Arguments that begin, But is it art? miss the point. The point is that Tracey Emin has done more for public awareness of art, both as a force in its own right, and as a necessary part of life, than any other living artist.
She is an avenging angel, swiping at both high art pretensions and mass-culture. Her background is not about money or privilege; she makes the work because she loves to do it, and it’s a love-affair she wants to share. For her, art is at the centre of things, not in the lost world of academies and connoisseurship, nor an enemy of the people. For Tracey, art belongs. All she asks is that you get involved – be part of it, not outside it.
For a while, she had a shop, where you could just buy her stuff, there and then, over the counter. Then she had her ‘museum’ so that anyone could come in, have a look around, and purchase a few Emin-Bonds, if they wanted to invest in her and her work.
It has be her and her work, because Emin doesn’t separate the two. The importance of this cannot be underestimated; at a time when we are drowning in Reality TV and live Confessionals, when everything in life is about display, Emin has managed to turn the popular agenda into a new kind of cultural challenge: Why do we make so many separations in our lives? Do we insist on reality and confession because we have lost the capacity to imagine and invent? Emin is able to imagine and invent within the context of her own life. By refusing all her own separations. she questions ours. By refusing to disentangle art and life, by fusing her autobiography with her artistry, Emin creates a world where personal truth-telling moves beyond the me-culture and into collective catharsis.
Her capacity to make the personal into the trans-personal, lifts it from ordinary lived experience into a place of confrontation, and ultimately, meditation. She can do this at the same time as destroying the remoteness of the artist. Emin lives in the thick of life, but she never mistakes life itself for what she can make of it. It is the making of it that allows the rest of us to look at it – and to look at her, which she allows us to do.
Famously, she put herself on show in Stockholm, painting naked for a new exhibition, collapsing any divisions between the artist, the model, the creator, the spectator, the stranger, the friend.
Tracey Emin is a celebrity, but she is not a celebrity creation.
She became well-known because of her work, and her work reaches back into her life.. Her work explains her to herself, but it is never solipsistic. The tent – Everyone I ever slept with, 1963-1995, manages to combine the pleasures of childhood, (you have to crawl in and lie on your back), camping, (you have to crawl in and lie on your back), coitus, (well, you don’t have to lie on your back), and culture, (when you don’t understand it, just crawl in and lie on your back), which is a pretty powerful act inside a nylon igloo.
She has said that Tent and My Bed are the two pieces of hers that have done most to change the way we think about art. Hers isn’t the first bed to be displayed, Emin isn’t obsessed with doing things first – which is in any case, a very Boys Own version of the world, rather, she is interested in doing things differently – so differently that they force a re-vision – another way of looking.
Emin’s two pieces had huge impact – Duchamp Urinal impact, or Warhol Soup Can impact, because they found a way of containing the mesmeric and iconic properties of art within the most commonplace of objects.
Both objects are places to spend the night, and the night is always ‘another place’, the ‘another place’ of Emin’s longings, the ‘another place’ of art, but as she puts it herself, ‘Here is another place.’ It is the here and now that Emin deals in, using the fact, but re-making it, or in the case of My Bed, unmaking it.
Emin exerts tremendous ordering pressure on her objects – she forces change out of them through the order, including the disorder, of her intent. This frees up our looking space. By making our ‘here’, ‘another place’, she can successfully combine the banality and actuality of ordinary life, with its imaginative possibilities.
The tent and the bed become imaginative possibilities, places of invitation. When Emin invites you into her world, everything is familiar, but disconcertingly so, as though for the first time there is a direct connection with objects, experience, and emotion, and not the usual blur and fade-out.
The noisy arguments around Emin’s work are good for art. Nothing is worse for art than a rarefied remote state, where the thing languishes in the lands of connoisseurship and curators.
The usual argument of ‘I could do that’, is itself part of the debate. If you could, why do you not? Why is your life not made out of art the way that Emin’s is?
I like it that Emin’s work is uneven – that’s one of the things that tells me she’s the real thing. Art is not a standardised product – it can be produced as experiment+factory, as Warhol, Koons, and Hirst have done, but there is a purpose to that. Such objects are light years away from the well-made, always reliable, ‘office version’ of art that mediocre artists are so good at; easy, unchallenging, always reliable. That’s not Tracey. She can be terrible, in the way that Picasso could be terrible, and she can be better than anyone.
Her intensity, and her total and reckless commitment to herself and to what she does, is necessary for an artist, but it is also necessary for any human being who wants to live at the centre of their humanity, and not on its rim.
Emin is always trying to drag us away from peripheral and superficial experiences into what can be deeply felt, even if that is in recoil or disgust.
If you believe, as I do, that art’s central purpose is to prompt emotion – which is why it must never be merely decorative, then Emin is letting art do its work. Emotion is not sentimentality or artificiality, in fact it is the enemy of both. To feel something deeply, is an intellectual and a spiritual experience, as well as a visceral one. We were designed to feel, but our present culture is terrified of real feeling; its demands, its wildness, its commitment to truth.
The fake feeling of confessional, and the temporary relief of bare-it-all media, is not what Emin is about. She wants to go deeper than that, and she can. The question, when looking at her work is not how to judge it, but how to feel it.