Tracey Emin, being more like a man is not the answer at Writing All Wrongs

(cross-posted from Writing all Wrongs)

The other day, I asked myself the following question: “Is it anti-feminist of me to think that Tracey Emin is full of shit?”

She was on the radio talking about her belief that it’s not possible to be an artist and a mother, which you probably know about because lots of Guardian sort of people have written comment pieces saying “Stop being silly Tracey, yes it is.” Although to be specific, she didn’t say you can’t be an artist and a mother, but that if you have children you’ll never be truly great because you won’t be able to dedicate yourself 100% to the creative process.

The first thing I thought was just how totally self-absorbed the whole thing sounded. Can’t have kids cos you’ve got to dedicate yourself 100% to the creative process? Can you make dinner and go to the toilet and stuff or does that get in the way of the art as well?

But then when she said “There are good artists that have children. They are called men,” I thought, well exactly Tracey, you’re bang on the money, sorry for doubting you and everything. But the problem I have with her beliefs, and a lot of the counter-arguments, is that the onus is always on women to sacrifice things or adapt their lives to fit around everything else.

We all know that women who choose not to have children constantly end up justifying their choices. Emin used the word ‘selfish’ as she talks about not having them; that old chestnut. I do think there’s something feminist in Emin’s decision to say, ‘I’m going to put myself first, like men do, and not apologise for it, because men don’t.’

Because I’ve never heard a famous man describing himself as selfish for choosing not to have children. Because that’s the thing about this: men just get on with doing whatever the fuck they what to, without thinking about how their decisions impact on anyone else. Because why should they? They’ve never been taught any different. They’re born into a world that teaches them that they are entitled to be in charge of everyone and treat women like objects and drive cars really fast. (No, there is still not a female version of Top Gear where women rub their thighs while making racist jokes. INEQUALITY SUCKS.) And just like Emin says, they can be 100% focused on their creative process because throughout history they haven’t had to bother with all that silly domestic stuff.

She’s totally right. There are more men in the canon because they were allowed to just get on with it and it was never questioned. They didn’t have kids tugging at their leg while they were trying to do painting and shit, because the women were sorting all that stuff out. It’s a bit fucking unfair.

But is this really the answer? That women should be more like men? Ergo, they should be self-absorbed and not give a shit about anyone else and just spend all their time naval-gazing and making art?

Of course I don’t really think that art is synonymous with naval-gazing. You know I love it and am obsessed with it. But isn’t this the reason why, in the sense of representing real experience, so much art and literature is, on closer inspection, completely inadequate? It comes from such a tiny, small, privileged prism that it ends up being the voice of an elite minority masquerading as the voice of all human experience.

Why, instead, can men not be the ones to adapt? Why should Tracey Emin feel like having children will be akin to sacrificing her career as a great artist? (You might think she’s shit, I don’t really have an opinion.) How has that become a thing? Rather than the onus always being on the woman to look after children all the time, why can men not pull their fingers out of their arseholes and take some of the responsibility?

(Disclaimer: not all men etc etc. Disclaimer 2: not judging anyone’s personal choices, have kids if you want, don’t if you don’t etc etc.)

I don’t actually think that going into a secret little solitary art cave will make you a very good artist, because I think one of the most important things about art is its power to provide empathy. Emin is doing an individualistic political ‘I am an artist on my own terms I have painted myself like a French girl’ type thing (MOVE OVER ADRIAN SEARLE I’M AN ART CRITIC) and that’s fine, but I don’t think that we should go inward just because men do. I think men should come outward.

Because why on earth should Tracey Emin have to feel like the only way to get close to a sense of self is to shut everything else down? Why has it become accepted wisdom that if female artists want to be seen on the same level of greatness as men, they have to give things up – but men can just carry on as they are?

It’s worth mentioning Grayson Perry’s excellent essay on the Default Man here, which everyone has already read because it’s excellent: he says that if positions of power are going to be shared out equally, some men are going to have to give up their seats. He quoted Bernard Shaw:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to make the world adapt to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

So men I think you need to get adapting. That way, Emin can focus 100% on her creative process and have some sprogs if she wants to. If she doesn’t want to, that’s fine. But she needs to feel like being a supercilious introspective egomaniac isn’t the only option available to her.


Girl Ignited: Sassy political rants from a very cheerful feminist. Twitter is @jessiecath

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