The Art of Tracey Emin

Book Reviews

ISBN 978-0-50028-385-1
Published by Thames & Hudson
23.50 x 15.80 cm
54 Illustrations
First published 2002

The art of a self-made icon

She’s come a long way, has “Mad Tracey from Margate”, the girl with ‘big tits’, who bunked off school, shagged older men behind the beach huts, had an abortion or two and famously walked out of a TV interview drunk. Not only does she make mucky beds for the Tate, turn up at all the best private views dressed to kill in Vivienne Westwood, have a posh house round the corner from Gilbert and George, appear on the cover of every glossy magazine but she has even been guest editor of the Guardian weekend colour section. Now a clutch of critics and academics has written a book of essays about her, The Art of Tracey Emin. Soon there will be a course in some university department in “Tracy Studies” and her transformation into cultural ‘icon’ will be complete. Madonna watch out!

Like Princess Di, Tracey Emin has made a cult of victimhood and dysfunction. From poor-little-abused-girl she has reinvented herself as a superstar. Hers is an art for a TV generation hooked on celebrity and the voyeuristic exploits of Big Brother. Her detractors talk of “High art lite” but it is, as with Diana, her artful ambiguity that makes her hard to dismiss. She has made folksy tents hand-sewn (mostly by assistants) with the names of everyone she has ever slept with in dyslexic mirror script and hysterical videos about her abortions. But she has also made some wonderfully nervy drawings and monoprints that owe their spirit to the Expressionism of Munch, the transgressive sexuality of Egon Schiele and the man who once said ‘anyone could be an artist’, Joseph Beuys.

One of the delights of this book is watching academics’ ability to tie themselves in knots and turn anything into critical discourse. Many might consider Ulrich Lehmann’s essay a prime candidate for Pseud’s Corner. For not only does he sight Baudelaire, but Freud and Wittgenstein’s Tractus to theorize Emin’s work, which seems to be using a rather big hammer to crack an easy nut. Much more resonant is Jennifer Doyle’s essay that examines Emin’s work in the context of first wave feminists such as Judy Chicargo and Cindy Sherman and talks of the “blurring [of] the boundary between Emin’s person, her work and her public persona”. Or the late Lorna Healy’s essay deconstructing how Emin uses ‘Pop-cultural strategies’ in her videos to seduce her ‘fans’ who shout out ‘I love you Tracey’ when they see her. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing that for Auerbach. Healy asserts that it is Emin’s powerful mixture of vulnerability and assertiveness to which her audience responds. They want to ‘be’ her, ’empathise’ with her ‘neurosis’, her ‘wounded’ psyche. For one of the problems is that viewers so often, in this age of therapy, have an inability to discern the elision between the consciously constructed ‘narrative’ of Emin’s oeuvre and her apparent tear-stained autobiographical ‘disclosures’.

There is no doubt that her work is narcissistic and solipsistic and her anarchic desire to ‘epater le bourgeois’ begins to seem rather disingenuous as she moves towards middle age relishing the very trappings that are her passport into that fold. But her art is born out of a society where few are rewarded for their perspicacious philosophical insights or their craft, but rather for the exposure of their anorexic angst or their exploits in the Oval office. Exhibitionism is the new Expressionism. Joseph Beuys was wrong; not any one can be an artist. But as Monica, Vanessa, Diana and now Tracey demonstrate, anyone can be a star.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright


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