The problem in a word: that there are a number of celebrated ‘artists’ out there who are in fact not really creating ‘art’ at all, but instead dishing up stuff which is altogether less interesting. For a start, which part of all the clutter is the ‘art’ ? And what are we supposed to do with it ? Questions like this explain why contemporary art is afflicted by a pervading sense of uncertainty, combined with the very real possibility that audiences – enthusiastic or not – are being sold well short. We’re not talking about people condemning artwork because they ‘don’t much like it’, or ‘don’t understand it’, but rather about a lurking suspicion that much of what is on display is not worth the effort of engaging with it. It’s all form, and no content. And beyond the voluminous interpretive chatter, none of it has any convincing depth. So this is also about confronting the idea that no one can tell the real difference, in artistic terms, between outright nonsense and pure gold.
To repeat: we’re not talking here about mere subjectivity and personal prejudice. Anyone can go that route. Instead it’s about identifying and clarifying the precise nature of art, so that we can make objective assessments about what we are presented with. And along the way, we need to acknowledge the misgivings that many people might have with regard to the ultimate merit of contemporary artworks, as well as the possibility that the persisting disquiet might turn out to be very well founded.
Tracey Emin’s work is a good example. Her artworld achievements are both illustrative and instructive. But before we launch into our case we need to make it clear that we are not going to attempt to undermine her celebrity status, or to question her authority as a figurehead for a certain angle on women’s experience. At the end of it all she is going to remain more or less exactly as she already appears to be – a very successful self-publicist – and there is also no point denying the skilful way she has worked the system to her advantage. But when it comes to her being an authentic ‘artist’, we’re going to come to a quite different conclusion.
The basic contention here is that good art is all about showing us realms of experience with which we are not already familiar, or couldn’t easily arrive at on our own. It’s not about ordinary anguish, or everyday distress. It’s about exploring strangeness and the uncanny. And no matter how skilfully crafted an object, if it doesn’t show us something that we couldn’t ordinarily have come across, then all it amounts to is just another crafted object. Such objects may be beautiful, or shocking, or hilarious, but if that’s all there is to them, then they are trite compared to the possibilities inherent in artistically narrative objects, such as paintings by Francis Bacon, or displays by Joseph Beuys. We’re not talking here about plot driven narratives based around story arcs; we’re talking about the kind of baffling and almost impenetrable invitations offered to us by authentic works of art, which present us with peculiar entry points to strange storylines, even if you are at a loss as to how to proceed with them.
What, for example, are you being invited to think when confronted with masterpieces like Gregor Schneider’s ‘Totes Haus ur’, or a Schwarzkogler ‘Aktion’ ? You’re being invited to enter into the world it is representing to you, and then, in your own way, and according to your own capacity for imaginative congruence, engage with it somehow, and join in the many ‘stories’ it is hinting at. This is what authentic art is all about, and this is how you experience it. Genuine ‘art’ has very little to do with traditional notions of beauty and aesthetic sensuality; those are properly the realms of skilled crafting.
So what do Tracey’s artworks tell us, at their most essential ? Most of her creations, whether sketches or sculptures or photographs or anything else, amount to little more than direct illustrations of particular moments or phases of her life; diary entries made concrete, if you like, and so something like ‘crafted records’ and aide-mémoires; reflecting her thoughts, and feelings, and responses of various kinds. These creations often display a characteristic sexual brazenness, though never quite becoming pornography. Tracey makes clear she is not afraid to go full ‘confessional’ and shock us into attention.
One of Tracey’s most famous pieces is the unmade bed ‘My Bed’ (1988), an installation consisting of a double bed in disarray together with a small section of dark blue carpet littered with objects such as cigarettes, vodka bottles, condoms, pills and so on. It looks to be a provocation in a now venerable artistic tradition, and can certainly act as a lively interpretative springboard for a school essay, given that it is jam packed with symbolic content.
This is all well and good, but which bit of any of it is the ‘art’ ? When do the bits and pieces of strictly biographical illustration transform themselves from keepsakes and mementos into ‘artworks’ ? This is worth taking a close look at, because it explains the difference between mere creative crafting, and art proper: crafted material only rises to the level of art when it has something to say for itself; when it reveals something above and beyond the utterly ordinary, in all its varied everyday manifestations.
Ordinariness covers everything from the boring to the shocking, and from the comforting to the frightening, and from the pleasant to the disgusting, so presenting people with examples of these states is not art; it is just presentational crafting at its most basic. And these examples of crafting may be skilfully executed and beautiful to look at, but they have nothing to say for themselves beyond their surface appearance – they are just presenting us with imaginal avenues with which we are already acquainted. Art is only achieved when the crafted work brings with it something unsettling and disturbing and weird – an invitation to another realm – and this is what distinguishes it from all other types of presentational crafting. For art to be authentically art, it has to show us something outside of the ordinary and the everyday. This is how you tell the difference between ordinary creative crafting - no matter how skilled - and real art itself.
So where does Tracey fit into all this ? She is basically a ‘creative craftswoman’, but not an artist. Her works are always curiously ordinary, and atmospherically flat, and are unable to conjure up a compelling sense of ‘otherness’ or ‘bizarreness’ or ‘strangeness’. Even the unmade bed is surprisingly shallow when you try to take up its narrative invitation; it doesn’t seem to have anywhere to go. In simple terms, she’s just not particularly intriguing, above and beyond the kind of natural interest we all share in hearing about the life of someone other than ourselves. Tracey has tried to spice things up with sexual crudity, but this never amounts to anything much on its own, as well as being liable to ever diminishing returns. Swearwords are only occasionally compelling. The problem is not her choice of subject, or her confessional audacity: it’s her ongoing inability to connect with anything ‘artistically interesting’.
The essence of real art is not about repetition, or obsession, or indecency, or sensationalism: it’s about being blessed with the ability to conjure up portals to strange worlds – and then invite us into them.Jakob Zaaiman
Art doesn’t have to be shocking, but it does have to be otherworldly. All the major modern artists – from Andy Warhol to Joseph Beuys to Jeff Koons – are essentially and inescapably extra-terrestrial, and this saturates their artworks with a fascinating cogency that can neither be faked nor willed into existence. Damian Hirst has been trying hard for years to be both singular and mysterious, but so far to no avail. He wants to inhabit the domain of artistic otherness, but he can’t quite find a way to do it. The point is that the essence of real art is not about repetition, or obsession, or indecency, or sensationalism: it’s about being blessed with the ability to conjure up portals to strange worlds – and then invite us into them - and this ability is a gift which can’t be taught at art school or conferred on you by an academy. Art is a special mystery unto itself.
‘Who cares ?’ Tracey’s supporters might respond. What’s so important about this angle of ‘art’ ? Who cares if her work doesn’t live up to the kind of exacting definition being employed here ? Surely her celebrity goes a long way both to validating her artistic status, as well as forestalling casual criticism ? And the answer is that clarifying this conception of art and applying it to Tracey’s oeuvre is every bit as interesting as Tracey’s artworks themselves – and perhaps even more so – in that it leads us straight into the mysterious and fascinating realms which are the domain of art proper. There is plenty to care about right there, as well as much to enjoy.
And the truth is that nothing that has been said here in any way denigrates Emin’s achievements in terms of having made a name for herself, or having made good money out of her creativity, or being in demand as an entertaining talking head. She has also – through her confessional writings and interviews – achieved a type of authority as a spokeswoman for a particular angle on female torment; and this in turn has earned her the solidarity of key public figures who see themselves as articulating and defending women’s engagements with life. Tracey is a successful public figure of a sort, periodically exhibiting a new batch of autobiographical craftings.
A final example: Tracey can be seen to compare unfavourably – in artistic terms – with a close contemporary of hers, Sarah Lucas. Lucas is mining an odd seam of bodily crudity and sexual depersonalisation, reaching beyond abstraction to a type of cruelty. Her oeuvre is a portal to the unhomely imaginative realms we encounter when confronted with the disconcerting ‘otherness’ inherent in communal facilities like public lavatories; and although we might not be expected to delight in such realms, we have to acknowledge their imaginal power. Lucas’s artistic value is not in seducing us with aesthetics so much as startling us with unforeseen narrative landscapes. She is the mistress of confrontational crudity and disgust in a uniquely artistic way, and this elevates her above the mere crafted confessionalism adopted by Tracey, despite their superficial similarities in style and content.
Where does this leave us ? With the stark conclusion that Tracey may be conducting a very successful autobiographical roadshow, illustrating aspects of her life with crafted bits and pieces, but that she doesn’t qualify as an artist. Why not ? Because her work is so flat and ordinary and obvious. It’s mundane in a very tabloid way. It’s never more than a rather familiar take on life. If you want to be an artist, you have to try and find something unusual to tell us, otherwise you’re just another ‘creative craftsperson’, even with arts qualifications, and even with fame and fortune. Now it may well be that Tracey Emin thinks that she is giving us her own special brand of certified weirdness, but the problem is that it just doesn’t come out that way. Her work ends up looking like a stylised ‘case study’ of the sort you can find in any psychology textbook. Yet she’s not alone in having failed to make the grade as an ‘artist’: she has Hirst and Banksy and Ai Weiwei and a host of other big names to keep her company. None of them are telling us anything particularly interesting.
About the Author
Jakob was born 1955 near Etersheim, North Holland. Educated in England and United States. Lives in London. Has also lived in Eastern Europe. He works mainly with photographs (& occasionally video), and is interested only in creating works which are troubling and disconcerting. Also writes extensively on modern art.