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Book Review: BBC arts editor explains modern art

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

If you've ever stood before a painting or sculpture and said "Huh?" or "Excuse me?" or "My kid could do that!" — then BBC arts editor Will Gompertz has written the perfect book for you.

A former director of London's Tate Gallery, Gompertz has an uncanny knack for making difficult art (and ideas) easy, and doing so without jargon.

In "What Are You Looking At?" he starts from the premise that almost everybody has trouble immediately comprehending work that possesses what the late art critic Robert Hughes memorably called "the shock of the new." Even Sir Nicholas Serota, his old boss at the Tate, admitted to being confounded on occasion, he reports.

"It doesn't matter if you are an established art dealer, a leading academic or a museum curator," he writes. "Anyone can find themselves at something of a loss when facing a painting or sculpture that is fresh out of an artist's studio."

His solution is to place the particular work of art or artist into the long narrative arc of art history — in other words, through education comes enlightenment. And so he offers a lively, witty account of the major moments and movements of the past 150 years of that history, from Edouard Manet's in-your-face naked harlot "Olympia" to Damien Hirst's pickled shark.

In Gompertz's zeal for the anecdotal, he occasionally resorts to corny re-enactments of famous art history moments — not surprising for a book that started out as a stand-up comedy show. Some readers may long for a few footnotes and a bibliography, yet it's clear that he really knows his stuff.

In the end, stuffy, pretentious scholarship isn't what he's about. This user-friendly guide is aimed at the millions of participants in today's global modern art market who "suspect, in their heart of hearts, that it's a sham" — but find that it's not cool to say so.

Conjuring up example after example of artworks that have baffled or enraged the public, Gompertz explains why they aren't a sham. And he's so good at his game that by the end, you may very well be persuaded that "A Thousand Years" — a Hirst creation that features the rotting head of a dead cow in a glass vitrine — is ghastly, yes, but also very good art.

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