Before his 2010 installation for the Tate Modern's Unilever Series, in which the former London power station-turned-art museum annually commissions a work for its cavernous Turbine Hall, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei said, "I try not to see art as a secret code." He then filled the hall with 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower seeds.
At least he wasn't trying to be cryptic.
BBC arts editor and former Tate Gallery director Will Gompertz feels our pain. In his wonderfully plainspoken, intelligent new book What Are You Looking At?: The Surprising Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art, Gompertz says that art today "puts us all at risk of looking like suckers." We're afraid we'll end up "believing in something that isn't there" or "dismissing a revelatory work of art because we don't have the courage to believe."
What Are You Looking At? mitigates that risk. It's an insightful love letter to modern art and an irreverent rejection of the notion that its pleasures are reserved for a chosen few. "As with most seemingly impenetrable subjects, art is like a game," the author writes, "all you really need to know is the basic rules and regulations for the once baffling to start making some sense."
The book explains those basic rules over 20 chapters — easily cherry-picked before your next trip to a museum — which track art's evolution from Impressionism onward. Each hums with engaging history and entertaining anecdotes, cheeky asides and accessible, illuminating criticism. Of Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds, for example, Gompertz writes, "The artist was referencing the vast Chinese population and reminding the world that his fellow countrymen are not one singular mass that can be thoughtlessly trampled upon, but a collection of single people with their own hopes and needs."
Gompertz describes the complicated role galleries play in the art world. On the one hand, they make art accessible by providing a space in which the public can view a work and suspend disbelief. But on the other hand, the "pointy-headed boffins" who run galleries often make art perplexing. "At best their talk of 'inchoate juxtapositions' and 'pedagogical praxis' baffles visitors," Gompertz says. "At worst it humiliates and confuses and puts people off art for life."
The book's chapter on cubism is perhaps its finest. Gompertz tells us how the movement originated in the post-impressionist works of Cézanne, and he vividly draws the relationship between the movement's two giants, Picasso and Braque. He points to the scientific and technological innovations that contributed to cubism's momentum and explains how total abstraction became its legacy. Most importantly, the author tells us in plain English how cubism works. "Think of a cardboard box," he says. "Braque and Picasso were metaphorically pulling it apart and opening it out to make a flat plane, showing us all sides at once."
The only knock against What Are You Looking At? is that it doesn't come with its own slideshow. Although the book contains about 70 illustrations, you'll want to have a look at everything Gompertz describes, even when there's not all that much to see. For instance, Robert Rauschenberg's Erased de Kooning Drawing, in which the artist erased one of Willem de Kooning's drawings so he could include it in his collection of white works, somehow only makes sense when you lay eyes on it. So keep your iPad close.
When he describes the complex relationship between Paul Gauguin and his Tahitian subjects, Gompertz says that what ultimately made the Frenchman a great artist was his "ability to communicate ideas and feelings that were both unique to him and universal to us all."
Gompertz may not be a great artist. But by that standard, he certainly measures up.