‘Me, me, really me’

Tracey Emin exposes her self to Oxford schoolchildren.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

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  • The artist’s portrait of herself

The curators of the Museum of Modern Art Oxford have caused something of a stir with their decision to invite children to come and have a look at Tracey Emin’s latest exhibition, This Is Another Place.

It transpires that the first item to greet visitors to the show is a six-by-four-foot neon sign in a dark room, saying ‘Fuck off and die you slag’. Elsewhere, there is an embroidery of the artist sitting on a tombstone, the words above it saying: ‘I’m going to get you, you cunt, you bastard. And when I do the whole world will know that you destroyed my childhood.’

We are all familiar with Ms Emin’s unhappy world by now. Her work is Bridget Jones meets Radiohead meets Nirvana – all delivered in a Dadaist manner. It combines navel-gazing neurosis, incoherent rage and self-loathing – and a desire to tell the entire world about it.

Emin will not be averse to a little criticism, and judging by some reviews of the exhibition, she seems to be conscious of her detractors’ main points. Another feature of her latest offering is a homage to Edvard Munch’s Scream, next to which she has written ‘Me, me, really me’. Is she being ironic here? Is she saying to critics: ‘this is what you think my work is all about, don’t you, that I am self obsessed’? Is Tracey Emin’s work, previously about Tracey Emin, now about what the world thinks of Tracey Emin’s work about Tracey Emin?

It is often said that a great deal of modern art is merely a footnote to Duchamp, who in 1917 famously declared a urinal a piece of art. After him, in the 1960s came Piero Manzoni with his ‘100% Artist’s Shit’ (tinned cans containing his own stools), and Carl André’s ‘Equivalent VIII’ (120 bricks laid out on the floor of the Tate Gallery). All were meant to ask us: ‘but what is art?’ And artists have been asking little else since.

But Emin takes this navel gazing to a further level. Whereas many of her contemporaries’ focus of reference is ‘art’, Emin’s is the artist herself. She has taken a weakness for self-referentiality to its latest dialectical stage, and it is a stage well suited to our confessional, miserablist times. It is why Tracey Emin is the artist the media pays the most attention to.

Modern art is not all bad. Even though it is aesthetically barren, it can be philosophically challenging, and funny – take Gilbert And George, for instance. At the same time, artists today seem less like the creators of works of wonder and more like pranksters or court jesters. If you go to the Tate Modern, don’t look at the exhibits, look at the visitors. They are always laughing. They are going to the circus.

Marcel Duchamp soon realised after 1917 what a mistake he had made. He was like the eponymous Brian from the famous Monty Python film who tells his ‘disciples’: ‘You don’t need to follow me. You’re all individuals’, only to be met with the obedient response: ‘Yes! We’re all individuals!’ It is the paradox of the Cretan Liar. Duchamp’s joke had backfired. Rather than pissing in it, people ascribed a sense of wonder and awe to his urinal. It had become ‘art’.

In 1923 Duchamp more or less abandoned the art world to play chess, representing France in four chess Olympiads. Mind you, his wife was not too happy about his hobby. In 1927, Man Ray wrote of his friend’s short-lived marriage: ‘Duchamp spent most of the one week they lived together studying chess problems, and his bride, in desperate retaliation, got up one night when he was asleep and glued the chess pieces to the board.’ They were divorced three months later.

No doubt, the wife was trying to ‘say’ something about what chess meant today.

  • Don’t call me atheist

‘Atheism, no less than theism, is a belief’, writes a correspondent to The Catholic Herald this week. The argument that atheism is ‘just another religion’ has always irritated me. It is trotted out by believers and especially agnostics, the latter forever the sit-on-the-fence types who think that having a view on something constitutes arrogant dogmatism.

Do these people understand the concept of absence? Saying atheism is merely another religion is like saying white is ‘just another colour’, or that not voting for a political party is ‘just like supporting your own political party’.

Mind you, atheists did not help themselves in last year’s census, many of whom reportedly wrote ‘atheist’ when asked what religion they were. I don’t even like the label ‘atheist’. It defines me in relation to people who have concocted these stories in the first place. It’s like calling yourself a ‘non-believer in Father Christmas’, which should go without saying. As much as it grates me to say it, I resent being ‘othered’ this way.

Not that I’m ‘anti-religion’. Religion brings a lot of people happiness. Yes, people have fought and died in the name of religion, but so have they done on the basis of their ethnic grouping. Yet still we fetishise people’s constructed ‘ethnicity’, regarding it as a wonderful and self-evident thing that can only bring more gaiety to the world.

  • No Surrender

‘For the British state, Gibraltar is like a timewarp. The Union Jacks, the claims of allegiance, the cries of “traitor!” against anyone willing to compromise’, writes Josie Appleton elsewhere on spiked (1).

This sounds uncannily familiar. There is another group of people with ostentatious displays of Union Jacks, loud claims of allegiance and cries of ‘traitor!’, who the British state has also long been eager to be rid of.

The difference is that whereas Ulster Loyalists are Protestant, almost 80 percent of Gibraltar’s population is Roman Catholic. Surely thus Loyalism is an ‘inclusive’ and ‘diverse’ creed, capable of transcending sectarian boundaries?

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

(1) Rock and a hard place, by Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics


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