Tracey Emin’s Unmade bed has been put up for sale, with estimates in the region of £1M. Much of the public and media are, boringly and predictably, in uproar. Much of the dialogue seems to miss the point, presuming that artistic worth and market value are in some kind of direct linear relationship. The reality is that like it or loathe it Emin’s Unmade bed is one of the most infamous works of the YBA’s and as such it bound to have a significant market value. If we are to judge this sale on economic terms then, I would suggest, it may be being undervalued.
The Manzoni model comes to mind.
In 1961 Piero Manzoni carefully filled and then sealed 90 small tins with his own shit. His can was priced, according to its weight, at the current value of gold. The joke, it was presumed, was on any fool who purchased them. Manzoni, it would seem, was making post Duchampian comment on value in art. Yet it seems the joke was on the work of commerce, not the artworld. Over the years the cans have gone up in value to the point that they would now comfortably, based on weight, outsell gold. The market tells us they were a sound investment. It is a parody which has, ironically, gained momentum and force as the crazy and abstract forces of a market have taken effect.
My comparison of Emin to Manzoni is not just a crass comparison of two artists who present us works which contain their bodily fluid. Just for the record, Emin didn’t go all Trainspotting and poo in her bed, but there are remnants of other bodily fluids within the work. The comparison is in regards to the market forces at play. If you want to criticse the price Emin’s work is selling for, don’t criticise, criticise the market.
For what it is worth I think the price the work is selling form confuses the issue. By trying to judge if it is worth £1M we miss two points. 1) The point made above that the works artistic value and market value are two different things. 2) That outrage over the price should not obfuscate what the work does or doesn’t offer as an artistic artefact.
Personally I think Emin does have something to offer. I think she is a sincere artist who often makes quite moving and tender work, in an artworld that is too often filled with crass intellectualism and cynical commodification. I think in Unmade bed and much of her work she broke new and interesting ground in finding a way to turn autobiography into meaningful artistic content. Many people joke about the unmade bed, but the reason it is the but of so many jokes is that it is actually an incredibly iconic piece. It is an image we remember, and this should not be easily dismissed. We should also not dismiss easily the type of games that can be played by using the Duchamp model of decontextualising, in this case of lifting it out of the domestic setting of a home and putting it into a gallery. It is not a trick that always works but with Emin I think it does. I think to be confronted with something that is both so familiar and so personal in such a public space actually offers up quite a powerful dialogue. I am unlikely to convince the doubters because the doubters are unlikely to have wanted to go and see the work in the flesh, but it is a work which needs to be stood in front of and judged, rather than being dismissed on a purely theoretical basis. It is an odd quirk about the plastic arts, being still and singular, that people often think they can judge then from an image, or worse still a description. We would never write of a play or a film as rubbish based entirely from a blurb given to us about it.
The point of this blog is not to make those who dislike Emin’s work to suddenly be fans. I think a longer discussion of its merits would need to be held to even attempt that. it is merely to point out that she is the wrong target of abuse if our concern is over the ridiculous and vapid nature of the artworld. Later day Hirst and Jeef Koons are more appropriate targets if that is your issue.
I wrote this blog with one observation in mind. On the TV and on social media I have seen quite a few people mutter the tired old cliche – ‘My five year old child could have done that’. I find this worrying, and would even suggest a visit from social services. If your five year old child was capable of leaving a made unmade, with used condoms, beers cans and other very adult themed detritus around, then I think you should be worrying more about your parenting skills than the state of contemporary art.