"Picasso reflected the changes in how we saw the world like no other artist"

The BBC's arts editor is a familiar face for TV viewers.
The BBC's arts editor is a familiar face for TV viewers. / Will Gompertz
  • Museo Picasso Málaga has invited the BBC's arts expert to give his view on the development of modern art as part of its current exhibition, Genealogies of Art

Will Gompertz is well known as one of the most influential commentators on the global art scene. Author of the bestseller What Are You Looking At?, the BBC's arts editor will be in Malaga next Wednesday to give a talk at the Picasso Museum titled Genealogies of Art in the Blink of an Eye. Tickets ran out fast.

In your book What Are You Looking At? you design a map of contemporary art similar to a subway map. Almost a century after Barr's diagram exhibit (currently in the Museo Picasso Málaga), is a basic diagram still the best way to avoid getting lost in the art system?

I certainly think it helps. Maps are a good way of helping us navigate and understand unfamiliar territory. We have always used them for this purpose. They simplify and contextualise in order to bring clarity and direction, which is definitively needed with modern art!

You defend that each artistic movement is part of a chain, connected with the previous and the next. How did we end up with sharks in formaldehyde?

It is the fault of the mischievous French artist Marcel Duchamp and his infamous 1917 urinal (Fountain). The moment he entered it for an art exhibition (it wasn't shown) is the moment when art could suddenly be anything an artist chose it to be, from unmade beds to sharks in tanks.

Turner Prize

Has contemporary art lost its ability to surprise?

Excellent question. I think it has a bit. Although, there are always exceptions, such as the decision by the finalists of the 2019 Turner Prize in the UK to become a collective to avoid one or other of them being selected as the outright winner. It was a smart move, which in a way, was one of the best artworks of the year. And it was a complete surprise.

Which contemporary artist will we still be talking about in 50 years' time?

Ai Weiwei, Kerry James Marshall, Njdeka Akunyili Crosby, David Hockney, Jeff Koons, Bridget Riley, Doris Salcedo.

Is the market or the Academy worse for art?

Art and money have always gone hand-in-hand, someone has to pay the piper. It used to be pharaohs, monarchs and popes, now it is self-made oligarchs. The Academy is a more recent invention. It can both stifle and inspire. The 19th century French Academy looked down on the Impressionist painters leading to Monet and his friends striking out on their own and, in doing so, laying the ground for modern art. So, while the Academy was not good for them, it was unintentionally good for art.

What do you think when you see a museum room full of visitors?

I am happy to see people enjoying art, although if there are too many people it can compromise the experience.

Do you think the number of visitors defines the work of a museum?

I think a public museum is there to serve its public. Visitor numbers are one way of measuring success but it is not the only method. The quality of the museum's research, displays and special exhibitions are more important.

Have museums become amusement parks for tourists?

I don't think so. People don't tend to go to a museum to be entertained. They go to learn, discover and appreciate.

You're visiting Malaga next week, what is your opinion about the rise in the number of museums in the city?

I was very happy to visit them all when last in Malaga.

And what do you think about the plan of museums like Pompidou or the Russian Museum to open extensions in other countries in exchange for money?

I think it is fine if all parties are satisfied, everything is out in the open and has been properly scrutinised in public. Partnership can help a museum improve its research, collection and connection with the public.

Many galleries, bienals and art fairs are as powerful or even more so than a lot of museums, Have the museums lost their role as 'influencers'?

No, I don't think so. That is why artists still want their work collected and displayed in museums, which continue to have a powerful role in shaping public thought and taste.

Your talk at the Museo Picasso Málaga is sold out. Do you feel part of the 'star system' of contemporary art?

No! I am far from being a star.

"Nobody has surpassed Picasso," you said. Do you think anybody will?

I don't think so, not in terms of his innovations and experiments. He was a brilliant artist who happened to be in the right place at the right time to respond to the provocation of the camera, aeroplanes, and huge political and social shifts. The way we saw the world changed comprehensively over a few decades, and Picasso reflected that like no other artist.