Tracey Emin is in transit between Sydney and New York. She has touched down in LA to see her gallery about her forthcoming show and doesn't sound like she's having much fun. "It's Oscar night, there are loads of parties and I'm not invited to any because no one knows I'm here," she says down the phone from her suite at the Mondrian Hotel. "The last thing I want to do is to go to parties anyway. They're among the things I intend to give up along with interviews and men. All I want to do is work and have time for reflection." She lightens up, though, when I ask after her mid-life crisis.
"Oh yeah, it's in full swing, thanks. Women used to go to evening classes when they hit middle age. Now they have plastic surgery. I've made a film instead." Which is why I'm calling. Tracey's film for Channel 4's new ArtShock series, entitled What Price Art?, investigates the gross imbalance between the prices male and female artists get for their work. "There are plenty of high- profile women artists today and I'm one of them, but more often than not their work sells for much less than their male counterparts," she opens with. "And if a woman artist manages to become acclaimed, rich and famous, what sacrifices and life choices does she have to make for her art?"
Tracey's inner turmoil over true love and lack of children is well documented, not least in her weekly column for The Independent, but this film is interesting because it directs some of her fury and misgivings outwards and asks some really good questions about the art world and society in general. The pay gap is polarized at the top end of the art market where work by male artists can fetch up to $40m more than their female counterparts, while women's increasing concern over if, when and how to have children is thrown into relief when you consider that very few of our best female artists have them at all.
The film falls into two halves, the first concerning itself with the dichotomy of pay - and therefore status - that is the elephant in the art world's sitting-room; the second about the decisions women artists need to take if they are to achieve the same financial success as men. "No one ever talks about it, least of all me, until now," she says from LA. "It's very British not to talk about money and especially embarrassing to make a fuss if you're quite well-off. I've always thought, 'I'm doing OK, I can't complain', which is a very female attitude. I've never asked my gallerist why so many of his male artists sell their work for more and I've never asked the Tate why they paid so much more for Chris Ofili's work than they did for mine."
"This isn't about money," she clarifies. "It's about the value placed on art; it's about reputation. Perhaps it's because I didn't win the Turner Prize. But I was nominated. Or maybe it's because I haven't represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. But that begs the question: Why haven't I been asked?"
Tracey was inspired to make the film by a recent survey of the 30 most powerful people in the art world: only one is a women and she is a collector, not an artist. So she decided to start with vox pops outside Tate Britain for which she asks people to name three artists. Their answers are depressingly predictable. Toulouse-Lautrec is by far the most popular, followed by Stubbs, Turner, Monet, Constable, Picasso and David Hockney. The latter is the only contemporary artist mentioned and, crucially, not one woman springs to anyone's mind.
Her friends told her not to bother with the research. "They said, 'It's obvious, Tracey.' But I don't think it is... People could have said Gwen John, Bridget Riley, Barbara Hepworth, Rachael Whiteread... It just goes to show that female artists don't have proper representation in so many ways and the next question is, why?"
Cut to scenes of the star-studded opening of Tracey's last show at London's White Cube gallery. Hoxton Square is heaving with beautiful and/or influential people. It all looks fabulous and positively reeks of money. "Much of my currency, my cachet, is about me," she says. "I can cause a splash." The show was a huge success and her work sold very well, she goes on, but the fact remains that male artists continue to command much higher prices than she and most of her female contemporaries do. Later in the film, we discover that Damien Hirst's work sells for up to 10 times more than that of either Tracey or Sarah Lucas.
I ask her if she feels resentful. "I don't want to talk about Damien," she says. "There is no comparison between him and me; he developed a whole new way of making art and he's clearly in a league of his own. It would be like making comparisons with Warhol. Compare me to artists who make paintings and sculpture, fine." Like Chris Ofili, Peter Doig, Gary Hume, Marc Quinn? "Yes, but this isn't about individual artists, I'm not angry with artists, they don't set the prices."
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Tracey's next move was to visit the heart of the British art establishment in search of an answer, so she visits Norman Rosenthal, exhibitions secretary at the Royal Academy. Tracey wants to know how many of the 80 Academicians (working artists who are elected as members by the Academy's board) are women and if she's ever likely to be asked to be a member. It's an honour, she tells us, that is considered to be the ultimate endorsement of a British artist.
"I haven't got a member, Norman," she observes, but he is unfazed. "We have plenty of members without members. In fact, around a third of our Academicians are women." Rosenthal is urbane and reassuring, and suggests that Tracey let it be known "in some mysterious way" that she'd consider becoming a member of the Royal Academy. "What, like making a TV programme and talking about it quite openly?" she asks. "Exactly," Rosenthal says. "It's all about the lobby. This place is a self-perpetuating oligarchy."
The implication of Rosenthal's remarks is that all you need to achieve high status in the art world are good networking skills. But surely there is no artist more au fait with self-promotion than Tracey who, despite a full-on work schedule, never seems to stop writing, travelling, appearing on television and socialising, However, the art world reflects contemporary society to the extent that, while women can now make their way to the top, they are still not remunerated for it. Even in positions of power, they are still nowhere near as powerful as men. One might have imagined the contemporary art scene, chock-a-block with huge female talent and charisma as it is, would set the pace for sexual equality in the workplace but, of course, it's the collectors who control the art market. And who are they? Overwhelmingly, they're wealthy, white men with City backgrounds, says Oliver Baker, head of contemporary art at Sotheby's London, who pay top dollar for "macho" art that reflects their vision of themselves.
The film shows Baker standing with Tracey in the galleries of the world's largest auction house with a turnover of £2bn a year, cash tills ker-ching and comparative prices flash up on screen. The sums achieved at auction over the last decade by male and female artists (whose work is acknowledged to be of equal stature) have to be seen to be believed: Bruce Nauman's $9,906,000 to Eva Hesse's $2,202.500, Jackson Pollock's $11,655,500 to Lee Krasner's $1,911,500, Henry Moore's $8,408,000 to Barbara Hepworth's $1,228, 000. "Lee Krasner has taken a while to catch up," says Baker, "but a Pollock can reach 40 or 50 million."
Almost the only exception to this is Frida Kahlo, whose paintings now go for over $5m and continue to rise in value while those of her husband, Diego Rivera, have plateaued at $3m. Tracey's theory is that women's art works in a different way from men's, that it is slow-burning and has greater longevity. Baker agrees, comparing male artists to sports stars who should know when to "hang up their boots and quietly drift into the back-waters... Male art is very much about the grand gesture, the expressive moment... but women's art permeates way beyond that."
Tracey's next stop is Tate Modern's Frida Kahlo retrospective of last summer. She explains Kahlo's painting, My Birth, as being about giving birth to yourself, about female ambition and a sense of loss. Not having children is "a loss that you can't understand", she tells a Tate curator, "you feel you've never known about life". Kahlo's tragedy was that she couldn't have children, she says, but so many of her own contemporaries have decided against procreation that it makes you wonder if motherhood and the artist's life are a feasible combination.
At Maggi Hambling's London house and studio, the two women decide probably not. "I know it's bad," says Hambling, "but if I had a crying baby in one room and a crying painting in another, I'd probably go to the baby." Luckily for Hambling, she has never wanted children and has made her art her family and her best friend, she explains, as she shows Tracey her work. "Ah, the glory days of smoking and Special Brew," she laments fondly. "I'm not using one today, but usually for photographs I hold a fake cigarette because it's so fucking politically correct to give up smoking." In another painting, "my right shoulder's a fanny", she points out. "I'm wearing my heart on my sleeve." Tracey cackles with laughter.
Hambling hates the idea of women's art and says it's no more relevant that you're a woman than if you're gay or have red hair. Julia Peyton-Jones, director of the Serpentine Gallery, agrees, telling Tracey that she'd never put on a woman-only show because it would ghettoize and marginalize women.
Positive discrimination is a ludicrous concept in the art world but Tracey ruminates down the phone from LA that it's odd how she's never bothered to look at Barbara Hepworth's sculptures until she made this programme whereas she'd studied Henry Moore even though she found him boring. Looking at Hepworth's work at her house and garden (now a museum) in St Ives, Tracey falls in love with it and confesses to being shocked by the fact that Hepworth also had four children. "I suppose she wasn't expecting to have triplets," she concedes.
Hepworth's work sold for relatively little during her lifetime, while her husband, the sculptor Ben Nicholson, sold for a great deal more. "I know why," Hepworth allegedly said: "I'm young, I'm beautiful and I'm a mother." She spent the last 25 years of her life alone, smoking cigars, drinking whisky and wearing men's clothes and died in bed, holding a cigarette. "Pure diva," says Tracey appreciatively. "She was the Dame."
These days, the Dame is Maggi Hambling, and Tracey is soon back with her, climbing into Hambling's Bentley, "a birthday present to myself for having achieved the age of 60 which I never thought would happen. Shall we go for a spin?" Moments before, Tracey tells the camera that she must start to address "...what I have actually sacrificed or what I am not going to have in my life if I want to retain this level or this standard of creativity."
Hambling, grandly ensconced behind the wheel of her sleek machine and sporting a trilby with jaunty panache, bursts Tracey's bubble in the nicest possible way, pointing out that she hasn't even reached mid-life yet. "At 50, you know you're halfway, don't you, but at 60 you're definitely in the second half. Not a lot of time left." She puts her foot down. "She is beautifully smooth, isn't she? A V8 engine, Tracey. I'm told it's a man's engine, actually."
"There's no reason why a woman can't drive a man's engine," says Tracey, snuggling happily into her deep, leather seat.
"That's right," says Maggi and they drive off into the sunset. m
ArtShock runs for four consecutive nights on Channel 4 at 11pm from tomorrow. Tracey Emin's What Price Art? is broadcast on Wednesday 15 March
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