Tracey Emin: ’There are good artists that have children. They are called men’
Tracey Emin has a great way with a line. Whether she draws one or says one, there is a fearlessness to it. It might be wrong, it might be right, but it is Tracey’s line and no one else’s. You can’t miss it.
Talking about not having children, she said: “There are good artists that have children. Of course there are. They are called men.” Emin does not want to be a good artist but a great one.
Some have hailed her as such. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones said she was shaking the patriarchal traditions of men drawing the female nude with her self-portraits. He talked of Matisse, Picasso, Titian and how her new show “invades the museum”. It’s a long way from Margate to Matisse, though Munch is the artist she often refers to. I like her mouthiness, her ambition and her referring to her own works as seminal. All of this ego in a woman is a brilliant thing. She is not famous by accident but by application. All her money, houses, assistants, and fussiness are detailed by interviewers as if she were not entitled to those things.
What happened to the used condoms and fetid sheets, the Elastoplasts, dried blood, pregnancy tests and browning tampons? These were the portrait of the artist as a young woman. They were her palette and her brushes. So was her body. Now, at 51, where has all this gone? She asks and answers the questions with paint and stitches and declares herself a grande dame. Is 51 so very old?
A choice has been made not to have children. Art is the birthing. Kahlo, of course, painted herself in 1932 in My Birth, her head emerging from a body whose head is covered with a sheet. That painting is said to be owned by another self-made woman, Madonna. But Emin saying clearly that the choice remains between motherhood and creativity is either her ruthless honesty or her conservatism speaking. And it’s sad.
We can, if we like, list the successful women artists who have had children (Rego, Spero, Ayres) or come up with long lists of those who didn’t (Kahlo, O’Keeffe, the Brontës, Austen). It’s the old pram-in-the-hall argument, that parenting is the enemy of great art. There is a truth in it. Children stop one separating from the world. They interrupt one’s sense of self as the most important thing ever. This is not always a bad lesson for artists to learn. The domestic sphere is not one of imagination, goes the script Try telling that to Kate Bush. Motherhood can be miserable, of course, and an excuse, and a source of terrible conflict. Plath said it was her muse. But Emin’s adherence to the myth of creativity versus motherhood is so old-fashioned. Emin would have been able to afford childcare and this is the actual issue. What stops women being able to write, or paint, is trying to do everything. It’s Emin’s prerogative, but it is all part of her increasing conservatism.
None of this should shock us. “Working-class girl made good” becomes part of the art world which, whatever it thinks, is a bubble of retrogressive attitudes. Whenever I go to a do, whatever is on the walls, the sexual politics of that milieu are like something from the 50s. There are the great artists and collectors and curators and then a gaggle of wives/assistants/PRs who function as the flight attendants of this world, lubricating all social interaction by their unrequited love for whatever is being shown. Taste and wealth is washed down with a few eccentrics to reassure everyone that they haven’t sold out. All that edge! All smoothed away by tongues made out of sandpaper.
That Emin goes from messy brat to éminence grise applauding the Tory party is no surprise. Her honesty is still compelling and she is simply saying what many of my generation feel. You really cannot have it all. She has chosen art. She is talking as an individual and has never been interested in structural change.
Increasingly, I hear younger women being told they can have a child and a career but only if they just have one child. Alice Walker advises this. More than one will affect your creativity. This is bizarre, though a friend of mine was recently told in an interview that while her one child was acceptable, another would ruin her success. Lectures on combining it all often come from the ultra-rich, such as Sheryl Sandberg. In framing children versus creativity as her struggle, Emin depoliticises what for many is an everyday battle.
Emin needs her solitude and out of that she does something that is hers and hers alone. I could look at her drawings for a long, long time but this self- created woman does not speak for anyone but herself.
Having children is not incompatible with the creative process or a substitute for it. Parenthood is not simply sacrifice. Art is not simply selfishness. Female creativity exists between these imaginary states. If I could write in neon as Emin does I would give my daughters a sign. And it would say: “It’s never just one thing or the other.”