Monday, January 14, 2008

Stand Up, Artist

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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you. Words cannot express the effect reading that had on me. I feel like a door in my mind just opened up. So I can just say thank you.


Marlow said...

The antithesis of Emin in everything except critical acclaim and, I guess, money is Sophie Calle, who deals with the intensely personal and troubling but from the perspective of someone who prizes control rather than surrender to victimhood. She's no less a 'confessional' or intensely intimate artist because of it. Come to think of it, you, too, seem to prize control, despite the obviously revelatory nature of your art, photography and blog.

Anonymous said...

Hi Hazel,

Totally agree w/you re:
Frida Kahlo.
I was lucky enough to see many of her paintings in the 70's... have been inspired by her ever since!


Neil said...

Great post. I think is one of the best you have ever written and I have read just about all of them. Keep up the good work.

drips of paint said...

as usual very engaging post for me to read .....

Jennie said...

a particularly insightful and involving post - it's certainly given me a lot to think about, but then you always do that!

I think it's very easy to surrender to being a victim. it's harder to rise above it all and gain strength from it. sometimes it seems that the best thing in the world to do would be to just give in, to play upon the nature of our sex and to allow others to take charge over us. we do it by seeking approval, letting our choices and our voices be lost. it's something that I have to remain vigilant against - it's just too easy to let go.

I think it's especially easy for artists, we put our lives out there, our traumas and our deepest secrets and it's so easy to want to use that. after all, it's a great way to work through issues but it can segue into putting those issues out there for the highest bidder and gaining validation that way - rather than through the accomplishment of the work itself.

some people say that I'm a control freak - and I'm sure they say that to you as well, but there is nothing wrong with owning your own life, your decisions and your actions - and even your pains and traumas and issues. I wish I could remember that all the time, it's something I need to work on.

Nats said...

Hi Hazel
I’m an art student in London that has been following your blog for some months now. I had to comment on this post. I love Frida.

As a British art student I feel Emin has (on several occasions) been forced down my throat. Tutors demand that I should put she, (along with Hirst and the other YBA’s) up on a pedestal; beacons of Contemporary British art. When I went for the interview for my degree, one of the tutors asked who my influences were, who I respected, I began “Frida…” she tossed her head back, rolled her eyes and sighed in an irritated way, “Why are you all of you mentioning people that are dead, why Frida Kahlo again”. I tried to explain why I connect with Frida’s work, she didn’t seem impressed.To me, Emin feels fake, contrived. In a documentary about Frida, Emin said she is a big Frida fan. Interestingly for a ‘confessional’ artist Emin said she found Frida’s painting ‘My Birth’ “embarrassing”. I think the image is too raw, too real for her.

I was annoyed when Emin was picked to represent Britain in the Biennale – it seems the goal was to pick the person who would generate the most column inches, and not the most worthy, or even interesting British artist.

Yesterday I went to the Tate Modern and bought a black and white photographic portrait of Frida, taken by Imogen Cunningham. I’ve hung it above my desk. Her eyes are sad but she looks poised and determined, definitely not a victim.

Tosha said...

This is one of your best entries to date...and one that has moved me deeply and profoundly. You touched on role models - Hazel, you are one of mine. From victim to victor, we must go through these motions to realize the power that is everywhere.

Anonymous said...

You are right that people prefer a victim, not just because of their non-threatening position but because they can feel free to use the victim as a dumping ground for their own crap. This perpetuates the cycle.

It's a shame that Emin has pushed the victim hood in her art as she could have turned the whole thing around so easily and put herself in an empowered position.

It is always a dangerous line to walk as a female artist working in the area of sexuality as the terrain is still so dominated by men and the strength of the male gaze is all encompassing. It can be difficult to find a female voice in this area that doesn't get swallowed up in the male gaze rhetoric.