THE BLOG

On Expectations and Emin

20/10/2014 11:14 BST | Updated 19/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Weak shows by maturing artists, (e.g Paul McCarthy's current show) remind me of the dreadful botoxed faces of celebrities we once loved. How is this possible? Do they not have any real friends to tell them how it actually looks? I always thought that artists got better as they got older. I thought that this was one of the advantages of the job, unlike say, being a sports person.

This problem of expectations is what is at stake with Tracey Emin's new show. The thing about Emin, and this is not something to be sniffed at, is that she is, and has been for quite some time, a proper beacon for young female art students. Same with Marina Abramovic. But it's a bit of a desert out there, so when these women let us down, they let us down hard: there are so few others to which to turn.

This is the difficulty of successful women: given their scarcity, we want Emin to represent us - women kind - well. We have higher expectations of her, we hold her to account in a way in which we would not with a man. Men, as we know are individuals, not representatives of a group. If they succeed it is because they are good, not, god forbid, because they are favored by our societal system. Of course this is nonsense. It's also unrealistic to expect Emin, or any other of the high-flying women out there to have all the right answers. They are in fact, flawed creatures like the rest of us, grappling in the muck trying to make sense of it. Which is why it really doesn't help when Emin comes out with the clichéd statements that have been bandied around the papers recently, as if she were the great speaker of truth.

The return to painting and sculpture has been accompanied in Emin by a return to reactionary and damaging iterations, the likes of which we might expect more from Baselitz /Sewell. This has caused due rebuttals, from good feminists like Margaret Harrison. No doubt, these issues from Emin have come, in part, precisely to stir up debate, and simply to get publicity. She has done it cleverly, two statements, kind of funny, kind of true. But both definitely need unpacking.

Statement number one:

"There are good artists who have children. They are called men."

Statement number two:

"I would have been either 100 % mother or 100 % artist. I'm not flaky and I don't compromise."

The first statement, while patently false, highlights an important issue: the fact is we don't even think about the child status of men. The logic implicit here is that having no parental responsibilities (like artist-fathers) makes her more likely to be a good artist. It's funny in a depressing kind of way, and also curious in the light of her collaboration with mother of three, Louise Bourgeois.

The second statement is both less funny and more damning. It's a backhander and hits women where it hurts. This statement is about the failures of working mothers, their cruel neglect as they selfishly pursue careers. And again it's a message to all those other mother artists out there: you are just not giving art your 100%.

This is not the first time Emin has expressed such sentiments, and to be sure, she is right, both being an artist and being a mother requires a lot. Marlene Dumas, who I interviewed in 2010, would agree:

"It's a question of too little time. Art and children both want and need all the time you've got, never resolved that, but it also can never be 'solved' anyway."

There are practical problems here, but these would not be gender specific, if only more people were willing to hold fathers to account for their progeny. The flexibility of artists' work patterns affords the possibility of a more equal division of childcare for heterosexual artist couples. There are no fixed working hours, no boss to ask for parental leave, and after all good art is not always the product of long hard labour.

The problem with Emin's statements is that they propagate damaging myths: about what it is to be an artist, a mother, a woman. And as Virginia Woolf tells us, it far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. It's like looking for nits, or searching for proof for jealousy: resolution can only be reached by discovering what we don't want to be true and in the absence of that we are condemned to continue the search.

Marina Abramovic was similarly unhelpful with banishing this phantom, as she stood naked in front of an all female audience at the Royal Festival Hall in 2012, stating that because they are not willing to make the necessary sacrifices, women are less likely to become Great Artists. The suggestion here, being, that they have not been able to pursue art with the reckless abandon of an eighteenth century romantic.

I don't concur with this out dated ideal of the artist genius. What's more, don't our life encounters feed into our artwork? They certainly seem to with Emin. Of all the gamut of human experiences pregnancy and birth are perhaps the most extraordinary, confounding our notions of the one body, one mind philosophical tradition. Again Marlene Dumas:

"Having a child is one of the most shocking, and more, experiences, especially in our virtual world where so much is mediated and here comes a new human being of flesh and blood and tears and screams."

May be its worth remembering when Dumas comes to the Tate in 2015, that she has taught throughout her career (as well as having lovers/partners, a child). And perhaps all that life, all those responsibilities have kept her work vital. All this is not to say that it isn't a shame that the world is still so ready to be shocked by a woman who wants to be alone, and good on Emin for capitalising on that. But it's the vanity that prevents some artist maintaining a critical engagement with what they say and produce that bothers me. But then, why should we expect artists to be our prophets? Or make more than one, or possibly two really good works? There should be room for mistakes, art is a practice and sometimes, just like the violin, practice sounds/looks awful. In fact we should enjoy these careers, in their twists and turns, their highs and lows. These artists are humans too, after all. And isn't the expectation itself something of a hangover from that old idea of the artist genius?