Emin matters

Issue: 106

John Molyneux

Tracey Emin is the most famous contemporary artist in Britain. This is the first time a woman has occupied this position and that is, in itself, worthy of note. Moreover her fame is connected to what makes her a serious and important artist.

Media treat her as a celebrity because they have picked up on the fact that she is independently popular, she has a ‘fan base’. Who are these ‘fans’? Mainly, though not exclusively, they are younger women. They are part of the new expanded audience for modern art, but they are not art world insiders. They relate to Emin because Emin’s work relates to their experiences in a way that no other artist’s does.

Most of her work is autobiographical. Its main subject matter is her traumas and triumphs growing up in Margate, and becoming the person she is today. It is often criticised for being ‘self-centred’. This criticism completely misses the point so eagerly seized on by her ‘fans’. The experiences re-presented in Emin’s art are not just personal experiences, but are common to a wide layer of young women growing up in this time, in this society. Normally these experiences remain private, confided perhaps to ‘best friends’ but otherwise hidden from public view and therefore shameful. By making these experiences into art, Emin actually engages in a process of ‘democratic sharing’ with her audience. The work is not didactic and does not preach. It does not seek to impose a specific response. It simply says, ‘This is what happened to me; this is how I felt about it,’ and perhaps, ‘This is how I dealt with it.’ If it strikes a chord, as it evidently often does, then so be it.

Emin’s first work to make a public impact, her tent, or Everyone I Ever Slept With, 1963-95, was a good example of this. The tent sat on the gallery floor. On the inside Emin had sewn the names of her bedmates of the previous 30 years. To see or experience the work the viewer has to crawl into the tent. Thus Emin has created a ‘private’ space, a den with private information about her life which the public is invited to share. The fact, which she stresses, that the names included not just lovers but also others she had shared ‘the intimacy of sleep’ with (such as her twin brothers and aborted foetuses) is important. It does not negate the sexual interpretation of the title, but it modifies it, ensuring that the sexual is not separated from the emotional. What we are offered to share is not gossip or titillation but feelings, including painful feelings.

Emin’s most famous work, My Bed, is a complex piece, which has appeared in different forms, but essentially it works on the same principle. According to the stereotype, women are the homemakers and responsible for housework. A messed-up house shames a woman, makes her a ‘slut’, much more than it does a man. The bedroom and above all the bed itself represent a place of privacy, intimacy and sex, pain and illness. The stained sheets are a visible trace of all this and thus taboo: ‘You don’t wash your dirty linen in public.’ My Bed takes all this as its starting point and confronts it, knowing that for some of us all the time and many of us some of the time it is a lie. It is a spectacular coming out. And out there thousands, perhaps millions, of people say, openly or privately, ‘Yes! I’ve been there, I know what that’s about!’ That is why My Bed is one of those few works of contemporary art that captures people’s imagination and stays in the public memory.

Much of the media coverage of My Bed seemed to assume that she had simply transplanted her actual bed or bedroom into the Tate. This, as a moment’s thought would have made clear, was nonsense. My Bed, which had already appeared in Tokyo, was a consciously constructed work, as much a made work of art as Van Gogh’s painting of his bedroom. In so far as it was a sufficiently convincing representation of a disordered bedroom to persuade journalists that it was the real thing, this is testimony to Emin’s skill. My Bed is also visually powerful in its own right.

Emin is a skilled practitioner in a range of media. Her drawing is superb. She is able, with great economy, to achieve very accurate and telling representations. Her line combines strength and vulnerability, confidence and pain in exactly the right proportions, and matching visual form to intellectual/ emotional content is precisely the key skill of the visual artist.

Three of the themes in Emin’s work—class, sex and art—are more or less omnipresent and make for its distinctiveness and power.

Class: The most immediately striking and unusual thing about both Emin’s persona and her work is the way in which she positions herself as a working class artist.

Clearly Emin is not currently working class.

She is probably a millionaire and she functions, as all successful visual artists do, as boss of her own small business. Her class background was complex. Until Emin was seven her mother had a hotel in Margate, but bankruptcy and poverty ensued when she broke up with Emin’s father, and Emin’s youth, whether or not strictly proletarian, was plebeian. Nor is she an artist who sees or presents herself as associated with or representative of the working class movement.

What she does do is present herself as culturally working class. This is evident in the way in which she conducts herself: in her accent, of course, but more importantly in what she says and how she says it. She makes no attempt to engage in ‘intellectual art speak’ but sticks to unaffected everyday language. This is highly unusual in the art world, the ethos of which is very upper class. The language used in her many appliquéd blankets, films and monoprint drawings is the language of the street, including the swear words, the grammatical errors and the misspellings. But, above all, the experiences her art deals with are, by and large, the experiences of working class girls.

The short film Why I Never Became A Dancer is one of her most important and powerful works. It tells of Emin’s aspiration to be a dancer and her participation in a dance competition in Margate, the prize for which meant going to London. Just as she feels things are going well she finds herself surrounded by a circle of local lads (many of whom she has had sex with). At first she thinks they are clapping her, and then she realises that in fact they are chanting in unison ‘Slag, Slag, Slag’, and she runs from the ballroom in dismay. The film ends with her dancing, alone and just for herself, and saying to the camera, ‘Shane, Eddie, Tony, Doug, Richard…this one’s for you.’ Of her recent film on teenage suicide, Top Spot, Amy Lane wrote in Socialist Review, ‘There is nothing that does not reflect the reality of Britain’s working class estates. It is a painfully accurate portrayal of modern adolescent experience’.1

There is an element of class prejudice as well as misogyny in the media and critical hostility to Emin. Middle class critics often miss the point of her work because the kind of experiences she deals with are not part of the world they inhabit.

Emin’s consciousness of this relationship with her audience was evident in her fury at Top Spot being given an 18 certificate by the censors, preventing it from reaching the very people it was intended for.

It is often said that Emin is not political. If this were true I would not find it a problem for, as Trotsky insisted, art cannot simply be judged on its politics. As it happens it is not true. Emin does not see herself as an artistic representative of a working class political movement but she does have a political consciousness and outlook, and this is clear from many of her public statements and appearances. She is anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-war. A colleague, who knows the London art scene, says that in that world Emin is known as ‘a committed socialist’.

I set this down for the record, but I do not believe that either her leftish views or her affluent lifestyle constitute major grounds for the evaluation of her art.

Sex: That sex should be a major theme in Emin’s work is hardly surprising. Sex has been a central theme in European art from the Renaissance to Picasso and beyond (not to speak of Ancient Greece and Rome, Japan and so on). But it should be said at the outset, there is no element of eroticism or titillation here, unlike in Botticelli, Renoir or Klimt. Nor is it sexual fantasy or dreams, as we might find in surrealism, or the sex of the brothel featured so heavily in late 19th century French art. It is real, everyday sex—as experienced by her, of course, but also by millions of other people. This, in itself, is remarkable. I do not think there is a precedent for it in the whole of European visual art.

The history of art develops dialectically with each new generation, movement or individual artist usually defining themselves in opposition to the immediately preceding dominant trend. Part of this process is the discovery of new material, both physically and in terms of subject matter, to make art out of, which was often previously thought of as ‘unartistic’ (or vulgar, ugly, etc). This is one of the reasons why new art so often meets with the reaction that it is ‘not art’. Thus, mid 19th century French art painted ‘the heroism of modern life’ as opposed to the heroes of classical mythology; and the Futurists and Constructivists aestheticised the machine and technology, previously anathema to classicists and romantics alike. Picasso spoke of the difficulty of finding a new subject and cited Van Gogh’s Boots as an example. Tracey Emin has found a new subject.

A key feature of Emin’s treatment of sex is her disclosure of an early teenage phase of promiscuity in Margate. In the voiceover on Why I Never Became a Dancer she describes it as follows:

‘And then there was sex. It was something you could just do, and it was for free. Sex was something simple. It didn’t matter that I was young, 13 or 14. It didn’t matter that they were men…19, 20, 25, 26. It never crossed my mind to ask them what the attraction was. I knew…sex was what it was…’

I suspect that even if it is not a majority experience, such a phase among working class girls is quite common, driven by a complex mixture of low self-esteem, the search for love, intimacy, pleasure, excitement, desire to grow up, ambivalent yearnings for a baby, and so on. Usually the experience remains hidden, for obvious reasons, from parents, or school and the authorities. It therefore remains largely unrecorded and unrepresented. Films and novels have occasionally visited the territory, but not, until now, the elevated world of fine art.

Emin’s treatment of this experience appears simple—a plain rendering of the facts—but it is in fact quite complex and nuanced. In Dancer she defends herself against the charge of being a ‘slag’ and records her conviction at the time that she was ‘better than all those boys’. But in Masculinity she writes that she ‘developed the ridiculous habit of sleeping with men much older than me’. She also claims that her promiscuous phase was very ‘educational’ in an interview for The South Bank Show. This ‘ambivalence’ towards her sexual experiences runs throughout her work.

Emin records many bad sexual experiences in her art but she does not ‘aestheticise’ them. She deals with childhood abuse, humiliation, abandonment, rape and abortion in the way these things actually happen to women (never as her own or others’ fantasy material) and with the severe emotional trauma and pain they caused. There is no romanticisation of abjection.

This central theme is held in tension with two others. The first is that her experiences, though often bad, have not proved insuperable. Yes, they were deeply painful but they were not, including the rape, ‘unspeakable’ or ‘the worst thing imaginable’. She does not revel in her suffering, only in her ability to have overcome it. Why I Never Became A Dancer ends with a seagull soaring up and away from the shores of Margate.

The second is the retention, despite the traumas of the past, of an open, affirmative attitude to sex and sexuality:

‘You don’t fuck me over/You gently lift me out of bed/Lay me on the floor/And make love to me’2

Holding these three elements, each of them a humane and progressive response, in tension with each other but without allowing any of them to be compromised, is a very considerable artistic and emotional achievement.

Emin does not present herself as a feminist artist and is not generally thought of as one. But, in dealing with sex Emin deals also with sexism. Why I Never Became A Dancer confronts the—very crude—sexism rampant among certain teenage boys and young men. My Bed challenges the sexist attitude that makes a disordered bedroom much more shameful for a woman than a man. Indeed there is a sense in which the totality of her art practice and persona challenge the double standards about sex.

The question of class interacts with the question of sexism here. Emin is not seen as a ‘feminist’ artist because feminism and, especially, feminism in the art world has been a largely middle class phenomenon, focusing mainly on the issues that concern middle class and professional women: especially how women are represented in the media, literature, art, etc. The issues Emin deals with—how teenage girls get ‘slagged off’ and ‘broken into’—are not recognised as feminist because they come from a different world. But the fact is that Emin tackles sexism at the sharp end.

Art: ‘I Need Art Like I Need God’, is the title and content of one of Emin’s pieces in neon lighting, and ‘art’, in particular Emin’s relationship to art, is a central theme in her work.

One of the ways ‘art’ features in Emin’s work is through her references to other artists. Of course many artists do this, but Emin’s range of reference is broad and impressive (which gives the lie to another of the myths about her, namely that she is some kind of ‘primitive’ or ‘naif’).

Most obviously she is indebted to her hero Edvard Munch, and to Egon Schiele. The use of language in both the monoprints and the blankets nods to Basquiat; the neon lighting pieces are influenced by Don Flavin and Bruce Naumann; My Bed recalls Rauschenberg’s Bed and, more subtly, the bed of Manet’s Olympia; The Helter Skelter construction references the Tatlin tower; the blanket work in general builds on the use of sewing and textiles by feminist artists of the 1970s and 1980s.

Of course if quoting other artists was the main point of these works it would make them banal, but with Emin’s pieces this is not the case. Her principal tribute to Munch is Homage to Edvard Munch and All my Dead Children and is accompanied by her verbal scream which is truly disturbing and terrible. Her drawings may owe something to Schiele but are in no way imitations or similar in content. In the case of the blanket work Emin has transformed the genre, freeing it of its craft and genteel associations, and making it into vibrant new form in its own right.

As we know from Marx, in class societies the ruling class invariably (if not completely) dominates the culture. However the domination in the field of visual art has been more complete, more extreme than in other art forms. This is because whereas the poet or novelist needs only pen and paper, visual art must be embodied in materials (which are very expensive), stored, and exhibited, either in museums and galleries or in public places (which of course are never controlled by the public). And because in the capitalist epoch the art market has focused on the buying and selling of ‘unique’ and ‘original’ works, in contrast to music and literature, which centre on either the large-scale selling of mechanical reproductions— books, CDs, etc—or live performances to collective audiences.

As a result, from Tutankhamun to Lorenzo de Medici and Henry VIII to Rockefeller and Saatchi, visual art has been dominated by the very rich and very powerful. This in turn has meant that the exclusion and marginalisation of working class people, women and black people has been even more marked in visual art than in other art forms. There is no female painter whose standing compares with Jane Austen or George Eliot and not a single painting by a black artist in the National Gallery. In this context the work of Tracey Emin is both an example of limited change that has occurred and a challenge to the present and the future.3

Marx also tells us that art, like religion, philosophy and politics, is part of the superstructure of society, which arises from and is conditioned by the economic base. I would add that the economic base, that is, the forces and relations of production, gives rise to and shapes a developing ensemble of social relations which range from how people dress, to family and sexual relations, to how people look at a king or a beggar and how a king or a beggar looks at the people, to how we experience the sea, the countryside and the city.

What major art does is express and comment upon these changing social relations in a visually powerful way. Giotto and Brueghel, Hals and Rembrandt, Hogarth and Goya, Courbet, Picasso and Warhol all do this in their differing ways. And so does Emin.

The changing social relations that Emin addresses are those shaping the relative positions in society of women and men, especially young working class women and men. The changes in this sphere in the course the last half century or so have been spectacular: the huge rise in the number of women (especially married women) in paid labour, the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act, the pill, legalised abortion, freer divorce and lip service to equality all over the place.

In other ways they remain strictly limited: no fundamental change in the division of labour in the home, no equal pay in reality, women still hugely underrepresented in top jobs, sexist images all over the media. Of course the change is not evenly spread across society. In my judgement the least has been at the very top among those who own the wealth and control the state. There, bourgeois male power remains firmly entrenched. The biggest change has been among the professional middle classes—academics, intellectuals, media people, etc—where the success of girls in education and higher education has had its effect and equal opportunities policies abound.

Many working class women have also benefited from the changes, from the shift in general attitudes and the increased educational and job opportunities. But for the majority, especially in the manual as opposed to white collar working class, where money for child care is scarce or nonexistent and the struggle for survival dominates, the change has been minimal. Some working class men, in the main the politically more progressive, have changed their attitudes, but many have not and the old sexism remains rampant. The problems are particularly acute among teenagers and young men anxious to establish their virility, and this is what working class girls and young women have to cope with.

These are the contradictions which Emin has lived and which her art expresses and responds to with clarity and passion. Politically there is an obvious problem in that while Emin’s work ultimately carries a message of hope, it is hope for an individual not a collective or social solution, and this can only be possible for a small minority. Unfortunately we don’t get our art to political order and given the historical period of Emin’s artistic formation, the 1980s and early 1990s, it is hardly surprising that collective working class emancipation through political action was not high on her agenda. What matters more than the correct politics is whether the problems addressed are real, whether the art has integrity and whether it is visually imaginative and powerful. Emin’s work succeeds on all these counts with the extra factor that it really speaks to people, and people beyond the normal range of ‘art lovers’, in a way that is achieved by no other contemporary artist.


Thanks are due to my students with whom many of these ideas about Emin have been discussed, in particular to Lucy Sanders, Roxanne Chappell, Jessica Masterman, Danielle Wright and Kim Heal for their stimulating presentation on My Bed.

1: Socialist Review, December 2004, p34. This short piece by Amy Lane is the best published article on Emin I have read anywhere.

2: Words appliquéd to Garden of Horror M (1998).

3: It perhaps needs emphasising that while capitalism remains, the ruling class’s cultural hegemony in general, and its domination of the art world in particular, can be challenged and partially eroded—but not abolished.