Edinburgh International Book Festival: Will Gompertz

Review by Tina Koenig | 29 Aug 2013
  • Will Gompertz

As the BBC’s Arts Editor, Will Gompertz is undoubtedly an expert on the subject. But, the decision in 2009 to appoint him as the new artsy one for the major corporation was seen as controversial – because he had never reported before. After dropping out of school, the quirky chappy became a stagehand at a central London Theatre and worked for the Tate group of galleries. His new book What are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of An Eye is for those people who want to enjoy contemporary art but feel it’s hard to tell the difference between what’s genius and amateur.

The cartoon-like 48-year old admits he’s often mistaken for a senior citizen, explaining that it happened as recently as today when he was on the train. The hilarious anecdote results in bursts of laughter and has the audience ready for more.

It’s hard to tell if the course Gompertz took on stand-up comedy taught him to be funny, or if he’s always been humorous and charming. He came to the Fringe with his own comedy show in 2009 and says: “My advice, if you’re going to do a show at the Festival, is to hire a tiny venue and invite your family.” He insists that a knob-gag is a must and says he got people to draw penises at his show to find out how much they knew about modern art. Another explosion of laughter follows when an ashamed Gompertz spots a lady of at least 80 and sincerely apologises.

The warm up’s over and Gompertz talks art. Showing George Braque’s Violin and Candlestick he says: “Cubism is actually about how we express three dimensions in two dimensions.” He tears up a cardboard box to demonstrate, adding that cubists wanted to be able to look at all dimensions. “There are no cubes in cubism,” he reaffirms.

He pops his glasses on his head and prepares to read an extract about artist Marcel Duchamp from his book. In 1913 Duchamp bought a urinal which he claimed was art, calling it Fountain. He thought art was treated far too seriously and could be ugly, but it was smashed to the ground. Gompertz says: “You can destroy a work of art but you can’t destroy an idea.” Nowadays every big artist is broadly concerned with conceptual art “which goes all the way back to Duchamp.”

Gompertz thinks Picasso was an “absolute genius” who “changed art forever.” Yet, for him the giant of this story is Cezanne as he was trying to get to the truth. He deciphers: “He was the first artist to look at things from more than one perspective. Without Cezanne there’d be no iPhone in the shape and form you see it.”

Showing off Kazimir Malevich’s simple Black Square, Gompertz concludes: “If you think this isn’t a work of art you get nothing out of it. All art and all life is about belief.” We should give art a chance because ultimately it is one human being trying to communicate with another.

Will Gompertz appeared at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 22 Aug. http://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/will-gompertz