In 1972 the Tate Gallery in London purchased a sculpture called Equivalent VIII by Carl Andre, an American Minimalist artist. Made in 1966, it consists of one hundred and twenty firebricks that when laid out as per the artist's instructions can be configured into eight different patterns, all of identical volume (hence Equivalent VIII). When the Tate exhibited the work in the mid-70s, they presented it in the form of a two-brick deep rectangle.
There was nothing special about the bricks; they could have been purchased by anybody for a few pennies. The Tate Gallery paid £2,000 for them. The British press had a collective meltdown. "Wasting our national cash on a pile of bricks!" screamed the papers. Why, one publication wanted to know, had the Tate squandered precious public money on something that "might have occurred to any bricklayer?"
Roughly thirty years later and the Tate once again acquired an unusual artwork. This time they chose to buy a line of people. Actually, that's not quite right. They didn't buy the people per se, that's illegal nowadays, but they did buy the line. Or, more precisely, a bit of paper upon which the Slovakian artist Roman Ondak had written the instructions for a performance art work that involved hiring a handful of actors to form a line. He specified, on the piece of paper, that the actors create an orderly queue outside a doorway or inside an art exhibition. Once in position, or "installed" in art-speak, they were all to adopt an air of patient expectation. The idea being that their presence would intrigue and attract passersby, who might then either join the queue or perhaps walk along beside it, eyebrows furrowed in quizzical inspection, wondering what they could be missing.
It's an amusing idea, but is it art? If a bricklayer could have come up with Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII, then Ondak's spoof queue could be considered to be at the more whimsical end of the Jackass genre. The media were bound to go nuts.
Yet there was not so much as a murmur: no criticism, no outrage, not even a selection of wryly mocking headlines from the wittier members of the tabloid press — nothing. So what has happened over those thirty years? What has changed?
Money has something to do with it. A huge amount of cash has flowed into the art world over the last few decades. While stock markets have crashed and banks have gone bust, the value of top-end modern art has kept on rising, as has the number of people coming into the market. A few years ago, Sotheby's, the international auction house, would reckon on having bidders from three countries represented in the room for one of its major modern art sales. That number can now be well over forty. Which means basic market economics have come into play: it is a case of supply and demand, with the latter far outstripping the former. The value of highly regarded work by dead (therefore unproductive) artists — such as Picasso, Warhol, Pollock and Giacometti — continues to go up like an elevator.
And if there's no high-quality "classic" modern art available, the next best thing is "contemporary" modern art (the work of living artists). Here again, prices have risen inexorably for those artists deemed to be A-list , such as the American pop artist Jeff Koons.
The problem we all face when encountering a new work of art, is one of comprehension. Anyone can find themselves at something of a loss when facing a painting or sculpture that is fresh out of an artist's studio. Even Sir Nicholas Serota, the internationally respected boss of Britain's Tate Gallery empire, once told me that he can be a little "daunted" when seeing a new work for the first time. "I often don't know what to think," he said. "I can find it very intimidating." That is quite an admission by a man who is a world authority on modern and contemporary art. What chance for the rest of us?
Well, some I'd say. Because I don't think the real issue is about judging whether or not a brand-new piece of contemporary art is good or bad — time will undertake that job on our behalf. It is more a question of understanding where and why it fits into the modern art story.
This willing confession of ignorance is not due to a lack of intelligence or cultural awareness. I have heard it said by famous writers, successful movie directors, high-flying politicians and scholarly university academics. Of course they are all, without exception, wrong. They do know about art. What they really mean is that they know nothing about modern art. Actually, what they really, really mean is that they might know something about modern art — that Andy Warhol made an artwork containing some Campbell's Soup cans for example — but they don't get it. They can't understand why something that they perceive a child might be able to do is apparently a masterpiece. They suspect, in their heart of hearts, that it's a sham, but now that fashions have changed, find that it is not socially acceptable to say so.
I don't think it's a sham. Modern art (spanning roughly the period from the 1860s to the 1970s), and contemporary art (generally considered to be art produced by still living artists) is not a long-running gag being played by a few insiders on a gullible public. The truth is that the exceptional works of art created today, and over the last century, represents some of Man's greatest achievements in the modern era.
The best place to start when it comes to appreciating and enjoying modern and contemporary art is not to decide whether it's any good or not, but to understand how it evolved. As with most seemingly impenetrable subjects, art is like a game; all you need to know is the basic rules and regulations for the once baffling to start making some sense.
From What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye by Will Gompertz. Copyright 2012 by Will Gompertz. Excerpted with permission of Dutton Adult.