Will Gompertz: 'What's so interesting about now is that the whole notion of what art is and can be is changing'

This article is from 2019

Will Gompertz: Double Art History

BBC's arts editor tells us about his return to the stage after a decade

Arty bollocks is everywhere in Edinburgh just now. Just ask Will Gompertz, whose remade and remodelled version of his show, Double Art History, sees the BBC's arts editor and talking head return to the stage after a decade to explore the assorted isms of the world he occupies. These are terms propagated by the self-righteous likes of, well, us, in order to try and make sense of things. Either that, or else maybe just to sound like some pseudo-intellectual smart arse while proceeding to baffle, confuse and alienate those not already well-versed in such guff.

This was something Gompertz addressed when he booked himself in for a few lessons in stand-up comedy for an article in The Guardian, somewhat magnificently titled 'How to Talk About Art Without Talking Bollocks'. The original show spawned from the exercise was a bullshit-free whizz through the history of modern art which arrived perfectly on point with its assorted auteurs and enfant terribles' increasing penchant for performance.

Gompertz's ideas were channelled into his book, What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye. A decade on, as with the 27 isms Gompertz examines, his rebooted show is in flux.

'Lots of things have changed over the last ten years,' says the former director of Tate Media. 'That's been the case both in the art world and the wider world at large, so I thought, let's do it again as a sequel of sorts.'

Citing the likes of Grayson Perry and Tracey Emin as great levellers of the art world, one of the changes Gompertz notes is how 'museums seem to have discovered women artists. On the other hand, one thing that hasn't changed is how much curators tend to over-complicate things. That comes from the fact that curators are academics, and are existing in an academic environment, where they're seeking approval from other academics rather than the general public.

'Don't get me wrong, I love academics. I applaud their knowledge and dedication in their chosen field. I couldn't do what I do without them, but you don't need fancy words to describe art. In that sense, I suppose I'm a kind of bridge between academics and the general public, and the whole point of the show really is explaining the rules of the game.'

Such attempts to bring art-speak back down to earth are nothing new. The late John Berger's seminal 1972 TV series, Ways of Seeing, and its accompanying book, similarly attempted to simplify some of the more highfalutin approaches to art without ever dumbing them down.

'John Berger was great,' says Gompertz. 'He was asking us to look at art in a completely different way, and Ways of Seeing was a reaction to what Kenneth Clark did with his series, Civilisation, which suggested that art is all about posh white men.

'What's so interesting about now is the whole notion of what art is and can be is changing. Once upon a time, art was just thought of as something you'd hang on the wall, but now we're seeing more collectives, more social practice, and more political engagement over the last ten years or so. You can see that in the work of someone like Jeremy Deller. In fact, I think the latest ism in the art world is social activism.'

Double Art History finishes with an exam, co-opting its audience into the world of academia it gleefully critiques. 'I'd like the audience to go away with full marks,' says Gompertz, 'and to have some sense of knowing a bit more than when they went in. If they have a laugh or raise a smile along the way, that'll do for me.'

Will Gompertz: Double Art History, Underbelly Bristo Square, 19–25 Aug, 3.35pm, £14–£16 (£13–£15).

Will Gompertz: Double Art History – The Sequel

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Will Gompertz and Underbelly present BBC arts editor Will Gompertz returns to Fringe with another humorous lecture about the world of contemporary art. Step into his fun-filled art history lesson as he aims to teach the audience that not all contemporary art is bollocks. Art aficionado or novice, you'll leave having…