art often drift into “artspeak”, the verbose, clotted kind of sentences that would thwart even the best-intentioned reader.
Obstacle number three: conceptual art has wildly different aims to its forebears. We had 600 years of artists making their work as lifelike as possible, and then 100 years of the opposite. Unsurprisingly, our brains haven’t quite adapted. Even when an artist removes every reference to the known world, our brain still searches for it, “like a satnav searching for a signal” (Gompertz).

This, agrees Hodge, is how we come to mistake “an apparent lack of technique for a lack of artistic sophistication”. I liked her introduction very much. It’s a clearly written abstract explaining how technology, atrocity and consumerism incited a succession of rebellious artists. From here she goes downhill.

Hodge’s approach is founded on the assumption that our woolgatherer brains can only digest information in lightweight portions. She writes about 100 artworks, the necessary pieces for a join-the-dots timeline of modern art – Dalí’s telephone, Warhol’s soup, Emin’s bed. To make the timeline fit the theory, however, most every work has been chosen for being deliberately infantile – a collage of toys, a pile of sweets – and is divided into “toys, scribbles, tantrums, monsters”.

Each entry includes a box explaining why “no child could have created this…”, which made me want to throw the book at the wall. Example, in reference to Tracey Emin: “Children may often leave their beds unmade…but a close look at this installation reveals that the bed and strewn items belong to an adult”. In labouring this one point, over and over, 100 times, she wrings the life out of every piece. Actually, she’s treating her readers like five year-olds.

Gompertz, on the other hand, is full of useful explanations. I’ve had difficulty with conceptual works. Mostly this is a time issue. Many works repay a thorough read around and a think. But when it comes to art, we’re conditioned for the instant hit.

Gompertz is good on this. Back in 1917, he tells us, the painter Kazimir Malevich upset “Tsar Nicholas and his aristocratic chums” by painting a black square on a white canvas. Gompertz explains that the scepticism surrounding Malevich’s black square (and every abstract work since), comes from Malevich turning the traditional relationship between artist and audience on its head. Historically the artist was subservient. It was up to him to please us, and we decided if he had succeeded. But Malevich turned art into “a mind game in which the artist sets all the rules”.

For Gompertz, there is no one “modern art”, rather a series of modern arts. The experiments of artists since the Impressionists meant the destruction of the one true way, the linear progression.

He is brilliant at puncturing our avid acceptance, too. I used the word experiments just now, and much of modern art was just that. Artists aren’t always right, says Gompertz. Rodchenko once declared painting to be over. It wasn’t.

Gompertz isn’t always to my taste. His “flights of fancy” as he calls them, where he imagines the Impressionists tub-thumping in a café, or Duchamp strolling the streets of New York, can veer into schmaltz. It’s as if he’s using that television presenter’s fallback – historical reconstruction.

I was minded of television more than a few times while reading this. It’s conversational and brilliantly irreverent. True, he can be a bit too informal at times, and his slang is akin to hearing your dad say something’s “wicked”. But his prose is clear as glass.

Some have bemoaned the small number of illustrations. But as he keeps saying: go and see the real thing. Just remember two things: one, you aren’t compelled to agree, and two, you don’t have to like everything. Move on.

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