|Make me wanna holler,
throw up both my hands
I wanted to enjoy Tracy Emin's performance
on the Tate gallery after dinner 'round table chat', but I couldn't. Despite
my satisfaction at Roger Scruton's inability to disguise his misogynist
contempt for the worthless piece of seaside flotsam he took Tracy Emin
to be, it was impossible to suppress the thought that she had been set
up. Sure it was enjoyable to see the tedium of television's professionalism
ripped apart, to marvel at the drunken pomposity of David Sylvester, but
once Tracy Emin had staggered off, I couldn't help feeling her irritation,
frustration and anger had been expected and engineered.
The ensuring media/art world frenzy
over Emin's 'outrageous remarks and behavior' seemed indicative of an increasingly
dominant attitude towards her. Rapidly she is being maneuvered into the
role of official young British Art's bad girl. In much of the patronising
discussion surrounding her personae (rarely her work), there is more than
a whiff of her being labeled as representative of a new breed of noble
savage/idiot savant. While a lot of what Tracy Emin said on the Tate gallery
discussion and Will Self's Saturday night chit chat was drunken rubbish,
some of her objections to the misrepresentations of British Art rang true.
However as they were articulated illegitimately (i.e. they didn't observe
the dominant protocols of art discussion) they were either passed over
or blatantly ignored1.
Instead of considering why her remarks
aren't deemed worthy of 'serious discussion' what becomes valuable and
prized about Emin is her commitment to "getting everything out in the open"
in her "naive, intense, raw, honest, direct, powerful, true stories"2.
As the noble savage from the exotic hinterland of Margate, Emin is attractive
to those who find themselves simultaneously emotionally neutered, consumed
with a voyeuristic appetite for a bit of 'rough' and harboring a romantic
belief in the naturalness and truth of the "ordinary people". That her
experiences as one of "the ordinary people"3,
a not too atypically screwed up South coast misfit, who spent her formative
years butting her head against the oppressive conservatism and misogyny
of a seaside town the Germans forgot to bomb, is all well and good for
a London art world plagued by guilt about its privileges and accusations
The roots of the privileging of
Emin the artist, as solely a survivor, are multidimensional. As the embodiment
of one kind of nineties female artist, her qualities of resilience and
strength are highly valuable and important. By not giving a fuck about
the petty, polite protocols of small minded Britain, the insipid machismo
of the art world and particularly in setting up her own 'museum' she has,
to use the talk show jargon, set a positive role model. Similarly her "rude
her experiences of abortion, sexual violence and her various relationships
may have undoubtedly gone some way towards legitimising (again) areas of
female experience previously stigmatised and marginalised.
However it's also possible to see
the marketing and discussion of her as indicative of the return of an old
spectre, albeit in new clothes.
The art world was very fond of its
tortured, heroic male geniuses. Modernism's church was after all built
with the supernova life-force of its worshipped deities. Struggling away
in the garret, tortured by the likelihood of misunderstanding, such biographical
details of male artists' victories provided the grist to the mill of the
mythology of modernism. Artists had to be out of control, possibly slightly
insane; insanity was a trademark, a byword for authenticity, originality
and quality. A juicy life sold the monographs.
Then wave after wave of criticism
landed on modernism; feminism exposed the phallocentrism (exposure is always
the best method of ensuring deflation), post structuralism peeled back
the myth of originality and the conceptualists blew apart the lazy easy
going role of language in relation to art. Even the attempt in the 1980s
to claw back some of modernism's lost power, under the guise of the neo-expressionists'
oh so ironic and clever strategy of --'we make big paintings, with big brushes,
but we don't really mean it. Please make the cheque payable to...'--failed.
Even Saatchi had trouble selling their stuff!
Much of the discussion about Tracy
Emin highlights that for many she represents the return of the kind of
classic modernist artist neo-expressionism had tried to resurrect. It is
perverse that this incarnation of the artist as an "uncreated creator"6,
a primitive expressionist bestowed with a unique, special gift operating
in a sacred, separate space is exactly the kind the conceptualists and
feminists thought they had seen off. Except of course, this is the twist,
the point. This time the artist in question comes with the added bonus
of being a guilt free incarnation everyone can enjoy. After all she's a
woman. How could any of those old critiques of originality, authenticity
etc. apply to her?
However a quick glance at some of
her most prominent coverage highlights that for many she represents exactly
this kind of artist. Ranging from David Barrett's universalising: "We are
swept into acceptance by the sheer force of the personality", to his revealing
remark "it's not always what she says, but how she says it that is so powerful"7
and onwards to Stuart Morgan's impersonation of Claire Rayner "the first
time you had sex, was it against your will [luvvie]"8
it's impossible to escape the feeling that we are again in the presence
of the "charismatic power of the creator"9.
Such a collapsing of the distinction
between the artist and the work has powerful and worrying precedents. The
monolithic power Picasso wielded via the fusion of his personality and
art was so potent it was frequently impossible to get any critical perspective
on his work. Likewise I can't help but remember the tyranny of much 'critical
postmodernist' work. Frequently the work was so private in its mapping
of the symbolic and real violence handed out to those perceived as existing
on the margins, that any attempt to critique it was seen as a personal
attack. The free fall into all out subjectivity that resulted nullified
discussion, created a climate of intimidation and ultimately lead to the
stagnation of the work.
Now Tracy may not give a fuck, and
she may genuinely be telling the truth (whatever that means) but investing
in her personal biography as the best route to understanding is and always
has been only a partial truth in the casual construction of a piece of
work (it doesn't matter if she doesn't think of it as art, it's still exposed
to the same myriad of influences). For example whether she's conscious
of it or not, the role of the art world is impossible to shake. It doesn't
really matter if no one tells her not to make a text piece detailing an
abusive encounter with Jay Jopling, the inference will hover in the air,
subtle intonations towards making the drawings will float her way.
The truth of Emin's narratives,
their authenticity does not just explode supernova like from within; such
a perception of the sovereign autonomy of the self smothers any of the
conflicts, paradoxes and pressures that she finds herself in, making the
kind of work she does, in a particular artistic, cultural and social space.
Such an obsession with the utterances
of the artist is also deeply problematic. Are only those artists who give
good copy, worthy of attention?
While not wishing to position artists
as mute bystanders, inarticulate grunts who simply produce, there does
seem to be a need for mediation between their ideas about their work and
writers, curators and the public's responses. Reading a book about Martin
Scorsese recently I couldn't get past the point that my perception of Taxi
Driver and his, are completely at loggerheads with each other. I don't
see the film he thinks he made. But that doesn't invalidate the work or
our mutually incommensurable opinions.
While the "in yer face" persona
of Tracy Emin represents for many the good old fashioned, straight up and
down, uncomplicated pleasures of expressionist fervor, she also has become
the embodiment of a new culture of meritocracy, increasingly obsessed with
the cult of survivors.
Natural fact is I can't pay my
Tracy is a top class survivor, who
as David Barrett says is "a great story" because while "Andy [Warhol] never
recovered from his wounds, Tracy just gets stronger". The popular hook
of her work is that by sharing in her experiences via her cathartic outpourings
of pain and suffering, we too become spiritually, socially and emotionally
liberated. Emancipation through empathy. Tracy becomes a kind of Ricki
Lake guest for those who would never admit to watching TV.
Now pulling yer socks up, getting
on yer bike, doing it your way etc. have always been popular old chestnuts
in Britain. Rallying together woz wot saw us threw the war, weren't it?
Mmm. For the salt of the earth, the tarts with hearts and the all singing
all dancing miner's daughter, pulling yourself together and taking whatever
life threw at yer, was the best way of up and out. However in them days
the possibility of embarking on this route was at least mediated somewhat
by the simultaneous belief in a welfare state and some level of support
for those deemed at the bottom of the pile.
Then came Thatcher, who in the space
of a couple of years instigated the germs of a new meritocracy, which in
its brutal push to absolute self reliance did away with such "nursing".
Mortally wounding the traditional aristocracy, its previously unchallenged
power of natural and hereditary rights, Thatcher spawned a generation stamped
with the ethos of competitive go getting (at any costs) who were free to
plunder a massively deregulated and inflated private sector. Later Nick
Leeson revealed himself as her devil child; "the gentleman banker destroyed
by the crudest of yuppies, subverting old class with new money"10.
Leeson learnt fast and didn't stop in his hunger to make "shagloads of
If Leeson is one side of the legacy
of Thatcherism then the concentration and obsession with only those who
display the credentials of being survivors, of battlers, is the other.
In making a fetish of Tracy Emin as an ex-victim, there is the real danger
of forgetting and punishing the failure of those unable to pull themselves
together, for whom "the natural fact is they can't pay their taxes"12.
To paraphrase Spock: the success of the one outweighs the misery of the
many. Models of hope and resilience are one thing, but a hierarchy of suffering,
with only those who have really been through it being valued, is something
else entirely. That this attitude is not unique to life under Thatcher
is glaringly obvious, when Blair's bubble bath version of self reliance
and moral responsibility is looked at. Under New Labour there persists
the notion that the marker of a healthy society is one which provides ladders
of opportunity for minorities to climb. But as Andrew Adonis and Stephen
Pollard remark "the capability of individuals to climb the ladder at all
depends on them not being more than a ladder length from their destination"13.
I really feel I'm in mortal danger
of coming over all Elton John and Candle in the Wind about Tracy Emin.
Seeing her pissed on TV, being patronised and condescended to, I found
it hard to shake the memory of so many wild childs who've been before.
Only allowed to be one thing, defined by a caricature of themselves set
up by others to satisfy their own needs, there are a limited number of
moves they are permitted to make.
Lets face it once she's exhausted
her biography of all its really succulent cuts, once she finds that the
next batch of biography to be ploughed involves her relationship with Maureen
Paley, getting pissed on TV etc. then just how wonderful will her anecdotes,
her painful narratives, appear. What will she have survived then? What
will she be emancipating herself from then?
Critics, curators and many artists
like to perpetuate the notion that the art world is a special space freed
from the vicissitudes of the everyday, that it's a clean place, empty of
the abuses of power that ravage life outside. Enlightened, leading a moral
vanguard, artists, critics and curators are above racial and sexual discrimination,
sexual violence, class snobbery etc. Unfortunately the way Tracy Emin finds
herself being represented highlight that such behaviour is not the preserve
"The class which has dominated Cambridge
is given to describing itself as well mannered, polite, sensitive. It continually
contrasts itself favourably with the rougher and coarser others. When it
turns to the arts, it congratulates itself, overtly, on its taste and its
sensibility; speaks of its pose and tone. If I then say that what I found
was an extraordinary, coarse, pushing, name ridden group, I shall be told
that I am showing class feeling, class envy, class resentment. That I showed
class feeling is not in any doubt. All I would insist on is that nobody
fortunate enough to grow up in a good home, in a genuinely well mannered
and sensitive community, could for a moment envy these loud, competitive
and deprived people. All I did not know then was how cold that class is.
That came with experience. "14
1 I know it could be argued her
drunkenness insured she wasn't taken seriously, but I think it's worth
asking what was it about both situations which prompted her to getting
pissed. As Pierre Bourdieu remarks in his essay "The Linguistic Market"
(Sociology in Question pub. Sage), the truth of plain talking is that ,
"when it is confronted with an official market, it breaks down".
2 All adjectives come from David
Barrets review of Tracy Emin's one person show at the South London Art
gallery in May 1997, in the May edition of Art Monthly.
3 The lumpen catchphrase, much used
by the BBC's Jenny Bond and ITV's John Suchet in the aftermath of Diana
Spencer's death, which has propelled them to the top of the hit list.
4 Gillian Wearing got rewarded for
providing some defence against such accusations of elitism with her pseudo
documentaries. However Gillian Wearing has always been smart enough to
jump camps when it suits. In one interview she's speaking the language
of an old fashioned documentary filmmaker, one who believes the camera
is a benign presence which objectively records the thoughts emotions of
its subjects, the next, well it's all just a big con, they're actors playing
a part and I wrote the text on the signs.
5 Paula Smithard "There's a tenuous
line between sincerity and sensationalism" Make June/ July 1997.
6 This is Pierre Bourdieu's phrase
from the essay "But Who Created the 'Creators'?" in Sociology in Question
7 David Barret review of Tracy Emin's
one person show South London Art Gallery in the June edition of Art Monthly.
8 Stuart Morgan's interview with
Tracy Emin in Frieze makes entertaining reading. It's hard to imagine anyone
else being asked the question "in your work you talk about anal sex a lot,
does it have to be pictured so violently?". Perhaps of course that is the
point; Tracy is unique and therefore deserves such treatment.
9 Pierre Bourdieu "Who created the
creators?" in Sociology in Question published Sage.
10 A Class Act--The Myth of Britain's
Classless Society Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard
11 Ibid. Pag 45
12 Marvin Gaye Inner City Blues
from the album Whats Going On. In many ways the fetish made of Tracy Emin's
suffering, and the incumbent problems, isn't a million miles away from
that afforded to many singers/ songwriters, artists such as Marvin Gaye
and Bob Dylan.
13 Ibid. page 15.
14 A Class Act--The Myth of Britain's
Classless Society Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard