[This article was published by Electric Reivew on 22 October, 2002.]
Tracey Emin – you know her. We all know her. She’s the art-school drop-out whose fetid bedsheets drew crowds at the Tate, the drunk girl who swore her way off the set of a Channel 4 arts programme, the self-centred woman whose art revolves around her rapes and abortions and suicide attempts, and now the artist who’s just been given half a million pounds by the BBC to make a film about her life. And insofar as most ERO readers feel, I suppose, that their laudable political conservatism necessarily entails some sort of cultural equivalent, however ill-matched in practice, it seems a safe bet that virtually everyone reading this article is already sure that Tracey Emin is a Bad Thing – a fraud, a scandal, and a symptom, if not a cause, of much that is wrong with British art today.
If so, I hope you had a chance to read, or at least enjoy a casual sneer over Nigel Farndale’s profile of Tracey Emin in this week’s Sunday Telegraph colour supplement. You would have liked it even if, as is likely, you only looked at the photos. Here’s Tracey, complete with gangsta-gold necklace, knee-high tights paired with cropped skirt and camouflage parka, hiding behind her sunglasses on a derelict estate somewhere, young and female but far too evidently irritable for even the most adventurous Tory association’s Gold List; here’s that bed, less sordid in fact than in legend, surrounded by black-clad pseuds in the Tate; here are two more snaps of our Tracey, drink always to hand, emoting toothily for the cameras at what immediately registers as exclusive art-world piss-ups, even if they’re not; here, finally and terminally, here is a sample of the work that will appear in her new show in Oxford next month, The New Black (2002).
Yes – the work. You’d forgotten about that, had you? Well, that’s understandable. Nigel Farndale does not devote much of his article to Ms Emin’s work, presumably since he’s well aware that most of his readers will have made their minds up about it already – probably without that dreary time-consuming business of actually seeing any of it in real life, either, rather than in colour supplements. Never mind. Take my word for it – over the past decade or more, Ms Emin has compiled a sizeable body of work, in all sorts of different media, including drawings as well as installations. For the moment, though, if only for sheer novelty of it, let’s consider the single new artwork pictured in Farndale’s profile – pictured if not even name-checked in the text.
Although Emin is a ‘conceptual artist’ (according to experts like Nigel Farndale and Ivan Massow, anyway) The New Black is very much a handmade object. It must have taken weeks at the very least to create. It is described as an appliquéd blanket, and shows Emin’s signature combination of colourful patchwork overlaid with words and phrases. If you want to belabour an obvious point – and what else do critics have to do with their spare time? – there is something very female, very domesticated, even self-sacrificing about this quilt-like composition, echoing the homely coverings that generations of ordinary women have made both to keep the people they love warm and, sometimes, to beautify their living-spaces too. Anyone who’s attempted this sort of sewing knows how long the creation of the pattern takes, understands how important those decisions about colour and size can seem when you’re stitching your way round them, and most of all, recognises the strangely contemplative state that those long hours of needles, thread, pricked fingers and enforced close attention all engender. The mere fact of having made a quilt potentially encodes all of these things. Needless to say, it also encodes all those rejected alternative strategies, such as making an easel painting. Some critics, appealing plangently to their wholly arbitrary definitions of ‘art’, will thus feel no need to go any further in explaining what is wrong with Tracey Emin.
Whatever such critics may say, though, this is hardly just a quilt. For one thing, domestic quilts don’t generally have words on them – and certainly not the words that make up this particular composition. The New Black turns out to be a meditation on inter-racial love and mixed-race children. If you string the phrases together, you read more or less the following:
Walking through the streets … the year was 1963 [or 1968?] … London … very English … my Mum was eight months pregnant … we were six … the roses were in bloom … they shouted nigger lover … Mummy we asked what’s a wog … she said Western Oriental Gentleman … like magic somehow, so exotic … but this is England darling .. how would you feel .. very blond … oh what lovely mulatto babies.
Obviously there are other sequences in which the phrases could be read, and extracting the text from the colours and patterns in which it is executed does some violence to its tone, but in any event the overall sense of the thing is clear enough. It may not be great art, let alone ultra-subtle social criticism, but it makes its point neatly and concisely. For me, at least, it evokes that moment when a child suddenly realised that something about herself, or her family circumstances, could be otherwise – or, stronger still, that these circumstances are potentially extraordinary or problematic. Or to put it another way, it’s not ‘just’ about race – it’s about the birth of social self-consciousness, too, and the recollection of that birth long after the fact. It also helps that there’s irony and humour here, a rejection of high seriousness, with nostalgia and floral patterning cross-cutting the potential bleakness of the vignette. Nor are identity politics allowed to generalise themselves into worthy abstractions. Emin is no Jenny Holtzer. This may be a British thing, or it may not, but we should be devoutly grateful for it all the same.
Tracey Emin, as it happens, is the 39-year old offspring of a Turkish Cypriot and his blonde East Ender girlfriend. For all I know – and I’m no Tracey scholar – The New Black encapsulates a moment from her own past. But I have no idea whether this is the case or not, and in any event I don’t think the success of the work hinges on a full and flawless grasp of the artist’s biographical details. Why raise the whole issue, then, you may well ask? Only because self-centredness is a charge so often and so casually made against the so-called yBas. As Sir Simon Rattle recently put it, obviously eschewing vague generalisations:
That is the problem with Brit Art, with artists like Damian Hirst, Tracey Emin and the others [sic]. I believe that much of this English, very biographically-oriented art is bullshit.
Well, ‘much’ of it may well be, but certainly not for the reason he implies. A moment’s thought reveals that this line of argument is culpably sloppy for two reasons. On one hand, the great bulk of Brit Art – its most famous examples included – is surely anything but biographical, unless pickled livestock, Airfix Auschwitzes and hand-print portraits of Myra Hindley somehow fit Sir Simon’s definition of ‘biography’. On the other hand, while there’s undoubtedly a strong autobiographical component in Tracey Emin’s work, this is neither unique nor necessarily fatal to its more general relevance. At the risk (again) of stating the obvious, how is Tracey Emin’s work more ‘biographical’ than that of Picasso, Arshile Gorky, Jacob Lawrence, Fairfield Porter, Cindy Sherman, Frank Auerbach, Nan Goldin or Lucian Freud – or, at a stretch, Rembrandt or Goya? All of them used recognisable aspects of their personal lives in the service of their art. One need not believe that Emin an artist of their stature to accept that she, like them, can deploy the personal to express – well, if not the universal, at least the broadly recognisable. Emin’s bed talks about depression as clearly and audibly as Philip Guston’s late figurative canvasses did, if not more so. The difference is that the public, as opposed to the art world, has been a lot more interested in the one than in the other.
All of which leads us to something that another sort of critic hates about Tracey Emin’s work – its very demotic quality, its preference for the narrative over the conceptual, a frankness that can see dumbed-down in one light while appearing radiantly honest in another. Since the creator of The New Black cannot assume our knowledge of whatever personal circumstances may have inspired it, the work instead provides an open invitation for us to supply our own story-lines, to substitute our own experiences for those of the artist, in the same way that My Bed spurns the arid, inscrutable conceptual art of the 1970s in favour of a bald narrative compulsion last seen in Victorian painting of the When Did You Last See Your Father? school. Here are some clues – everyone’s free to impute or imagine the story behind them. It’s a game everyone can play. It’s only if you imagine that the works allow no more than a single possible reading – one that depends on knowing all about Tracey Emin’s life – that the ‘biographical’ content becomes oppressive, but in fact it’s no more so than, for instance, needing to know the exact state of Dora Maar’s mental equilibrium order to scan Picasso’s Weeping Woman, or remembering whether it’s Saskia or Hendrickje before admiring Rembrandt’s Woman Wading in a Stream.
In a way, then, I’d love to be able to blame the over-emphasis on biography firmly on the people who write about Tracey Emin. It’s revealing, for instance, that Nigel Farndale writes so much more about her life than he does about her work, because the not-so-subtle effect of this is to assert that her life is both more interesting and more significant than anything she consciously produces. His interview is amazingly patronising. He notes at several points that she gets words mildly wrong – ‘interpretated’ for ‘interpreted’, for instance. Well, obviously no one’s ever got a word wrong in a Sunday Telegraph article before now, so it’s important to point this out to us. He waxes eloquent about her various venereal diseases and abortions and lack of formal education, yet lest we think he is being unchivalrous, he occasionally uses words like ‘sweet’ and ‘disarming’ about her, and elsewhere compares her to a schoolgirl. And his conclusion is that although ‘she is nice’, at the same ‘as the most famous British artist of her generation, I can’t help feeling, she did get rather lucky’. [And no, Farndale doesn’t mean that he’s the most famous British artist of her generation; he just found the grammar tricky, poor thing.] So the general implication is that Emin’s a likeable working-class girl who’s blundered blindly onto success, while the art she produces is so incidental to this process that it only bears mentioning if she stumbles over a word in the course of describing it. It’s the girl that matters, not what she creates, so the ‘self-obsessed, attention-seeking’ art becomes just another symptom of personal dysfunction. If there’s something a bit circular about this line of reasoning, Farndale fails to spot it – and anyway, what sort of profile would that make?
Yet while I’d like, as mentioned above, to claim that this is all the fault of men like Nigel Farndale, that would be marginally unfair. What I would say, though, is that while Emin has done a lot to promote a certain image of herself, at the same time, in her work she has always used autobiography as means to a far more general end. Emin has long played games with the abstract concept of celebrity, to the extent that the postmodern cult of notoriety-for-its-own-sake could be said to be one of her great themes. Long before anyone had ever heard of her, she was selling off personal memorabilia as if she were someone who mattered – and now that she does matter, part of the logic of that particular joke has dissolved, making the whole exercise look that little bit more cynical. That’s hardly her fault, though, any more than it’s her fault that the paparazzi cameras love her big grin and architectonic cleavage. The fact remains that personal celebrity is, ultimately, an interesting topic, and her work has struck a chord. A society that allows its public discourse to be dominated by Big Brother, that scrabbles in the dirt for real-life intimate details about everyone (anyone!) from the Princess of Wales to this week’s interchangeable over-televised blonde, and in which we frequently know more about the plots of soaps than we do about the people who live next door – ours is arguably a society that craves the bogus intimacy of the glimpsed bed, the tent full of personal revelations, the private doodle spread-eagled on the gallery wall. We want closeness to other people and their stories – especially the sort of closeness you can leave behind when you step out of White Cube and into the fresh air of Hoxton Square again. And while it’s perfectly reasonable for to Tories to regret that this is what our world is like, it’s silly either to blame Emin for reflecting the world that is, or for achieving high-profile success within it.
This profile has ensured that the current generation of ‘what is art’ arguments can be personalised round the example of Tracey Emin. In his interview, Nigel Farndale complains that he isn’t sure how much Emin’s work ‘has to do with aesthetic pleasure, with which, according to my conventional definition at least, art should have some connection’. And indeed, probably any ERO readers who have made it this far must be thinking the same thing. If so – well, sorry, but this whole line of argument bores me rigid, so I’m not exactly planning to linger over it. Here’s the problem. Farndale asserts that (a) art has to have ‘some connection’ with aesthetic pleasure, while adding by implication that (b) Tracey Emin’s work cannot supply aesthetic pleasure. Yet since about 1914 if not earlier, quite a lot ‘conventional’ opinion has in fact moved away from this definition of art, so there is no point in acting as if someone is being naive if she chooses not to adhere to it; meanwhile, since the latter part of his assertion is so completely subjective, his failure to enjoy Emin’s work arguably entails no more than a personal oddity on his part. Or to put it more simply, if it is true that something has to be pretty in order to be art, and if I think that the colours in The New Black are pretty (and I do), then The New Black is art for me, but not for Farndale. Yawn! Most of us got over that sort of stuff when we were still undergraduates. Farndale meanwhile damns as a solipsism Tracey Emin’s calm remark regarding her own work that ‘if I say it isn’t art, it isn’t art’, although this surely comes a lot closer to constituting a plausible working definition of art these days. Farndale’s evidently aware, at some glancing level, of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (which, bizarrely, he describes as ‘similar’ to My Bed, for some reason missing the point that one was an off-the-shelf mass-produced object while the other, whatever one thinks of it, is a complex, one-off composition) but pretends – perhaps because it falls in with his meta-project of making Emin sound near-imbecilic – not to see that some alchemy of artistic intentionality and public reception is what makes ‘art’ these days, for better or for worse. Please, by all means, argue about the quality, but spare us these dreary ex-cathedra pronouncements about ‘art’ from colour supplement hacks!
Would-be intellectuals quibble over these things, while the vast majority of people simply engage with the art at face value. I wrote above that Farndale’s profile was patronising. Perhaps I doing so I implied that it patronised Emin, but actually I meant it more broadly – it patronised a lot of other people, too. This became explicit at one point in the profile, when Emin had just explained that all she tried to do was to make each show better than the last, ‘and to make sure more people turn up – the Tate has never had such long queues as for My Bed‘. This elicited the following sententious little aside from Farndale:
But high attendance figures can’t be a criterion for judging whether something is art or not: large numbers of people used to go to watch the lunatics at Bedlam.
In an alternative universe in which Emin had claimed that high attendance figures could be used as a criterion for defining art, this might have been a telling point. Since, however, she did no such thing, Farndale’s remark is little more than an attack on the audience for contemporary art. For him it is evidently an article of faith that watching lunatics is wrong (hiding them away is presumably better), and possibly his sense of propriety also dictates that there is something wrong with Emin’s art. Is this, as with the puritans and the bears, simply because people enjoy it? Or is it because if they are going to enjoy it, they really ought to have permission from people like Farndale first?
Emin, for her part, is manifestly sharp enough to understand the ambivalence that the British feel about living artists, and to exist gracefully within its peculiar conventions. She’s happy enough to be what the public think an artist ought to be. She’s willing to be sexually disreputable like Turner or Sickert or Freud, to be a drunk like Bacon, to be faintly mad like Blake or Spencer, to swear a lot like Turner (again) – willing to bear the public burden of being all these things, as well as the suspicion, dating back to the reformation, that art is a form of trickery, a bad-taste joke always waiting to catch up the unwary, and hence that art is an important sphere requiring suspicion and vigilance rather than good humour, an honest eye and a sense of adventure. Compare this with Barbara Hepworth, Bridget Riley or even the terminally boring Sam Taylor-Wood and the difference is pretty clear. Emin has connected with Britain in a way that none of the rest of these women have managed to do. She’s even out-competed the yBa boys, despite a strong early showing from Damien Hirst. No, this certainly does not mean that her work is better than theirs, but it probably does mean that her work deserves some sort of serious critical attention, if only in order to understand what it is about it that has caused her, and it, to be etched so clearly on the public consciousness.
Having defended Emin this far, I should perhaps now spell out what this does not mean. It does not mean, for instance, that the BBC should have given her £500,000 to make a film about herself, although it does perhaps illustrate why the BBC’s unloved arts section might wish to ride to glory on her fashionably-cut coat-tails. An artist of Emin’s stature ought to be able to raise the funding for this sort of project herself. Why make us pay for it? I am old-fashioned enough to think that if the BBC wants to engage with art, it should concentrate on that dreary old Reithian business of making the sort of programmes that could not possibly be made in any other way. These might include Andrew Graham-Dixon drifting lugubriously round central Italy in his crumpled white suit, for instance, or Robert Hughes’s fluent if self-centred monologues about his relationship with Goya, or – well, who knows who tomorrow’s Lord Clark will turn out to be, but there’s still a place for that sort of stuff, and it’s somewhere at the still-beating heart of public service broadcasting. That, though, is less a reflection on Tracey Emin than it is on the BBC and their current confused pursuit of popular approval. Like the Tory Party, they may soon find that trying too hard to be liked is the most off-putting activity known to man, and inevitably self-defeating. Self-confidence, even of the sort the BBC has historically adopted, is surely better than that?
Nor, it should be said, does this mean that I think Emin is the equal of Turner or Sickert or even Bacon or Freud. She certainly is not, in the case of the first three; she probably is not in the case of the fourth. Emin, like Freud and the rest of us, is unlucky enough to have grown up in an age where formal rigour in art is not just an optional extra, but tends to lead into a dingy ghetto of critical and curatorial disregard. It’s a pity, in a way. Under other circumstances and with different training, Emin’s linear facility and shrewd design sense might have been pushed harder; she might now have access to a richer visual language in which to express herself, better-developed ways in which to get her point across. Instead, artists have to re-invent the wheel for themselves – something that takes a lot of time and results in more than a few slightly wonky wheels. Freud still can’t group figures or represent a human torso held up by its own legs, any more than Emin can easily move beyond the highly personalised media she has made her own. At the same time, as a piece like The New Black makes clear, Emin’s work is less art-historically self-referential, less precious and more energetic than much of what has populated the galleries over the past few decades. This is not a particularly good period for British art, but all the same, when people two hundred years hence discuss the visual culture of our time, I’m not sure that Emin won’t merit a name-check. Again, this does not mean that she’s a brilliant artist. It does, perhaps, mean that she should not be dismissed out of hand just because she is famous, popular and does not produce easel paintings.
Thus my disagreement isn’t so much with the people who criticise Tracey Emin, as with the people who criticise her for exactly the things she does best. By all means, criticise her art for its formal weakness or for things you find disagreeable or morally repugnant in its content. For all her limitations, there’s enough real quality in her oeuvre both to invite critical engagement, and to encourage the hope that criticism might help her to develop, while to deplore the work on moral grounds at least pays it the backhanded compliment of acknowledging both that it has some sort of content, and that the content might matter. At least you’d be criticising something that actually exists. There is no point, though, in complaining that Emin is a conceptual artist when in fact she creates handmade objects that have, at least to some of us, a direct aesthetic appeal. There is no point in saying that her work is self-obsessed when in fact most of it addresses near-universal themes. There is no point in dismissing it as excessively autobiographical, when in fact it is often the journalist, rather than the artist, who obsesses about the minutiae of Emin’s life. And there is no point in blaming her for the fact that people like and enjoy her work, as if this were somehow either a criticism of it, or of her.
If, however, you are the sort of ERO reader who doesn’t believe that anything other than paintings or drawings or statues belong in art galleries, who thinks art should always be beautiful and who feels that somehow everything went wrong more or less around the date when Sargent died – well, I have to admit some grudging sympathy for that, too. At least it’s a clear set of prejudices – arbitrary, to be sure, but definitive in its arbitrariness – and prejudices are all we are dealing with here. Whatever you do, though, don’t fall into the trap of believing that Tracey Emin represents something frightening and dangerous that threatens your world. The modernist need for shock, disgust and disapproval becomes more hackneyed by the day, and its time will pass; the day will come when that bed will seem rather cosy and old-fashioned – in other words, like the dated period-piece it will have become. So whatever you do, don’t get too worked up about any of it. Better still, grow to like it a bit, albeit with a smattering of carping minor criticisms and throwaway references to the superiority of the past. But most importantly, be seen to enjoy it. After all, what could possibly do more to subvert cutting-edge contemporary art than being liked by a bunch of High Tories?
Bunny Smedley is ERO’s arts editor.