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Culture House Daily From the archive

Tracey Emin’s knickers – a short history of contemporary British art

29 May 2014

4:04 PM

29 May 2014

4:04 PM

Tracey Emin’s bed is to be sold at auction this summer with a guide price of £800,000 to £1.2 million, although the man who sold it to Charles Saatchi has said it’s priceless. Emin was part of the British art movement in the ‘90s that gave Richard Dorment trouble at dinner parties; this scene is an occupational hazard of being an art critic, he said.

‘The beautiful person I’m sitting next to has bluntly informed me that modern art is rubbish. We’re only on the soup, and a long evening stretches ahead. Whether or not we round this dangerous corner depends on my neighbour’s tone of voice, which can range from raw aggression to lively interest. If it is confrontation she is after, the rule is: change the subject as fast as possible. If she persists, the rule remains: don’t go there. But if, by now, she’s on to Tracey’s knickers, then I’ve got a full-blown case of modern-art rage on my hands.’

Just as long as his neighbour wasn’t too angry, these confrontations could sometimes give Richard Dorment a chance to wax lyrical about contemporary art.

‘Why this obsession with modern art? In a period of huge social change, artists show us what is happening to us even before we are aware that it is taking place. This work rattles around in our heads because it tells us something we didn’t know about ourselves…As for Tracey’s knickers, it still amazes me that within months of the exhibition of her famous unmade bed, most of the population of Britain were glued to Big Brother on television. I’m not saying that the bed is a great work of art, but I do say that long before the rest of us figured it out Emin understood the changing nature of popular culture and exploited her knowledge brilliantly. For, like the contestants on Big Brother, Tracey became famous because she was willing to live her life transparently, in front of a camera, in a glass box. That’s what the bed is ‘about’: not Ms Emin’s personal hygiene. When Marcel Duchamp said that life was more interesting than art, this is precisely what he meant.’

Around the same time, in 2001, Martin Gaylord was coming round to Tracey Emin.

‘Despite provocative pieces such as her notorious bed, she is an old-fashioned sort of artist. She produces figurative drawings, she used to paint quite well, in her general approach she is an expressionist. It seems likely that, if her favourite artist, Munch, were to be reincarnated, he too would start making videos in which he recounted all the terrible things that had happened to him, and how ghastly he felt…On the other hand, in the age of the personality cult, she thrives…The foundation of her national fame was probably her appearance on a television discussion about the Turner Prize more drunk than anyone has ever been on television before or since. The British may still not know all that much about art, but those who behave extremely badly in public, they take immediately to their hearts.’

Not all Spectator writers were willing to put up with the YBAs, though. Under the headline Knave of Arts, David Lee deconstructed the Saatchi marketing machine that made Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin so famous. When Hirst sold a replica of a £14.99 Woolworth’s toy for £1 million:

‘The way it became the most famous sculpture in Britain since Tracey’s stained bedsheets is indicative of the now familiar modus operandi of Charles Saatchi. He knows that in an age when all fashionable art is as good or bad as everything else being produced, precisely because there are no longer any criteria for judging anything, the only ingredient making one piece of art better than another…is the artist’s standing.’

Saatchi’s gallery gave The Sunday Times a preview three weeks before the exhibition opened. They focused on the price “obviously helpfully supplied, accurate, exaggerated or otherwise, by a gallery which could out-spin Shane Warne.” When the piece came out, people (who may or may not have been put up to it) called in to the paper to point out that the sculpture was a copy of a toy. As Lee pointed out, there was no reason to show the sculpture three weeks before opening unless to provoke a debate about plagiarism.

‘There was also the issue of the artist’s possible hypocrisy: Hirst is never slow to protect what he perceives as his copyright while apparently borrowing from others whatever he wants without either prior arrangement or subsequent acknowledgement….By this stage it didn’t matter whether the sculpture was any good because it was already famous and had easily justified its million-pound price tag on the strength of its notoriety alone. In a world where stardom is its own reward, to be talked about and noticed is everything…The work of art as something to be looked at and appreciated for its visual qualities has given way to the object as catalyst for argument. It doesn’t matter if the work, as is indeed so often the case, fails to live up to its advance billing, because it is only ever as good as the publicity it generates…The depressing aspect in all of this is that the most discussed artists of the day are now those with the most manipulative and inventive news spinners representing them.’ 

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