Artist as Victim, Artist as Celebrity: Interrogating the Work of Tracey Emin and Sue Williams
In the 1990s, diversity became a fashionable new flavor in the art world. Artists of varying cultural and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations began to become highly visible. Women in particular achieved unprecedented levels of recognition. Yet while many artists from previously disenfranchised groups were praised for bringing fresh, new perspectives to the traditional confines and conventions of the art world, critic also objected that some of these artists were perhaps too narrowly focused on their own personal experiences.
Women artists especially, including Sue Williams and Tracey Emin, were criticized for bringing matters of sexual and domestic abuse-subjects often regarded as "women's issues"-to the forefront in their art. Supporters proclaimed that these artists were reversing the tradition of regarding woman as the muse or object of artistic representation, and were, instead, becoming agents of their own creativity. By frankly addressing the dark side of female sexuality, they were creating art that was both inspired and empowering. But other viewers said that these artists could not be taken seriously because their self-proclaimed status as "victim" had the effect of placing their art "beyond the reach of criticism." And, later, as the novelty of the female-confessional genre wore off, it became all too easy for critics to accuse artists such as Tracey Emin of producing little more than "unadulterated, self-indulgent crap."
"Victim" or confessional art is not new in the art world. Female writers, artists, musicians and theorists such as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Jo Spence, Carolyn Steedman, Tori Amos, Valerie Walkerdine, and Annette Kuhn have been mining the autobiographical for decades in a bid to widen the range of issues and experiences that art can depict-and often to search for personal catharsis as well. It was not until the late 1980's and early 1990's, however, when work by women was given a new prominence within the artistic community, that confessional art came into prominence as a significant genre of the decade. During that period, works by Sue Williams and, later in the 1990's, Tracy Emin attracted substantial amounts of both criticism and praise.
Sue Williams, who hales from Illinois, came to distinction in the early nineties when she began showing raw, cartoonish paintings depicting brutal rape and abuse at the 303 Gallery in New York. She was one of the most celebrated female artists of the era, along with Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman. Williams' position on the artistic hierarchy was solidified when she was included in three consecutive biennials at the Whitney Museum of American art in 1993, 1995 and 1997. In 1972 she began attending California Institute of the Arts, when she studied under John Baldessari and Elizabeth Murray. She also studied at Cooper Union in New York City, where she later settled and still works today.
Williams' work in the late eighties and early nineties almost exclusively dealt with issues of abuse--abuse perpetrated on women by men. Williams identifies herself as a battered woman and says that she has had no lack of experiences from which she has been able to draw upon for her art. "I've lived with some very scary men," she has said. "I've been hit in the head with a hammer and pushed through glass windows. Once, I was shot and left for dead."
Her early work often included black-and-white cartoon-inspired figures of women being assaulted or brutalized, accompanied by scrawls of crude text. An acrylic on canvas painting that she created in 1992 called "Spiritual American #2" (Figure 1) is a rudimentary drawing of a woman on all fours, with a man on his knees who has his groin pressed up against her buttocks. Although one cannot see the genitals of the figures, one can assume that the male figure is penetrating the female from the two simple, parentheses-like lines floating next to the buttocks of the male-a technique often used in the comic book genre to indicate movement in a two-dimensional environment. The man in the painting has in his hands a large gun-proportionately it takes up nearly two-thirds of the female figure's back-which he is holding to the head of the woman. His mouth is open in a manner that indicates that he is saying something, and combined with the scowling, arched eyebrows and the obvious signs of rape, one can only imagine that the words emanating from his mouth are as horrifying and rooted in male dominance as the feelings behind the painting. The title, too, expresses Williams' rage at a patriarchal society that allows its men to commit such heinous and violent crimes against its women. But the title also gives a sense of lightheartedness to the piece and to the artist. One imagines that Williams is not just an angry feminist, but an angry feminist with a sense of humor.
In 1993 Williams started to be recognized as a major female force in the art world. She was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and had a piece in the highly politicized Whitney Biennial of that year. Her piece, however, was not one of her standard depictions of male-on -female violence but was instead, a puddle of fake plastic vomit 6 feet in diameter. The piece was interpreted by critics and the public at large as being Williams' protest "against the male-dominated beauty-obsessed culture that makes women stick fingers down their throats." Williams, however, claims, "The vomit was so misunderstood. People saw it as this hideous gesture about bulimia, but I saw it as humorous." Humor and bulimia aside, one cannot help but look at the submission of a puddle of vomit for a show that had the ability to provide the ultimate validation to an artist as anything but an expression of the same emotion that seems to have inspired all of Williams' pieces up to this point: rage.
Another artist who rose to prominence by mining the personal and shocking audiences with the violence of her vision is Tracy Emin. Her work is both autobiographical and confessional. Nothing is sacred and everything is fodder for her work: her two abortions, childhood sexual abuse, her rape at age thirteen and subsequent sexual promiscuity, the fact that she has herpes, her alcohol abuse, her suicide attempts, her menstrual blood and her boyfriend's penis size. Emin was born in London in 1963 and spent her childhood in Margate, a seaside town that she revisits often in her art. She got a fashion diploma and went onto the Maidstone College of Art and then to the Royal College of Art.
After graduating she worked closely with another young British artist, Sarah Lucas, with whom she opened a store selling a mix of homemade pop culture and "low art" products, including t-shirts that bore slogans such as, "Have you wanked over me yet?" Her first solo show in 1994 at White Cube in London was called "My Major Retrospective" and was comprised of her diaries, letters and memorabilia as well as photographic reproductions in miniature of her older paintings. She also exhibited a vial containing tissue from one of her aborted fetuses and a package of cigarettes that her uncle had been holding when he was decapitated in a car crash.
Her piece in the Royal Academy's "Sensation" exhibition in 1997, entitled "Everyone I Have Every Slept With 1963-1995," (Figure 2) became infamous in the art world and stood out even in a show that was notorious for its many controversial works, including pieces by Jake and Dinos Chapman' genital-faced child manikins Damien Hirst's rotting cow's head and maggots and Chris Ofili's use of elephant dung in a portrait of the virgin Mary. Emin's piece was an appliquéd tent and mattress on which she embroidered the names of every person she had slept with, including her aborted twins, her lovers, her mother and her brother. There were 102 names in all, and across the bottom she embroidered in large patch letters the words "With Myself Always Myself Never Forgetting." The form of the piece only added to the feeling of voyeurism that such personal works evoke, since viewers had to actually crawl inside the tent to be able to fully view the work. Rather than a testament to sexual promiscuity, the work referenced intimacy, since the list included all those people with whom she had slept in the same bed, but had not necessarily had sexual relations.. Many of the names were written on square scraps of floral print fabric, creating an eerie juxtaposition between the sexual and the unsophisticated domestic-a feature of much of Emin's work. Her penchant for making use of strangely dyslexic misspellings in her block print quilting only adds to the bizarrely puerile effect of her work. (Figure 3)
In 1999 Emin was shortlisted for the prestigious Turner Prize, causing a raging controversy in the art world over her piece entitled, "My Bed." Critics were scathing in their censure of the piece, but it did have its supporter as well. "My Bed" (Figure 4) was a double bed, ostensibly Emin's actual bed in which she had lain for four days while contemplating suicide. The bed had no frame and was instead a mattress laid atop a box made of wood. The soiled sheets are ripped halfway off, exposing the striped ticking of the mattress beneath. A small bedside table rests on a blue, soiled rug next to the bed. On the table is an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts as well as photographs, over- the- counter medications and condoms. The rug is also strewn with other artifacts from Emin's life, including her dirty, bloodied underwear, Polaroid photographs, stuffed animals, a tube of KY Jelly, empty cigarette cartons, crumpled papers, used condoms and empty vodka bottles. The final touch is a rope noose hanging above the bed, a silent testament to Emin's pain and narcissistic exhibitionism. Viewing the piece is reminiscent of watching one of Courtney Love's chemical-fueled confessional tantrums on MTV.
It is not only Emin's artwork that evokes pop culture and the world of celebrity. For Tracey Emin has not been content to remain within the sphere of the art world, but has become a demi-celebrity herself. She sang a duet with Boy George, modeled in a Vivienne Westwood fashion show, has had her own drunken tantrums on network television and has used the stylistic conventions of popular music videos in many of her video pieces. Nor has the public been immune to these visual stylings. Emin often graces the pages of British gossip columns and is followed around by paparazzi. Her fans go to art openings shouting, "We love you, Tracey!" and treat her with the kind of public adoration more typically enjoyed by rock stars than by visual artists.
What social climate inspires such confessional works and rewards them with celebrity status? The 1990's were a period when the cult of the confessional found its place in the social landscape. Musicians such as Tori Amos (who was raped) and Kurt Cobain (who hated his father) sang about their personal experiences in a way that seemed new and appealing to a wide range of listeners. Movements like "Riot Grrrl" arose with the intent of empowering young women through increased visibility and vocalization about issues such as sexual abuse. Talk shows exploded, filling the airwaves with programs that focused on the female confession. Hosts including Jerry Springer, Geraldo Rivera, Maury Povich and Oprah Winfrey broadcast hours every day filled primarily with women's problems and secrets. The first reality show, "The Real World," debuted on television, allowing the public to not only watch a group of young people's clandestine affairs on a weekly basis, but to watch them eat, bathe and sleep as well. In 1995, the most beloved figure in all of England, Princess Diana, gave an interview with Martin Bashir in which she revealed that "the discovery that her husband was having an affair was 'devastating', bringing on 'rampant' bulimia and attempts to injure herself."
In a society so fascinated with confession and victim culture, it was inevitable that art would soon submit to the same trends. It also was inevitable that a backlash would follow once artists such as Sue Williams and Tracey Emin became popular. Emin particularly incurred the rage of critics and was accused of being "crude, primitive, uninteresting, ill-informed, [and] objectionable." Reactions to Emin are usually knee-jerk and always strong. In particular, many in the public seem to object to her self-exploitive techniques, and critics accuse her of presenting herself as a victim as a way to short-circuit any criticism of herself as an artist.
Critic Arlene Croce, who popularized the term "victim art" complained that things had reached the point where "victimhood in and of itself is sufficient to the creation of an art spectacle." She suggested that confessional art defies criticism by engaging in a sort of emotional blackmail with critics and the public. She asked, "Where will it go from here? If an artist paints a picture in his own blood, what does it matter if I think it's not a very good picture?" Croce also suggested that confessional art may be appealing to a different audience, one that may have been previously found art "too fine, too high, too educational, too complicated." - The implication is that an audience raised on a steady diet of talk shows and celebrity worship may only be able to respond to art in the same manner that they are accustomed to responding to most public spectacles: with a mixture of horror, titillation and schadenfreude.
The question of whether or not confessional art is actually good is as Croce points out, very hard to answer. For one cannot judge the works independently without being overwhelmed by information about the artist's biography and life experience. Some critics say, however, that the individual artist's experience is irrelevant, as all "victim art" is easily transposable. "Often, confessional art actually seems oddly impersonal and bland," critic Mark Stevens writes, "almost interchangeable with anyone else's confessional art-because the eye sees only the common conventions of autobiography that dominate the individual artist. In art, the personal can quickly lose its personality."
It is perhaps for this reason that soon after receiving critical acclaim, Sue Williams started to shy away from the confessional and move towards the abstract during the later 1990's. In the work Williams started producing shortly after the 1993 Whitney Biennial, the rage and personal pain that were formerly so evident seemed to evaporate. Many critics hailed the dramatic shift evident in her work from the mid to late 1990's. "She made a complete about-face, unlike almost any by an artist to have emerged in recent years," Michael Kimmelman wrote approvingly in the New York Times. Described as "late de Kooning lite" and often compared to early Joan Mitchell, her works are large white canvasses covered with abstractions, colorful swirls and doodles of color. (Figure 5) She still claims to be "making fun of painting as a way of painting" but the cartoon figures and text are gone and in their place are bright worms of colors snaking across the canvas. Her old subject matter, which had often been described as "victim art," has not completely disappeared, however, for in many of her paintings comical renderings of orifices and penile heads float amongst the sea of bright colors. (Figure 6) Many of her more recent works also feature bold black and white depictions of the female genitals, but the violence that was so intrinsic in her early work seems to have vanished.
Williams' work became more spontaneous, and although her subject matter is still exceedingly sexual, it is not as painful as her early pieces were. Confessional artists often claim to be looking for catharsis through their work, and possibly Williams finally found it and was able to move on. More likely, she became bored and uncomfortable with her work--and her reputation as a victim--as her visibility in the art world increased. Perhaps the more widely and well-received her work became, the less inspired she became to display the pain of her personal life. Certainly she did not seek the celebrity status that Tracey Emin has achieved in recent years. And Emin has not seemed to find the emotional well-being that radiates from Williams' recent works. And although Emin's life is, by all accounts improving-she has given up drinking hard alcohol and is happy in a long-term relationship with artist Mat Collishaw-she still seems content to continue picking at her scabs and putting them on display.
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