At different times in my life, I have been a victim. I'm not talking about when I was young, when I didn't have much control over my life. I'm talking about when I was older, when I realised I was allowing myself too often to be cast as one. At first, I just didn't know how not to be. I was naive so I was sometimes exploited. I didn't always have guidance when I needed it most. When I was in my early teens, I was groomed by predatory, older males, including one of my school teachers. By the time I was in my early twenties, it was a habit formed not just by experience and a lack of knowledge and self-awareness but also an insidious, almost Pavlovian process of response and reward. That is to say, I was rewarded for being a victim. For nearly everyone around me – the men in my life, my family, even those who sold my art – I was 'safer' then. I was impressionable, malleable, controllable. As long as I stayed that way, I was given approval and attention. All it took was for me to negate myself, my ambitions, my opinions, and my needs.I'm talking about all this now because I have been thinking a lot about Tracey Emin and Frida Kahlo. Both are well-known artists who have exposed themselves relentlessly in their work. However, unlike the hyperbolic Emin, Kahlo didn't achieve much recognition in her lifetime. She sold just a couple of pictures. And yet Kahlo is so much stronger and more authentic than Emin: her art and life were directed by raw suffering and neither she nor her work was easy. But Kahlo was not a victim. Emin is. Kahlo was powerful, independent, radical, sexually liberated and intellectual. Emin is a drunk who renders her opinions, and even work, powerless through her own self-absorbed, exhibitionistic self-destructiveness. Watch her disintegrate during a 1997 appearance on a live, televised discussion about that year's Turner Prize on UK's Channel 4. A decade later, she is still playing the victim.In art-hype, Emin is talked of as one who bravely makes intimate revelations. This has become her 'brand expression'. She has even been elevated to academic respectability as Professor of Confessional Art at The European Graduate School. 'Confessional' is an inaccurate, trite description of Emin's work. What it's really about is being a victim. Her identity as a victim has been elemental to her train-wreck of a success. In her very early career, Emin made a little money by writing letters to people asking them to invest £20 in her as an artist. Infamously, one recipient was Jay Jopling, who later became her dealer. In other words, she begged – and profited from pity.Emin's 1998 work, My Bed, is described, melodramatically, on the Saatchi Collection site as the "bloody aftermath of a nervous breakdown". A decade later, Emin is a star, flying to the opening of the Venice Biennale - where she is representing Britain - on a private jet. Yet despite her successful, even luxurious life, her work is still about being a victim. At Venice, she exhibited drawings about being abused since the age of nine, as well as 27 watercolours about her abortion, painted in 1990. Deep-seated effects of emotional trauma are documented and real – and I am not criticising Emin for being open about such things – but I find her efforts insincere. Despite her now powerful, celebrated position in BritArt, she clings to her self-portrait as a powerless, damaged victim. Unfortunately, I suspect she's responding to the press of society's – and 'old' media – impulse to reward displays of female powerlessness with recognition, money, and attention. For Emin, being a victim is money in the bank.Frida Kahlo's paintings are more painful, more confronting, more raw than any of Emin's so-called confessional works. However they are also more sophisticated, mixing metaphor, cultural symbolism and intensely revelatory personal moments to create unique visions of a dream-like, yet somehow recognisable, world. Of the two women, Kahlo could easily have been the greater victim. She contracted polio as a child, witnessed extreme violence during the Mexican Revolution, and was involved in a now infamous street car accident, which shattered her spinal column, collarbone, ribs, pelvis, and right leg; worse, an iron handrail impaled her abdomen and pierced her uterus. Kahlo lived in extreme physical pain, and was often beset by emotional tumult (discovering that her husband was fucking her sister was just one incident). All of this was explored openly in her work. Kahlo suffered miscarriages and was unable to bear a child. She had good reason to identify herself as a victim, but she didn't. Emin chose – and it is a choice, not an accident– to have numerous abortions and make work about their traumatic after-effects. In all of these works, she casts herself as a victim – of time, of circumstance, of the men who made her pregnant, of her emotional instability, of her alcoholism, of her perception of other people's judgments of her. Yet the act of aborting is tied absolutely with women's rights. Emin made the empowered, conscious decision to abort. With the right of choice comes responsibility for one's decisions – and the consequences. Powerful people are intimidating. Victims are no threat at all. I think there is a very strong relationship between Emin's success and her perpetual role as a victim. She – and too many women in general – are rewarded for being victims. I am ashamed to say that I have experienced it myself, both within my familial structures, within relationships, within the context of my career. But I am not a victim anymore. And I accept the consequences – the fall out , if you like – of this self-empowering commitment. A lot of people, too many, preferred me when I was a victim. All of them have been pushed out of my life and my career. I refuse to give into their need – and, occasionally, mine – for me to surrender.
Fuck them. Fuck so-called 'role models' like Emin. Art is so much more than just another way of getting the attention that narcissistic, self-absorbed victims like Emin crave.