You don't need to be an expert to know that Tracey Emin's latest show – The Last Great Adventure is You – will be preoccupied with a number of complex themes. Yet there is just one which we seem to be focusing on the most at the moment.
Last week, motherhood somehow became the central focus of two interviews with Emin. In one published yesterday, Emin describes how “Having a child would be a substitute for my work!“. And on Thursday, she was quoted as saying "There are good artists that have children. Of course there are. They are called men."
I happen to disagree with Emin. As an artist and a mother to two daughters, I know how hard it is to balance work and family, but I also know that it's possible. Having a partner to share the load with helps, although of course, there's no one way to run a family, or live your life.
Apparently, Emin’s new exhibition shows signs of being influenced by Kate Walker. This isn't surprising. In the mid-seventies Walker sewed life into everyday domestic objects, including a piece called ‘The Other Side of the Blanket’. The lack of recognition of those seventies women and their pioneering works is deplorable. Women artists of that decade broke new ground in both subject and form in a way that the YBAs have never done (except financially of course).
Likewise, in her statements about motherhood, Emin fails to recognise two female artists. Monica Ross and Nancy Spero were both mothers and made Emin's success possible. Both have produced work of more substance than any of the YBA's male or female members, and never had to use their bodies or sex to attract attention.
The groundwork for the current success of many women artists today was laid by those women in the seventies, in exhibitions such as the 1977 ICA show “Portrait of the artist as a housewife” in which Kate Walker was central. They were mothers who produced substantial work while arguing for parity within the art world.
However, Emin's comments do touch on the challenges facing female artists. On one hand, it's easier to succeed if you happen to have come from a well-connected and moneyed family. But for everyone else, it's a lot harder to succeed (let alone a mother as well) if you don't have the means.
In the current climate, it's doubtful if Emin’s mother (or any working-class person) would have had the money for her to go to art school. The centralisation of London in Britain's art world means that many female artists have to leave for jobs outside London. Compared to the sixties and seventies, when the cost of the capital was a lot more manageable for young women, girls from lower- and middle-class backgrounds are now discouraged.
As a result, the art world is dominated by just one class of people. But does this sound the death knell for the visual arts in the UK? I can't say for sure, but I do know that having the fingerprints of two Tory grandees (Alistair McAlpine and then Charles Saatchi) all over the UK art world for the last four decades certainly hasn't helped.
Previously, this country's art schools were the incubators of creativity, and not just in the visual arts, but in music and theatre too. They were also an outlet for many young women and men from working-class backgrounds. My generation was a little starry-eyed, and thought we could change society for the better.
The UK's small art world had collapsed, so we expanded the art forms to try and elaborate the subject matter and the form. We decided to focus on the things that interested us, and not what we thought was saleable. In other words, we were liberated by our poverty, and many of the now widely accepted styles of art existed on the fringe, but influenced many younger artists, including the YBA generation.
So in the current context, I can see where Emin is coming from. But the mother question reminds me of the grandmother question asked of Hillary Clinton, when it was announced that Chelsea Clinton was expecting a baby. Was she still intending to go for the top job seeing she would shortly be a grandmother? No man would ever be asked the same question, so I don't see why we should ever ask it of any woman.
As for me, I was fortunate to find a market in the US and Europe but many of my contemporaries weren't so fortunate. Having given birth to two brilliantly creative daughters I plan to have my womb bronzed for presenting the world with two such gifts.
Margaret Harrison is an exhibiting feminist artist based in the UK. In 2013 she was awarded the Northern Art Prize for her installation ‘Reflect’.
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