After an introduction from Steven Gale, Will Gompetz asked if we were in the mood for a humorous preamble. A murmur of agreement elicits a response of “Shit, haven’t got one of those.” He soon finds one however, discussing the pros and cons of being a BBC correspondent. It seems that on a fairly regular basis people leap towards him on the street, the delighted smile on their faces becoming rather fixed as they realise they’re not quite sure where they know him from. He then waits for the moment when they realise he’s not a casual friend but that guy off the telly and their puzzled expression shifts to mortified. By this point we are all laughing and he feels his humorous preamble is going well.
He then tells a story of a couple whose son had just received his GCSE results. He opened the envelope, said ‘hmm’, and then took it upstairs with him. A short while later his friend arrived and also went upstairs. The couple, like any anxious parents would do, slipped into the garden to eavesdrop through their son’s open window. The friend declared that he’d managed to get 11 A*s. Their son then said he had done even better and that he could spell ‘BEEF’ and ‘DUDE’ with his results. Years later the friend is now slightly depressed and working in finance while the son is in LA writing scripts and teaching workshops.
The point Gompertz is making with this story is that the middle ground has gone. Everyone and everything has to be one thing or the other: the academic success working for the big company or the creative working themselves, the mega brand or the minute and artisan. The Industrial Revolution led to the middle class and, according to Gompertz, the Digital Revolution will lead to a creative class. The only problem is that too many of us think we aren’t creative.
To prove that everyone can be creative Gompertz asks two people to come up onto the stage. When he asks them why they think they aren’t creative one responds that she likes to plan and have medium and long-term goals. “Oh, that’s really boring,” Gompertz jokes, “But we can fix that.” The response of the second volunteer earns him the name ‘Captain Logic’. Gompertz begins a story by describing an eccentrically dressed couple and asks his first volunteer to continue it, ending on the phrase ‘I never knew that’. She takes the couple to an accountancy firm where they are the partners. Captain Logic is then asked to finish the story ending with them never speaking again. He reveals that they are the CEOs not just partners and that one of them has just sold the firm out to an American company.
Gompertz explains that if you take two separate ideas and try to fit them together, you are forced to be creative. Artists, he says, are creative because they are Seriously Curious. They’re serious about being artists and serious about asking questions. According to Gompertz, Marcel Duchamp was a rotten artist but very good at thinking like one. His urinal may have been controversial but the point of it was to make people question and discuss. Artists question, they are sceptical, sincere and, most of all, enterprising.
Creativity involves breaking the rules, sometimes creating something new and sometimes taking something old and making something entirely different with it. Gompertz feels that teaching children creativity is fundamental. Shakespeare made a career of writing plays filled with words he had made up, but no A-level student writing about him would be allowed to make up a word. He also points out the fallacy of preaching ‘fail better’ given that the phrase comes from a gloomy passage of Beckett that ends in death. Failure is not failure; it’s just Plan B.
Then he introduces Theaster Gates, a highly successful artist living in South Side in Chicago, the murder capital of America. He began by doing pottery in his spare time and selling his creations in country fairs. He sold each pot for $5 and became frustrated when people tried to haggle. So, he created a fictional Japanese master called Soji Yamaguchi and put on a show selling the pottery of this artist for $500 a piece. Unsurprisingly, no one tried to haggle. Gates then used the money to buy a wreck of a property and began creating art using the guts of the building. He now regularly creates pieces from the remains of gutted buildings, sells them for thousands and uses the profits to do up the wreck, buy another and start the process all over again. His aim is not just to create art but to show that you can be a successful black man without leaving South Side.
Throughout Gompertz draws parallels between different artists and the progression of their careers. His understanding of artists and their choices and influences is fascinating. His overall message is that art is not peripheral or fluffy. Art can change the world and this is something we should all embrace.