What I’m reading – March 24, 2017

Under 7 minutes read.
I’m squeezing in this blog post at the end of a long day grading student papers and evaluating performances. Can’t bail on a 100 day challenge after only two.

I’m going to reflect on one of the books I’ve been reading for a couple of months. I checked it out from the local public library and renewed it multiple times. I’ll tell you why in a bit.

What Are You Looking At?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art by Will Gompertz (2012)

Gompertz wrote this book to take a “personal, informative, anecdotal, and accessible” approach to defining the full spectrum of modern art movements, beginning with impressionism. I’ve been learning about modern art since my music history classes 30 years ago at Lawrence University Conservatory of Music.

I’m also an art docent, who began that adventure at the Toledo Museum of Art. To become an art docent in this nationally recognized art education program, one had to go through an intensive two year training program that was a mix of learning the museum’s collection and history, learning to craft open ended questions and guide viewer observations (a.k.a, asking them first what THEY see instead of reciting memorized facts or reading labels). But before any touring could begin, we had a crash course in art history. I learned about Greek and Roman mythology from a vast collection of vases, 15th century religious iconography, and visited painterly strokes of Monet and Gaugin sitting on opposite walls of a gallery. The best part of the training were the curatorial lectures by the incredible art historians on staff. They were passionate about the art; the stories behind the artists, and the social and cultural history they represented. It was such a privilege.

In his preface, Gompertz writes, “My ambition has been to write a fact-filled and lively book… not intended as an academic work.”

“The inspiration for writing this book came from a one-man show I performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2009. I had written an article for the Guardian newspaper in which I explored how the techniques of stand-up comedy could be used when explaining modern art in a way which engaged rather than bemused. To test the theory, I enrolled in a stand-up course and then went to the Edinburgh Fringe with a show called “Double Art History.” It seemed to work: the audience laughed a little, joined in and, judging by their performance on the “exam” at the end, learned quite a bit about modern art.”

Gompertz details the foundational stories of the leading artists and where they got their inspiration or motivation. He was formerly the director of the Tate in London, and at the time of the book’s publication (2012), the arts editor at the BBC.

One of the reviewers on Amazon wrote, “Gompertz is adept at elucidating complex aesthetic ideas and artistic techniques and linking revolutionary art movements to social upheaval (war, communism, the Holocaust) and scientific and technological developments (quantum physics, television, the atom bomb). He revels in the creative, multidisciplinary synergy surrounding such key figures as Monet, Picasso, de Kooning, and Warhol. And he daringly takes a novelist’s approach to such foundational acts as Duchamp’s purchase of a urinal in New York City in 1917 to create a “readymade” sculpture that embodied the pivotal realization that if an artist says something is a work of art, it is. Gompertz adeptly divides each broad movement into its intriguing subgroups and includes many more artists, critics, and dealers than the usual suspects. His dissections of performance and conceptual art are uniquely clarifying, and he even coins a keenly apt term for such current provocateurs as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons: the “entrepreneurialists.” A deeply enlightening and buoyant history of modern art and beyond.” –Donna Seaman

Here’s a brief excerpt to illustrate:

“Guillaume Apollinaire, the Italian-born French poet, playwright and champion of the artistic avant-garde, did not always land his literary punches. His intellect made him susceptible to rhetorical showboating: an over-willingness to provide an on-the-spot interpretive bon mot about modern art, which often confused rather than clarified. But on occasion, his gift for language enabled him to get to the heart of an artwork or an artist in a way few others could.
     Nobody has equaled Apollinaire’s astute observation regarding the true nature of Cubism, an art movement that can often appear difficult to the point of being impenetrable. Speaking of his friend Pablo Picasso, the co-founder of the movement, Apollinaire said, “Picasso studies an object the way a surgeon dissects a corpse.” Which is the very essence of Cubism: taking a subject and deconstructing it from intense analytical observation.”

I see this book as a return to the experiences I had in my docent training. I’m reading some pretty incredible origin stories about work that has become iconic representations of so many modern art movements. I was hooked at the jacket cover that read,

“You will discover
Picasso is a genius (but Cézanne might be better).
Pollock is no drip.
A urinal changed the course of art.
And why your five-year-old really couldn’t do it.”

The reason why the book is taking me so long to get through it, is that I’m spending too much time looking at the art he references. And not all the art he references are in the book. I’m sure there were copyright permissions and expenses to consider. But I alway have my iPad handy, even if the work is included in the plate section. I want to be able to expand the image to examine details. Honestly, I’d rather travel to the galleries to see the pieces in person. No image can capture the complex texture of oil paint, or see how light plays off color. These pieces were conceived for the naked eye.

So many of the stories and relationships between the artists will stay with me every time I visit a museum. That is a book worth savoring.

Other books I’m reading, and will cover in the next “What I’m Reading” post:
* Trevor Noah Born a Crime (2016)
* Naomi Kline Shock Doctrine (2007)

3of100 blog posts in 100 days


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