Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Emin Phenomenon or the Phenomenal Emin

Tracy Emin is a new phenomenon and consequently, like many new phenomena in the past, is met with widespread incomprehension, misunderstanding and vilification. When I read much of the press coverage she receives, including from some ‘respectable’ critics, I am reminded of the reaction, documented so tellingly by T.J.Clarke, to Manet’s Olympia when it first appeared in the Salon in 1865. Then the critics, faced with a painting that contested the prevailing conceptions of art, women, sex and class, were not even able to recognise or articulate the nature of the challenge offered, and therefore responded with misplaced sarcasm and invective. Something very similar occurs with Emin who as it happens – and I do not think this is coincidence –deals with just the same issues today. At the same time, there is very little serious or academic discussion of Emin’s work, Which is rather remarkable given the vast recent academic discourses on all things ‘artistic’ and ‘cultural’. This article is an attempt to redress the balance and to argue, on the basis of her work, that Emin is a serious and important artist.

First, however, I want to discuss the nature of Emin’s fame which is one of the things about her which is new. Tracy Emin is currently the most famous contemporary artist in Britain and a woman. I don’t think this has ever happened before. Obviously there have been famous women artists in the past – Barbara Hepworth, Frida Kahlo and so on – but they have not been the leading artists of the day. Hepworth was overshadowed by Moore and Bacon, Kahlo by Rivera, not to mention Picasso. Again this is not by chance. When the YBAs – Young British Artists – broke into the mainstream with the Sensations show in 1997, 18 out of the 42 artists exhibited were women – still a minority but a far larger minority than would have been the case in an impressionist, surrealist, abstract expressionist or pop art show, or any previous art movement that I can think of. Moreover, of that minority, not only Emin but also Rachel Whiteread, Sarah Lucas, Jenmy Saville, Fiona Rae, Gillian Wearing, and Sam Taylor-Wood have emerged as major figures in the art world. Clearly this reflects underlying changes in the social position of women. Equally clearly, however, there is an element of barely concealed misogynistic backlash in some of the responses to Emin.

Also new and different is the precise nature of Emin’s fame: she is a ‘celebrity’. In a sense many artists have been celebrities before – Michelangelo, Titian, Rubens and especially Picasso were all celebrities of a kind (far bigger celebrities than Emin) but in their case it meant being lionised, almost worshipped, in ‘cultural’ circles. Emin is a celebrity in today’s ‘celebrity culture’, which is a mass media popular culture; It means she appears on ‘Have I Got News For You?’,’ Desert Island Discs ‘and ‘Richard and Judy’. This is a world in which there is absolutely no guarantee of deference or even respect. On the contrary this kind of celebrity, although it pays very well, actually opens Emin up to exposure and derision. The contrast is well illustrated by an anecdote about Francis Bacon. After one of his rather hazardous sexual escapades in the sixties, Bacon found himself under arrest (this was before the legalisation of homosexuality). The consequence was not being plastered all over the tabloids but a phone call from Lord (Arnold) Goodman, No.10’s legal fixer, to the metropolitan police commissioner explaining that it would not be a good idea for ‘Britain’s greatest living painter’ to appear in humiliating circumstances at Bow Street Magistrates Court. He was swiftly released. Obviously Emin enjoys no such protection.

But why, out of all the young British artists available, has Emin in particular been selected by the media for celebrity status? One reason, of course, is that she is sexually candid and the media is obsessed with all things sexual. Another reason, however, is that the media has picked up the fact that with a layer of people Emin is genuinely popular i.e. she has a fan base, and therefore her presence on a quiz or chat show is likely to boost its audience.

The very use of the term ‘fan base’, while appropriate, immediately distinguishes Emin’s fame from the fame of Henry Moore or Jackson Pollock or even Damien Hirst, but it is not intended pejoratively. It indicates that Emin’s art has reached people not normally touched by ‘fine art’ and that they have responded intensely. Who are these people and what is the nature of their response? Evidence on this can only be anecdotal and impressionistic. My evidence, for what it’s worth, is based on observing the public at the 1999 Turner Prize Show at the Tate Britain and talking to people, mainly, but not only, students at the school of Art, Design and Media where I teach, quite extensively for the last five or so years. The Turner Prize Show was significant because there were four artists represented, but something like 70-80% of the public were concentrated in Emin’s space; many of them were young women, students on school or college trips, and they were pouring intently over Emin’s work, examining it avidly and in detail. It was quite different from the way either tourists or art aficionados relate to old masters in the National Gallery. In fact I don’t think I have seen any group of gallery visitors so engaged with works of art. Subsequent conversations have broadly confirmed this picture. Emin’s fans are predominantly, though certainly not exclusively, younger women,part of the recently found audience for contemporary art but not art world insiders, and they hold their position on the basis of Emin’s work, not because of media hype, which has largely been hostile.

There is nothing mysterious or accidental here. Such people relate to Emin because Emin’s work relates, like that of no other artist I can think of, to their experience.

As virtually every other commentator on Emin begins by observing, most of her work is autobiographical. Its main subject matter is her traumas and triumphs, sufferings and joys of growing up in Margate, maturing in London and elsewhere, and so becoming the person she is today. As a result, Emin’s work is often criticised for being ‘self-centered’, ‘narcissistic’. In my opinion this criticism completely misses the point, the point so eagerly seized on by her ‘fans’, namely that 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 in a sense shameful. By making these experiences into art (which is different from just exposing or ‘confessing’ them ). Emin actually engages in a process of ‘democratic sharing’ with her audience. It is particularly democratic because the work is not didactic and does not preach. It does not seek to impose or determine 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, shown in the ‘Sensation’ exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1997, is a good example of this. The smallish tent sits on the gallery floor . On the inside Emin has sewn the names of her bedmates of the previous thirty 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 has made a point of calling attention to, 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, which in our culture is the obvious first reading, 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 actually a complex piece which has appeared in different forms in different places, for example with and without a noose hanging over the bed, and which I cannot explore fully here, but essentially it works on the same principle. According to the sexist stereotype, women are the homemakers and responsible for clearing up. 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 represents 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 the mechanism and 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.

In this context it is well worth dealing with the prevalent notion that Emin is lacking in technical artistic skills. For example much of the media coverage of My Bed seemed based on the assumption 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, and actually it was visually very powerful.

In fact Emin is a skilled practitioner in a range of media, but it is her drawing as manifested in her many monoprints that I particularly want to focus on. In my opinion Emin’s drawing is superb. This, of course, is a value judgement which is difficult to justify or even convey in words. I would make two points: first, that Emin is able, with great economy, to achieve very accurate and telling representations. Foe example, we know from a number of photographs what Emin’s legs look like; they have a peculiar athletic rangy quality. Her drawings capture this quality exactly. Compare the photograph I’ve Got It All with the monoprints I See It Thoe and Walking Drunk In High Shoes. Second, that her line combines strength and vulnerability, confidence and pain in exactly the right proportions for her subject matter, and matching visual form to intellectual/emotional content is precisely the key skill of the visual artist.

To bring out further the significance of Emin’s art I shall examine in turn three of its themes – class, sex and art – which are more or less omnipresent and which taken together make for its distinctiveness and power.

Perhaps 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. The whole question of class and art is so highly charged that I must straight away take care to explain precisely what I mean, and I don’t mean, by this statement.

Clearly Emin is not currently working class in any shape or form. She is probably a millionaire, certainly rich, and she functions , as all successful visual artists do, as boss of her own small business. Nor am I referring to her class background which was complex. Up to thje age of seven her mother had a largeish hotel in Margate but then, when she broke up with Emin’s father, bankruptcy and poverty ensued and Emin’s youth, whether or not strictly proletarian, was plebeian. As we know this had a major influence on her art, but that is still not what I mean here. Nor is she an artist who sees or presents herself as associated with or representative of, the working class movement (like John Heartfield or Diego Rivera, to give classic examples). What she does do, however, is present herself as culturally working class. This is evident in the whole 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. (Unlike, for example, Jake Chapman of the Chapman Brothers, who is highly accomplished at theoretical discourse.) This was an element of her drunken walk out from the Channel 4 art discussion programme with David Sylvester, Waldemar Januscek et al – “I’d rather be with my mum and my friends” – and plays a part in her willingness to participate in popular cultural shows. This is highly unusual in the art world, the ethos of which is very upper class. There has always, of course, been a smattering of working class artists rising through the art schools but normally they adopt the dominant cultural style.

The most obvious parallel to Emin in this is Damien Hirst, especially the young Hirst, but there is a difference: in Hirst the working class attitude does not carry over into the work itself, with Emin it does. The language used in her many appliquéd quilts/blankets, her films and her monoprint drawings is the language of the street, including the swear words, the grammatical errors and the misspellings. The question of the spelling mistakes is interesting here. Emin denies either that she has dyslexia or that they are deliberate; she insists that she simply makes mistakes but doesn’t care . But I am convinced that Emin is being a little disingenuous here. First, the spelling mistakes and letters wrong-way-round reference the work of Jean Michel Basquiat, originally a New York graffiti artist, and (as they do in Basquiat) carry connotations of writing on street and toilet walls. Secondly, they occur in the appliquéd (sewn) works where mistakes seem unlikely, especially in the blanket called Pysco Slut where ‘Pysco’ is much wittier and more to the point than ‘Psycho’. But, above all, the experiences her art deals with are, by and large, the experiences of working class girls.

This is the case with the short film Why I Never Became A Dancer, in my opinion one of her most important and powerful works. The film 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 felt 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.” It also applies to her recent film Top Spot on teenage suicide, about which Amy Lane, in Socialist Review wrote “There is nothing contained in Top Spot that does not reflect the reality of Britain’s working class estates…[It] is a painfully accurate portrayal of modern adolescent experience. ”

Just as there is an element of misogyny in the media and critical hostility to Emin so also there is an element of class prejudice. In particular I think middle class critics often miss the point of her work because the kind of experiences she deals with are not their experiences and not part of the world they inhabit. The recognition factor which is key for Emin’s ‘fans’ and for what I have called the process of ‘democratic sharing’ is missing.

Emin’s consciousness of , and concern for, this relationship with her audience was evident in her fury at Top Spot being given only an 18-plus certificate by the censors, and her consequent withdrawal of the film that would thus be prevented from reaching the very people it was intended for.

The discussion of class obviously raises the question of Emin’s politics. It is often said of her that she is not political. If this were true I would not find it a problem for, as Leon Trotsky always insisted, art cannot simply be judged on its politics. As it happens it is not true. I have already noted that Emin does not see herself or function as an artistic representative of a working class political movement – given that her formative years were the eighties this is not surprising – but she does have a political consciousness and outlook, and this is clear from many of her public statements and appearances. Broadly speaking she is on the left. She did work for Ken Livingstone’s mayoral campaign. She is anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-war. My colleague Milly Thompson, formerly of BANK, who knows the London art scene, says that in that world Emin is known as ‘a committed socialist’. Moreover some of her recent work from 2004, exhibited in New Zealand, does deal explicitly with questions of war and peace.

Of course against this can be set the fact that Emin has now made a lot of money, doubtless has a very comfortable lifestyle, wears Vivian Westwood clothes, mixes from time to time with various unsavoury rich bastards like Charles Saachi and is evidently very pleased with this state of affairs. All of which provides good grounds for complaint from young, angry, impoverished artists.

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.

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, Titian, Bronzino, Buncher, Ingres, Renoir, Rodin, Klimt etc etc. Nor is it sexual fantasy or dreams, as we might find in surrealism. Nor is it the sex of the brothel featured so heavily in late 19th and early 20th 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. It seems strange to say it but 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 or 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 material which was often previously thought of as ‘unartistic’ (or vulgar, prosaic, mundane, ugly etc). This is one of the reasons why new art so often meets with the reaction that it is ‘not art’. Thus, following the call of Baudelaire, mid 18th century French art painted ‘The heroism of modern life’ as opposed to the heroes of classical mythology; thus the Post-impressionists restored form where the Impressionists has neglected it, and the Futurists and Constructivists aestheticised the machine and technology previously anathema to classicists and romantics alike. Thus Pop Art turned to the imagery of mass popular culture dismissed as kitsch by Clement Greenberg and the Abstract Expressionists. Picasso spoke once of the difficulty of finding new subject matter and cited Van Gogh’s A Pair Of Boots as an outstanding example. But find a new subject is what Tracy Emin has done.

A key feature of Emin’s treatment of sex is her disclosure, in Everyone I Ever Slept With 1963-95, Why I Never Became A Dancer and her written piece Masculinity , of an early teenage phase of promiscuity in Margate. In the voiceover on 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. You could got to a pub, you’d walk home, have fish and chips, then sex…on a beach, down an alley, a green, a park, even a hotel. It didn’t matter that I was young, thirteen or fourteen. 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…by the time I was fifteen I had stopped shagging.

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, affection, intimacy, pleasure, excitement, desire to grow up, ambivalent yearnings for a baby a so on. Usually the experience remains hidden; hidden at the time for obvious reasons, from parents, or school and the authorities – though shared perhaps with a best friend; hidden or at least not talked about later when adult respectability has been achieved. It therefore remains largely unrecorded and unrepresented. Films and novels have occasionally visited the territory, but not, until now, the elevateded 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.” In her interview with Melvyn Bragg for The South Bank Show,she says she must accept some responsibility because she “egged the men on, followed them, flirted” but also that in their twenties these men should have known better than to sleep with a 14 year old. However, in the same interview, she also claims for her promiscuous phase that it was very “educational”.

This ‘ambivalence’ towards her sexual experiences runs throughout her work.

Jennifer Doyle in her essay ‘The Effect of Intimacy’ calls this “Tracey Emin’s bad-sex aesthetics” I think this term is wrong. Emin records many bad sexual experiences in her art but she does not ‘aestheticize’ them. They are not presented as anything other than bad experiences with all their negative emotional effects. She deals with childhood abuse, humiliation, abandonment, rape, and abortion in the way these things actually happen to women (never as her own or other’s fantasy material) and with the severe emotional trauma and pain they caused. There is no romanticisation of abjection (though perhaps the appliquéd ‘Love Poem’ is a partial exception to this .)

However, 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, I think, 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 i.e. to good sex

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

Holding each of 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. The previous generation of feminist artists and critics tended to view Emin and other so-called ‘bad girls’ with distain as frivolous betrayers of the feminist/art/theory cause. But, in fact, in dealing with sex Emin deals also with sexism. Why I Never Became A Dancer confronts the – very crude – sexism rampant among certain kinds of 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; how women are represented in the media, how gender affects promotion chances 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 feminism at the sharp end. Although, as we shall see, she has also produced work about sexism in the art world.)

“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. In interviews she strongly defends her own artistic integrity and the general integrity of contemporary art and consistently proclaims her faith in ‘art’. When some of her work, along with much other contemporary art, was destroyed in a warehouse fire her first public response was measured, putting the event in perspective of the real disasters that occur in the world, but she was hurt and angered by the mockery of sections of the press and public. This should not be surprising for it is through art that Emin dealt with many of her personal problems and completely transformed her life. She celebrates this - she thought of calling her last solo show at White Cube ‘Upgrade’.

One of the ways ‘art’ features in Emin’s work is through her references to other artists. Of course many artists do this – Picasso reworks themes from Velasquez and Delacroiz, Manet’s Olympia echoes the pose of Titian’s Venus D’Urbino, Warhol takes his image of Christ from Da Vinci’s Last Supper and so on – but Emin’s range of reference is broad and impressive (which gives the lie to another of the myths and misconceptions about her, prevalent in the media, 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 blanketr work in general builds on the use of sewing and textiles by feminist artists of the 70s and 80s.

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 (for her aborted children) 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 dramatic new form in its own right.

One of Emin’s most important works, while remaining partly autobiographical , is also a powerful comment on the role own women in art. This was a performance piece originally entitled Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made, enacted in the Gallery Andreas Brändström in Stockholm in 1996. Emin spent three weeks living naked in an enclosed studio space, visible to the public during gallery opening hours, through fish-eye lenses in the walls. At first she is just there being observed, then gradually she starts to paint. The performance was recorded, and we can see it in a photo series called The Life Model Goes Mad.

The piece has many meanings but among them is the fact that traditionally, say one hundred years ago at the birth of modernism with Picasso and Matisse in Paris, or even fifty or thirty years ago, the principle role of women in art was as models (and the line between model, lover, and prostitute was often blurred). As the Guerilla Girls put it in their famous poster Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met Museum?, ‘less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are female, but 88% of the nudes are female.’ If Emin had been around in 1900 or 1950 the combination of her class and gender would almost certainly have made her a model and not an artist. Indeed Emin actually was a life model for a while at the start of her career. Recently things have begun to change and Emin is part of that change. The Life Model Goes Mad (the ‘goes mad’ is a reference to her earlier blanket piece – and self adopted slogan – Mad Tracey From Margate) enacts the process; the object becomes subject, the passive becomes active, the life model turns into an artist. As usual in Emin the piece is both autobiographical and socially representative at the same time.

“Remember the golden rule…Those who have the gold make the rules.”

As we know from Marx, in class divided societies the ruling class invariably dominates the culture (though seldom completely). However the domination in the field of visual art, especially painting and sculpture has been more complete, more extreme that in other art forms. This is because whereas the poet or novelist needs only pen and paper, the 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, records, 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 in the canon compares with Jane Austin or George Elliot. There is, to my knowledge, not a single painting by a black artist in the National Gallery, and until very recently, there were none in the Tate either. In this context the existence and work of Tracey Emin is both an example of limited change that has occurred and a challenge to the present and the future .

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 i.e the forces and relations of productions give rise to and shape a developing ensemble of social relations which range from how people dress with all its connotations, 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 Michelangelo, Holbein and Breughal, Hals and Rembrandt, Hogarth, Constable and Joseph Wright of Derby, David and Goya, Courbet and Manet, Picasso, Leger, Malevich, Rodchenko, Ernst, Bacon, and Warhol all do this in their different 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 of my lifetime i.e 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 amongst those who own the wealth, run industry and finance, 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 it’s 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 non-existent, 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, for all its dealing with trauma, 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 eighties and early nineties, 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 the 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.

A cut version of this article appeared in the Journal of International Socialism

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