Think Like an Artist by Will Gompertz

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Reviewed by Annabel

Many of you will recognise Gompertz in his current role as the BBC’s Arts Editor, a role he fulfills with as much quirky charm as his subjects. Starting in the business as a stage-hand at the Sadlers’ Wells, he worked his way up to become a Director at the Tate Museum and has also tried his hand at stand-up comedy.

His passion though, is modern art, and in 2012, Penguin Viking published his book What are You Looking At? which took us on a tour of the past 150 years, introducing, linking and explaining in a lucid text full of humour and anecdote what it was all about.

As in my reading, where I love to hear about an author’s research and personal journey in writing a book, I find that having help from people like Gompertz and Grayson Perry (whose book based on his Reith Lectures I reviewed here) to put key artworks and movements into context adds to my personal appreciation of their work. There is an argument, particularly prevalent in the art world, that adding such context can decrease rather than enhance your pure enjoyment of a work. While this may be undeniably true of the tendency to overanalyse set texts that can turn students off reading, for instance – it’s all about balance. Gompertz’s books on art and artists are definitely aimed at a general audience and being free of what Perry calls ‘International Art English’ seek to entertain at the same time as getting you think for yourself about what you’re seeing.

In Think Like an Artist, Gompertz turns from looking directly at art to trying to get inside the artist’s mind; to explore where their inspiration and creativity comes from. From all his years working with great creative minds, Gompertz has essentially proved the proverb ‘great minds think alike’. He has identified a collection of particular traits common to them all and is encouraging us to adopt them into our own lives to make us all more creative, but also more productive.

Many of the traits he picks are no surprise when taken back to basics: confidence, curiosity, taking time to think, the interdependence of seeing the big picture and the fine detail, etc.

In the first trait chapter, about Confidence, you may not expect the discussion of the artist businessman that Gompertz gives us, ‘[it] is not an oxymoron,’ he says.

They do it by behaving like any other entrepreneur. They are proactive, independent, and so ambitious that they will seek out, not avoid competition. Which is why any artists worth the name headed to Paris in the early twentieth century. That’s where the action was: the clients, the networks, the ideas and the status. It was a cut-throat environment in which most were operating without a financial safety net: a hand-to-mouth existence in a highly competitive environment that had the effect of stimulating their creative impulse.

He illustrates this with Andy Warhol and Vincent Van Gogh, but then gives the story of a rather different kind of entrepreneur. The American Theaster Gates makes art from found objects in his run-down neighbourhood in Chicago, then uses the proceeds to invest back into his community renovating the houses the objects came from and repurposing them for art venues etc.

Another interesting chapter is about Failure, but not in a ‘heroic’ or ‘Fail Better’ management speak senses.

No, this is about the real thing that as happened to us all and we wish it hadn’t. […] It is about the days and weeks and years after your project has crashed ingloriously at your feet, leaving you with a crumpled heap of ideas and experiences to sift through for any fragments that might be worth salvaging. It’s about the notion of failure in the context of creativity.

He goes on to give examples of some artists and creative folk who had a Plan B. They didn’t start off with one, but their career trajectories changed or stalled and went off again in a different direction. Bridget Riley created her first abstract painting as a response to a failed relationship; Roy Lichtenstein’s son challenged him to find out which of them could paint the best Mickey Mouse, and this seeded his future comic-strip style.

The book has a great layout. Each of the traits has its own chapter. The trait is introduced with an illustrative quotation over a black and white photograph facing. The text then goes on to explain and give examples and anecdotes, with more pictures and occasional little cartoons too, and quotes too. There are monochrome pictures in the main text, and a fold out colour section extends from the inside back cover.

It was good to see quotes from people such as ad-man David Ogilvy, Coco Chanel, Oscar Wilde and even Ecclesiastes in the mix with those from artists. I’d like to leave you with an idea from artist ‘Bob and Roberta Smith’, who made a painting declaiming ‘All Schools Should Be Art Schools’: as Gompertz suggests, an attitude towards creativity that could be applied across the whole curriculum, don’t you think?

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Will Gompertz, Think Like an Artist (Penguin, London, 2015) 9780241970805, 208pp, paperback original.

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