My friend Dave – a San Francisco-based writer/artist/polymathic renaissance man – is worried about his teenage niece. Having recently expressed an interest in taking a women’s studies module at college next term, she asked her (male) political science tutor for a preparatory reading list. “Christina Hoff-Sommers. Mary Grabar. Dr Helen Smith!”, wailed Dave, aghast. As Dave isn’t normally given to wailing, I did a bit of research; after five minutes of Googling, I was wailing myself.
In a nutshell, these three women are flying the flag for multitudes of Americans who – judging from the thousands of supportive comments out there in the blogosphere – want women out of academia, politics, the creative industries and commerce and back in the kitchen, where they belong. So, in an effort to counteract the insidious rhetoric to which his niece had been exposed, we gave her ...Tracey Emin.
Though her work sells faster than wheatgrass infusions on America’s east and west coasts, Emin has largely avoided the criticism, disparagement and condemnation to hell that Hoff-Sommers, Grabar, Smith and their followers heap upon women who fail to live up to the subjugated Barbie image so beloved by the kind of men who call women sluts. Not that Emin is exactly adored – or even respected – on our supposedly more liberal shores. “Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness,” said bitter old fogey – sorry, esteemed art critic – Brian Sewell recently, referring to the woman he cites as “his nemesis.” But whether you love it, hate it or merely don’t get it, is it really Emin’s art that strikes such fear and loathing into the heart of the misogynistic menaces?
On one hand, Emin is the pin up girl (pinned to the dartboard, that is) for ‘the Western world has gone to hell in a handcart’ brigade. On the other, she’s the epitome of ‘Thatcher’s children’ success stories. The half-Turkish Cypriot daughter of a woman who had children with Emin’s father while he was still married to someone else, Emin dropped out of school at 13 and went on the pill the following year. She underwent two abortions in her early twenties. She binged on every conscious-altering substance she could get her hands on. She contracted gonorrhoea and suffers from recurrent herpes. She gave up drinking, smoking and everything else, and now swims ‘obsessively’. She’s a Royal Academician with three honorary PhDs. She campaigns for more cycling routes and better schools and is annoyed that, despite all the taxes she pays, the quality of life in Britain is so bad. She’s donated millions of pounds to national and international charities. She never married. Oh, and she’s a multi-millionaire.
The more harrowing details of Emin’s personal life weren’t foraged for by sleazy journalists looking for some scandal to put her ‘in her place’ - they’re the experiences that form the bedrock of a prolific inspiration. By making art about those experiences, Emin isn’t endorsing them – she’s asking us to consider alternatives. While we aim to teach young people that abortion, STDs and alcoholism are best avoided at all costs, it’s inevitable that most will find themselves involved, to varying degrees, in issues relating to all three topics at some point in their lives. To attempt to hide this reality beneath the covers of a (literally) man made ‘respectability’, blame those with ‘immoral liberal values’ (Mary Grabar’s description of most contemporary women artists) for being partially responsible for ‘the confusion rife in American males today’ (yup, Mary again), and discourage rather than persuade women from all backgrounds to consider further education is to deny access to the kind of frank, honest, creative, resourceful, educated mentors who, without any sinister, brittle, quasi-moralistic sermonising, are those most perfectly equipped to elevate the consciousness of responsible citizens in the making.
So what did Dave’s niece make of Tracey Emin? “She thinks she could use a little Botox,” he sighed.
God bless America.