Tracey Emin on art writing: Everyone waiting to stick the knife in (2002)

Via Tracey Emin’s experience, to what extent is today’s artwriting riddled with factual errors and underlying motive by writers, journalists, and academics? And from a real research perspective, if we can’t figure out Tracey Emin today, how can we expect to really understand artists of the past?

The following are excerpts from an interview of Tracey Emin in her studio in 2001.

R.J. Preece: You are in a unique, high-profile, art-and-media career position. In many ways, you are overly examined and questioned.

Tracey Emin: It’s called “everyone waiting to stick the knife in,” waiting for you to fall.


R.J. Preece: What do you think about the writings on your work?

Tracey Emin: I think it’s people paying for their mortgages and paying for their mistresses by writing any old crap about me.

R.J. Preece: Do you read things that are completely factually off?

Tracey Emin: Totally. I could go to a newspaper, and I could sue them for defamation of character, for destroying, well not destroying, my career, but trying to corrupt my career or whatever. Quite easily.

R.J. Preece: Then why don’t you?

Tracey Emin: Because I’m bigger than all that. What’s in yesterday’s newspaper is today’s fish-and-chip paper. If it really affects my life so badly, so personally, then I would.

When it’s really out of order, or something possibly detrimental to my family, or I’m driven to such a level that I know that this can be picked up and repeated again, I will just write or e-mail the newspaper editor. So, in the next day’s newspaper, it might say, “Tracey Emin says this is factually incorrect.”

R.J. Preece: So that’s happening a bit, and I’m not seeing it in your press clippings.

Tracey Emin: Yes, because it might be in next week’s newspaper. But it doesn’t always hurt me. It hurt me when it was going on for four months during the Turner Prize (1999). Four months of being told that your work is shit by all different people was quite difficult, because I know my work isn’t shit. I know that I was a scapegoat. What was being said about me personally was unbearable. The stuff the press gets—I mean like ex-boyfriends selling stories to newspapers or being doorstepped by journalists leading up to the Turner Prize. My mum being telephoned all the time.

With my last show I did six interviews, but those six got diverted and split into, maybe, every single newspaper. That often happens: I haven’t done an interview or given any images, but, with paparazzi photos, the photos look recent and then they put the whole interview together. So, it looks like a new article, and it’s big—when I actually haven’t had anything to do with it.


R.J. Preece: I pulled some quotes out of your press clippings. I can show them to you if you’d like.

Tracey Emin: You could cheat and make some up to see if I remember them.

R.J. Preece: (Laughs.) Miranda Sawyer quotes you and writes: “I know people went to laugh at my bed and to jeer at it. Still,” sniffs Tracey, “at least they actually went to see it.”

Tracey Emin: Because of the amount of press attention, people went to see this dirty bed, as if it was a freak show. But when they got there, they saw something else—the bed, stuff on the walls, whatever. For the Tate, it’s the highest attendance they ever received for the Turner Prize show. There was a massive queue, and when you got into my bit, you couldn’t move.


R.J. Preece: The Sawyer piece also quotes you as saying: “I don’t understand why people are nasty to me.”

Tracey Emin: I don’t know why. But that quote was picked up by the press brilliantly. You know that “quote of the week” in newspapers? That was one of them. It’s like some art critic who should know better. He writes about my work, putting me and my work down, but then he writes in this bad-cockney way, with affectations in the writing, trying to mimic how I speak.

R.J. Preece: I’ve been thinking, there’s also a British cultural context— in addition to the media context— shaping these writings on your work, and this won’t always be clear to international readers. In one clipping, I read: “Her accent isn’t from Marlborough, it’s from Margate.” I heard later that a Marlborough accent is posh and public school. It strikes me as really odd to frame it in such a way, and what exactly is a Margate accent?

Tracey Emin: In America, they have words like “white trash.” That’s what is meant. They’re saying that I’m very common. With my accent, I’m not supposed to be intelligent. There have been a lot of newspaper articles, maybe hundreds, and the majority of women writers actually take an angle on it, or they try to go into it. With a lot of the men, however, they can be complementary, flattering, or lively. They’re gushing on how much they like me. Sometimes, it’s a bit embarrassing.

Then there are these other men. It’s like this: you’ve worked hard all of your life, you went to Oxford, and you’ve done this and that, and you’re an art critic. Your job is to unravel the “secret” or whatever, and you come across an entity like me. It’s going to piss you off. Because there’s no great secret, what you see is what you get, and anyone can understand what I’m doing. So, it’s almost like I make this critic-person redundant, just by my attitude, and they resent me for that.

It’s that simple.

Click to read the full interview of Tracey Emin.