It is not easy to get hold of Will Gompertz. He’s terribly sorry but he just has to do the News At Six. Then, would I mind hanging on while he wraps up some audio for the Today programme? It occurs to me the BBC arts editor’s infamous hairstyle – a sort of windswept Terry Nutkins – might be the result of being in perpetual motion.
When we do finally speak, however, he is the model of charm. We’ve arranged to chat about What Are You Looking At? his punningly titled book about modern art.
What possesses someone to take on such a load – especially, as he points out, a man who already has four children and a wife to deal with? It was naivety, apparently. Rather improbably, Gompertz had done a stand-up show on the topic and, “I thought I had the subject licked. When I came to do the book, I realised I didn’t have it licked at all.”
Gompertz must be in a minority of BBC editors who use terms like “having it licked” and in an only slightly larger group of 47-year-olds. But there’s something undeniably appealing about his lively, irreverent tone, which in the book sees him frame Van Gogh’s enthusiastic painting technique as “like a drag queen on a Saturday night” and Manet’s subjects as “barely disguised hipsters”.
He thinks there is a problem in the language we use to talk about art, with too much emphasis on overly academic “art-speak”. “It’s unnecessary. It bemuses and scares people. Curators tend to be academics and don’t want to look silly in front of their peers so the public tends to be compromised as a result.”
His book aims to give it to people straight, to ask (and answer) all the basic art questions we were too embarrassed to, and to prove to a public apparently unconvinced by the evidence that conceptual art isn’t all rubbish and your five-year-old couldn’t actually do it.
Whether this is the general attitude to modern art is debatable. But Gompertz maintains that on finding out his occupation at dinner parties, the usual response from fellow guests is, “Oh, I don’t know anything about modern art”.
“It’s not true of course. They invariably do know something but what they’re saying is they don’t ‘get’ modern art, that they suspect it’s all rubbish but daren’t say it.”
Gompertz was a late starter on the subject. He left school at 15 and worked as a stagehand at Sadler’s Wells theatre in north London and as a Butlin’s Redcoat before co-founding Shots, a magazine covering film, TV and pop videos.
He didn’t come to art “properly” until he was 26 and on an ostensibly hedonistic weekend in Amsterdam with a new girlfriend. To his horror, she suggested they visited the Stedelijk Museum. “As soon as I walked in I had ‘museum-back’, you know, that aching in your lower spine, usually accompanied by tears of boredom? Then I came across a splodgy painting that I really liked and ended up spending two hours in front of.”
It was Willem de Kooning’s Rosy Fingered At Dawn At Louse Point. “I left the museum in love to the power of two – with the girl and with modern art.”
“The girl”, Kate Anderson, became his wife and Gompertz went on to become The Tate’s director of media for seven years before being appointed to the newly created BBC arts editor role in 2007. The appointment reportedly ruffled a few feathers, although Gompertz thinks it was more about his lack of journalistic experience than the fact he didn’t go to university (a degree was one of the job specifications).
The three months he was reported to have spent being trained for the BBC is, he splutters, “B******s. I did a month. Alan Little, the special correspondent, gave me some wonderful advice. He got a little book out of his back pocket and said, ‘Always carry one of these.’ It was a poetry book, his point being brevity. You’ll have noticed I’m naturally very verbose.”
The role has meant Gompertz finding himself in the awkward position of having to interview his former Tate boss Sir Nicholas Serota – “It would be untrue to say I didn’t feel slightly impertinent” – and realising that artists are often unaware of the way they are perceived by the public.
“I was interviewing Damian Hirst and asked him if he minded that the public saw him as a money-grabbing show-off and he looked at me, really hurt, and said, ‘Do they?’ He was really surprised anyone would think that. It was quite a shock.” Gompertz actually rather likes Hirst’s work, although is unenthusiastic about Verity, his 65ft bronze sculpture of a naked, pregnant woman which was recently installed in a quiet north Devon town.
Is it fair that the public has art foisted upon them like that? “We get everything foisted on us – roads that are ugly, buildings that are ugly. Public opinion usually wins out in the end though. These things aren’t for ever.”
He refutes the claims of some of his peers that there is no decent art being made at the moment. “I think there’s always somebody producing something exciting somewhere. Most of it’s not very good but that’s true of most areas of life. It just makes it more exciting when you do see the work of wonderful artists like Peter Doig or Jeff Koons.”
What does seriously concern him are the anonymous reports he has received from curators who are being forced to show work they secretly think is terrible. “It’s a big issue and a problem. Collectors and art dealers have money, museums don’t, so to buy paintings and collections, museums and galleries often take money from these collectors and art dealers and that compromises their position and erodes critical distance. Then we get the ridiculous situation we have now where people are being told by a museum that an artwork is good when there are lots of knowledgeable people who don’t actually think that’s the case.”
Fortunately, he has a solution – an exhibition of “bad art”. “What I’d like is for a really good, knowledgeable curator, who works for an institution, to go into their collections and pick several objects they think are ‘bad art’. I think that would provoke a good debate.”
Gompertz is a knowledgeable and impassioned advocate for art – as The Guardian put it, “The best teacher you never had”. I wonder which of the artists in his book he’d most like to have met? He doesn’t miss a beat. “Picasso. He was brilliant – a great mind, a bundle of fun and one of the greatest artists to have walked the Earth. I most admire Cezanne but he was a miserable sod and I don’t think we’d have got on.”
Finally, the question on everyone’s lips – what is the deal with that hairdo? He sighs. “The truth is I’ve tried cropping it and I look like a Nazi Stormtrooper; half the current length and it sticks out the side like I’m wearing headphones. You just have to believe me when I say this is the least worst option.”
What Are You Looking At? is out now (Penguin, £20)