Creativity and artistry is about breaking the rules, says BBC's Will Gompertz

There is no machine on the planet that can do what every one of us in this room can do. Step out of time and place, think of an idea and realise it, according to the BBC's art editor Will Gompertz.

Will Gompertz: on stage at Media360
Will Gompertz: on stage at Media360

"We are amazing at being creative, it is our USP," Gompertz said today (19 May) at Media360, and went on to challenge a number of the misconceptions about art by highlighting the many occasions great artists broke the rules.

Starting with Charles Baudelaire, who said it was time artists stopped painting history and mimicking the great masters, and started painting the world around them.

"This led to Edouard Manet's Olympia, his version of Titian’s Venus. But, Venus was a goddess and Manet’s Olympia was a hooker. It was the first truly modern painting when artists took on the life of today rather than the life of the past," Gompertz said.

"Brainstorms are bollocks. There are no original ideas, just ideas with an origin. All creativity is based on theft." Will Gompertz

Marcel Duchamp was, by the definitions of his time, a terrible artist but he changed the world, Gompertz said. "He asked, 'Why does art have to be beautiful? Or made by the artist? Or original?' So he went out and bought a used urinal."

Art, at the time, also privileged the medium. "You had to use an approved media – wood, stone or paint. Duchamp literally wanted to take the piss. Suddenly, in 1917, anything could be a work of art."

It's a myth that ideas come from thin air, Gompertz continued. "Brainstorms are bollocks. There are no original ideas, just ideas with an origin. All creativity is based on theft."

Pablo Picasso, for one, stole all his ideas from Paul Cézanne, who changed art, Gompertz pointed out. While painting Mont Sainte-Victoire in 1887, Cézanne questioned the artistic tradition of painting hyper-realistic landscapes.

"But he asked himself, is that really what we see? At this distance, the mountain is all colours and geometric shapes. So he painted in colours and shapes and lines, and invented abstractionism," Gompertz said.

The truth is, all artists are sceptics, he said. "I asked JJ Abrams while he was writing the new Star Trek if he was worried about all the Trekkies out there and that they might not like what he's done to their beloved world.

He said, 'I don't want to be arrogant, but I don't give a damn about what they think. All I worry about is how do I get Captain Kirk from one part of The Enterprise to the next. Who does he meet? Spock? Do they argue? Does this have consequences?'"

And there lies what Gompertz believes to be the essence of art: "The heart of truth is where beauty lies. It's the Socratic method. To interrogate the subject until you find the truth of it and solve the problems. Socrates asked so many questions, he was killed for it."

But that's the sum of it. Art is breaking rules, said Gompertz. "The only way you can move forward is to break rules."

Finally... one more idea or rule to break: "We have a despotic, crazy obsession with the individual. Nobody achieved anything on their own," Gompertz responded when asked by an audience member if teamwork clashed with artistic expression.

"Every artist worked with and reacted to other ideas and other people. We know Shakespeare wrote in collaboration. Just because someone's a great lead singer doesn't mean the promoter isn't the most important person (just take a look at The Beatles). We have to get over ourselves and credit the team."

In conclusion, Gompertz summarised: "Creativity is getting to the truth of things. Don't ask people what they think. No one knows what they think until you show them something new. Be like JJ Abrams. Worry about the problem, interrogate it for the truth, and boom."