Why I am a Tracey Emin apologist.
By Lucas Ind
Look, I get it, she’s not to everyone’s taste. In fact, I remember when I first joined The Courtauld, I chose Tracey Emin’s Turner Prize shortlisted My Bed as the visual answer to an ice-breaker question about our favourite piece of art, about which one of my closest friends later confessed to me she’d never judged someone so hard for. But I have to admit, I am a Tracey Emin apologist, pure and simple. I think she’s great, despite her slightly questionable affiliations with the Tories.
I didn’t grow up surrounded by art, my parents honestly don’t care for it. We didn’t go to art galleries or museums; our house wasn’t a few paintings short of a private collection of rare van Gogh’s sourced from a far-flung great aunt. Instead, hanging on our walls were various photos of a baby me (I was an only child until I was 12 – it was bliss), and an array of cross-stitched designs my parents had completed over the years, interspersed with the odd family photo every now and then.
But what I do remember is watching TV with my mum, probably long after I was meant to have gone to bed, and My Bed splashed across the screen, to which my mother boldly stated, “How is that art? I could have done that.”
You see, my mum probably could have achieved the same nuances of My Bed; she was a hardworking mother with two jobs: Avon through the week and Homebase at the weekends, balancing work with raising her jarring 7-year-old (me), whilst my dad worked irregular shift patterns in a factory. More often than not, our house did resemble Emin’s Turner Prize shortlisted installation.
But the fact Emin did do it and created a piece so vulnerable, so raw, and – let’s face it – working-class was groundbreaking. As the art world is often elitist and dominated by the upper classes, for me, Emin represented the existence of a world beyond class, and how we can break through into those elitist circles without losing sight of our humble beginnings.
It was that moment that sparked my passion for art, as I began to see the beauty in the mundanity of everyday life, I suppose most of my favourite artists capture this same raw, seemingly mundane depiction of working-class existence – think Nan Goldin, Trackie McLeod, and Martin Parr.
When researching for this week’s installment of Boy Wonder, I did a bit of digging into what critics say about Emin’s unapologetic working-classness. In an article written for Tate Modern back in 2002, Melanie McGrath argues how “Tracey Emin’s virulent working-classness confuses the British art world. She’s often labelled inarticulate, even stupid.”
Which got me thinking; I grew up talking with a thick west country accent, an accent that is held by all my family – it's a big part of my identity, but I soon dropped it as a teenager because I knew I wouldn’t be taken seriously. The same way I’d often find myself lying or fabricating my upbringing upon moving to London. Why? Because this country still has an archaic and rigid class system in place, and universities (especially ones as prestigious as The Courtauld) are still dominated by middle- and upper-class students. So, in order not to stick out like a sore thumb, who grew up in social housing and went to a state school, it was easier just to lie.
Similarly, when I think about Emin, I often think about the hate and criticism she received; about her art being looked down upon by the art world, as McGrath suggests. I suppose much of the criticism stems from her existence as a working-class woman. How dare us working-class creatives take up space within elitist circles?
I no longer lie or fabricate my working-class upbringing, in fact, I’m really quite proud of it, which is largely in part due to Emin’s trailblazing art and taking up of space in the art world. When I first joined The Courtauld, I felt so out of place, but now I can sit here, a gay, working-class man, and write for The Courtauldian about the working-class woman that inspired me to take the leap.