Opinion: Tracey Emin – a litmus test of individualism

Last week I spent a drizzly London afternoon wandering around Tracey Emin’s retrospective show at the Hayward Gallery. Having seen several of her pieces individually before and otherwise mostly being exposed to her through (often outraged) media coverage I was sceptical of her practice and had filed her as someone who aimed for controversy and provocation over profundity and human experience. I came away from the exhibition impressed, deeply affected and entirely transformed in my opinion. Now with Emin again in the headlines after donating her neon piece ‘More Passion’ to the government art collection, a variety of commentators are lining up to denounce her middle-aged swing to the right. But has her work, in fact, always been at odds with the collectivist message?

There’s no denying the fact that Tracey’s art is challenging: the Hayward exhibition has wall on wall of drawings of masturbation, sex, abortion as well as frank and detailed descriptions of her underage sexual encounters, both consensual and nonconsensual. In an earlier more socially conservative time, this kind of art could be interpreted as a kick in the teeth to the puritan establishment, in denial about human sexuality and working-class experience. Today, though, social conservatism is on the wane. Suddenly, explicit artwork stops being about the audience’s reaction and starts being about the artist’s experience. The viewer isn’t shocked by the content any longer, but is engaged by the story. The art is no longer divisive, but invites sympathy and understanding.

Of course, one can continue upping the game by creating art that is more and more shocking. Jake and Dinos Chapman, who recently accused Emin of ‘betraying’ students appear to pursue just such a strategy, deliberately cultivating images to make the ‘establishment’ uncomfortable: defaced Goya paintings, suggestions of child pornography, racist imagery, blasphemy and hordes of Nazis involved in all sorts of escapades. This kind of work will probably always be ‘successful’ in achieving its aim as long as the diverse imaginations of the Chapman brothers manage to stay one step ahead of the increasing desensitisation of gallery-goers. But it eventually leaves us numb. Moreover, in making the work all about shocking the viewer, artists of this kind take no risks since they put nothing of themselves into their work. The entire motivation of the work is based on the artist’s presumed understanding of society’s sensibilities and, as such, loses its humanity.

The themes that feature in Emin’s work are easily and often analysed from a collectivist viewpoint: small town life vs. metropolitan elites, the expectations of women by society, the abortion debate, teenage sex. Emin’s take on these issues, however, is refreshingly personal. She confronts her personal agency as a 13 year old girl choosing to sleep with 28 year old men, eventually concluding that the men in question are ‘losers’ but drawing no battle lines between the sexes in general. Likewise the chronicling of her interaction with those around her sewn into the quilts in the first room of the exhibition describes concrete and immediate episodes with individuals, where it could easily have been couched in the language of class war.

Now that Emin is a ‘Tory’, of course, her human scale is interpreted as vulgar narcissism; her frankness as potty-mouthed childishness. Ironically, Susie Rushton’s snarky article in the Independent (where Emin wrote a regular column) takes a somewhat elitist tone, implying Emin is out of fashion and picking her up for her spelling and grammar idiosyncrasies. Jonathan Jones’ in the Guardian similarly exposes his prejudices about Emin, calling her a ‘gifted creator of filth’ and being demonstrably troubled by his inability to fit her into a social stereotype. The comments thread underneath froths with outrage that Emin’s art does not criticise our current political climate, belittles her and, surprise surprise, calls for work by Jake and Dinos Chapman in No. 10 instead.

I valued the Emin exhibition for its honesty and integrity; at Emin’s ability to make me relate to her as an individual despite coming from a completely different background and having a completely different life. Despite her anger at several characters from her past, Emin’s work seems to signify a real love and generosity for the world around her and a desire to share that with others.

In an entire exhibition of autobiographical work, I only noticed one item of social commentary, but it was perhaps the most moving part of the exhibition. In a video interview where Emin discusses the traumatic experience surrounding her pregnancy and abortion she says, while watching a small squirrel play in a London park: ‘I think humans all just want to be more powerful. One of the ways they do that is to get something smaller than them so they can be in control of it. I didn’t want to do that, I just wanted to share my experiences with the world.’ An extraordinarily personal and humble recognition of the nature of power that anyone in No. 10 would benefit from hearing.

Love is What You Want is on at the Hayward Gallery until 29th August.

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13 Comments

  • Old Codger Chris 28th Aug '11 - 2:36am

    I doubt if Ms Emin’s politics are of much interest to many people. The question is – is there any merit in her art? Some examples are on her website http://emininternational.myshopify.com/
    Not exactly in the traditions of Constable, Gainsborough or Turner.

  • Thanks Zadok.

    OCC – there’s a large amount of commentary in the media and online that shows that Emin’s political affiliations are of interest to people. On the other hand, I was under the impression that I had mostly been discussing her art rather than her politics.

    I did notice that she wasn’t a painter, yes.

  • Unfortunately I’ve not managed to see this exhibition so I don’t know whether there are examples of her early work. I’m old fashioned and tend to have less respect for artists who have not mastered the basics of drawing and, to a lesser degree, painting. I thought her painting was really accomplished, and that is the principal reason I have always felt that what she has done subsequently should be treated seriously.

  • Art is the eye of the beholder. And creator. If I say a pile of potato peelings in a bin is a savage indictment of our wasteful society, then who is to disagree that it’s an art installation?
    If someone were willing to put it in a gallery and pay me for it, I’d be laughing all the way to the bank.

    So while I might look at some of her or anyone else’s work and like or dislike it, most of the discourse surrounding art comes across as so much pretentious claptrap.

    And yeah, I enjoy going to art galleries, traditional and modern.
    But it’s a purely visual pleasure. No one says Beethoven’s 5th is a social commentary or talks about his politics. Wagner, maybe, but that’s the man, not the music. “I think Brahms sold out to the establishment with that lullaby”.

    Artworks are artworks. They might look good or look rubbish. They might tell us something about the artist.
    But most it to me screams the artist saying: “Look at me, I’m controversial, I am”. Rather than making any particularly useful commentary on anything.

    Discuss!!!

  • Not that relevent to the article, but just thought I’d point out that Emin is a Tory.

  • She missed out what most Tories lack, the letters COM before passion!

  • Old Codger Chris 29th Aug '11 - 10:16am

    @Oranjepan
    “The merit of any artwork is in direct relation to the coherence of the political vision it represents and the ability of the artist to express it”. SOME art yes – but ANY artwork? Only for Marxists schooled in Socialist Realism.

    “They make better press than art”. True – and I guess they make lots of money.

  • Interesting article, thanks.

    I just cant escape the feeling that Emin, Hirst and their ilk have found a way to take rich art collectors for mugs. Nothing wrong with that except that they live their brand to such an extent that every media appearance reminds me of Harry Enfield’s Kevin the Teenager which, frankly, has got real old.

  • Old Codger Chris 1st Sep '11 - 8:56pm

    @Oranjepan
    My method of criticism isn’t just what doesn’t happen to appeal to me. Much of Picasso’s work leaves me cold but I don’t deny that he was a great artist. But Tracey Emin? Perleeeese!

    I don’t think my political vision – such as it is – is relevant, any more than liking Wagner’s music makes a person a neo-Nazi.

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