Art Books: Owning Art by Louisa Buck and Judith Greer</br>Tracey Emin: Works 1963-2006 by Tracey Emin

Unwashed pots and ditry beds
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Owning Art by Louisa Buck and Judith Greer (CULTURESHOCK MEDIA £14.95 £13.95 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897)

Tracey Emin: Works 1963-2006 by Tracey Emin (RIZZOLI £40 £36 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897)

The contemporary art world can be tremendously confusing from the outside. How do you gain access to the white-walled citadels where the Damien Hirsts and Julian Schnabels exhibit, the openings which seem to be populated solely by the rich and glamorous? Why, when a show has just started, have all the works been sold already? And what makes much of this stuff art, anyway? Isn't Martin Creed's "Work No 88: A sheet of A5 paper crumpled into a ball" just a piece of rubbish? Isn't it true that many of these artists don't even bother to make their own work?

Louisa Buck and Judith Greer, well-known as critic and collector respectively, have done a fine job of demystifying this perplexing scene, where catalogues can wax lyrical about "the cynical side of soap" and childish scrawls can be worth six-figure sums, and have provided a guide that could set even the most ignorant on the right path.

There is plenty of straightforwardly useful information. The official opening dates of an exhibition are never the real dates - there's always a private view the night before. The practicalities of conservation and insurance are gone through meticulously, and the reason why so much contemporary art seems puzzlingly different from more traditional paintings, sculpture and so on is explained: "Intention is as important as appearance. Concept is as important as execution."

But Buck and Greer have not merely written a "how to" guide. This is very much an "ought to" book, with a delightful strain of didacticism running through the text. The authors watch over the reader like the art equivalent of the Dinner Party Inspectors, encouraging their subjects but ever-ready to issue a stern admonishment to those who fail to observe the etiquette.

To the authors, it is clear that collecting is a calling, and most definitely not a game for the wealthy to dabble in. "Very few serious collectors purchase art purely to make a profit, and those that do are widely frowned upon," they write, adding a bracingly severe quote from the New York gallerist Barbara Gladstone: "Art is not a stock and should not be treated as such."

Dealers are described in a manner which will spread smiles from Cork Street to Clerkenwell. Far from being grubby salesmen dressed up in Savile Row suits, they are pastoral figures concerned with their artists' well-being and long-term careers. If this makes them sound saintly, new collectors would be well advised to realise that certain standards will be demanded of them; they cannot simply expect to walk into a space and snap up whatever they want from the walls, no matter how much cash they have to splash.

Relationships have to be cultivated with dealers, who require clients to show both knowledge of and interest in their artists. Galleries are not solely concerned with profit margins; they want their artists' works to end up in serious collections, and preferably, in the long run, in public institutions. This is why some London galleries regularly refuse to sell to a famous British collector whose long-term personal investment in the art they doubt. Many a gallery employee can tell tales of being bawled at down the phone by this man when he knows works are being withheld from him.

To Buck and Greer, collectors are only temporary trustees of artworks, and there can be no greater honour than for their collections to appear in or be accepted by institutions such as the Tate or the Guggenheim. Caring for this work in the meantime is an almost sacred duty. I particularly liked the example of Rirkrit Tiravanija, whose art has involved cooking Thai specialties and serving them up to visitors. The New York collector Eileen Cohen has a wok from one of Tiravanija's first pieces on a shelf in her library. Said object, we are told, is "encrusted with ancient shrimp curry and displayed next to a Hopi ceramic pot". The squeamish collector may need to remember the words of the late Roy Castle: "Dedication, that's what you need."

It's worth noting that the minefield that Buck and Greer help would-be collectors to negotiate ultimately leads to dealers and institutions, not artists. Given the idiosyncrasies of many of the latter, that's just as well. The novice art enthusiast would have to be truly well-prepared to deal with someone like Tracey Emin, for instance. Never mind ossified shrimp curry; here the visitor must enter a world where the most grimly personal details are made public, from stories of sexual abuse and alcoholic benders to the sad, sad events of a botched abortion. As Ms Emin says in this new volume: "There's nothing worse than suppression. If you have to vomit you have to vomit, if you have to shit you have to shit, if you have to bleed you have to bleed, if you have to come you have to come."

One could be forgiven for wondering if there is anything more about Emin's life that we need to know. As the book's compiler, Carl Freedman, asks her in a lengthy interview: "Were you ever concerned that you might be perceived as a little self-obsessed?" Much of the ground covered has been gone over before, either in newspaper interviews or in Emin's memoir, Strangeland (Sceptre £7.99). This handsome addition to the Emin library, however, contains not only rather touching, juxtaposing prints of bright but vulnerable neons, homely yet angry applique quilts and quite startlingly beautiful photographs, but also some seriously hard questioning by Freedman.

Knowing her so well (Freedman is also a former boyfriend of Emin's), he can get away with telling her he thinks she's a bully or that she's boring him. "What makes you think you're so special?" he asks at one point. "Why are you just so, erm, degenerate?" It's a further level of honesty that, perversely, is required from someone who might seem to have already been more honest than anyone needs to be.

Because that's the thing about contemporary art, whether it's Emin's unmade bed or a pot of old food on a shelf: jumping from the criteria of appearance and execution to those of intention and concept is a leap, and many need explanation, not just faith, to make that leap. Both these books will help those preparing to do so. The rewards, they will find, are well worth it.