What are you looking at?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye (WAYLA) is a deceptively well written and self-effacing book, written by William Gompertz, the arts correspondent of the BBC, and former Tate Media director. His writing is engaging and the narrative he weaves around the artists, movements, and key artworks is dense and intelligent but approachable. It title is somewhat misleading, though, as this book cannot be read in the blink of an eye. It is a tome. Of sorts.
WAYLA approaches broad movements of the art world in each chapter, moving forward though time in general, but with some stilting back and forward as various movements overlap but are treated in different chapters. This works well for the reader, as there are clear delineations between movements, but Gompertz could do more to make this clear within the text itself.
Like Kemp (2014), women don't get a look in until relatively late in the book, but unlike Kemp, Gompertz explicitly acknowledges this, and looks at some of the systemic reasons why women have been pushed to the background: 'Where, you might wonder,' he says, 'are the female artists? Evidence suggests that if you were a female artist practising between 1850 and 1930 you might be tolerated, but you probably wouldn't be venerated' (location 3864 of 6225 [Kindle*]). While I might argue that including some of those 'tolerated' female artists producing ground-breaking work alongside their male peers might be preferable to just mentioning that they were there, this acknowledgement does two things that a simple inclusion doesn't do. First, it forces the reader to confront their own complicity in forgetting female artists. 'Where, you might wonder...' Had you wondered? You can pretend you had, of course, but very few of us actually would do. Second, it forces us to think critically about the system of 'ground-breaking progressives' - Gompertz says as much: 'But then weren't the pioneering artists and the movements they championed supposed to be challenging society and the status quo?' (3872-3875) - and how they were not (always, nor in every way) as progressive as we might think. That is to say, it forces us to remember that even progressives have progressed - we cannot anachronistically apply our own cultural norms onto people who did not share those norms.
And therein lays what is really great about Gompertz's book. It's light, witty, presents sometimes fictionalised accounts (Gompertz confesses this early on) of many of the most influential artists, movements, and artworks of 'modern art'. But it is no less critical of those movements - and of what is left out of 'modern art' because it just doesn't really fit, or because of social 'faults' (or what we may consider such now). And, crucially, it makes us - the reader, as artists, or art historians, or interested lay people - to understand the role that we - as 'society' - have played in those people and movements who have been left out.