Monday Modern Art Madness #21: Caveman vs. Moderns, An Honest look at Tracy Emin’s recent Exhibition at White Cube.

Recently, I came upon a thread that really encapsulates the sentiment that the cultural/online/whatever Right has towards artistic modernism and contemporary art. Read it here if you have not seen it yet, it really peaked my interest in many ways:

To begin with a bit of critique, whole essays have been written about the differences between “modern”, starting with (argubly) Goya, right up to the impressionists, and all 19th-20th century art movements, ending in roughly the 1960s and 70s. Many on the Right (ALA Paul Joseph Watson) get the two confused, but this is of little value in pointing out.

Juxtaposed to the famed oldest cave paintings found in the Chauvet cave, is a “god” of contemporary art, the overrated luminary of the NBA (New British Artists) whom shocked the world in the late 90s by winning the illustrious Turner Prize…The quintessential artist of “the self”, the almighty and ubiquitous BODY so obsessed over by critical theorists, art critics and lit-departments, the embodied female, the body of trauma, BODIES is the name of the game in the 21st century. I am of course talking about Tracy Emin, and her new exhibition of paintings, ,sculptures, photographs and drawings at White Cube entitled “A Fortnight of Tears”. Emin for many years was on the tip of my tongue when referring to contemporary artists I most despised, and whom I feel are responsible for the decline and fall of the global corporatized art world. Even when I became more sympathetic and “woke” (for lack of a better term) to abstraction and artistic modernism, even contemporary art, I always had and continue to have a hard sport of Emin and her various lurid displays of self-deprecation. But now, at the risk of making “bad content” (albeit even bad content is good, you learn more from it in the end, that’s the collateral damage risk of the CONTENT-MINDSET), I had a curious look at her recent exhibition, and just felt compelled to take an objective look. A state of objectivity is a funny thing, like all things in life, it is never fully achieved, especially with such a personal and attention-grabbing artist. Everything is about the self in Tracy’s art, so it is hard to apply any sort of objectivity to her, you either worship her or hate her with a passion. Perhaps I am the one who is insane for finding a middle between the two, and I should scrap this whole thing, pack this whole series in and admit defeat; Maybe I should shrug my shoulders and give into the peer pressure from my ideological comrades, and finally say to myself “its all terrible, and there is no redeeming contemporary art”. But for the sake of my own persistent self-doubt, I shall venture on into this half-mad article, and let the content flow.

Primordial Man and Back to The Primordial.

One immediate impression of the thread above is the stark juxtaposition between the ancient cave paintings, and works of “modern”(contemporary) art, and the main qualification is that art should evoke feeling. Now there are a variety of different purposes for art that are given, it would be a crime to frame art itself in such utilitarian terms, but the pursuit of feeling is certainly one of them.

There is feeling, and then there is universal feeling as well, that being feelings welded to the worlding, or the invocation of a world, a time, an epoch, a culture, etc, present in the artwork (as I am partial most of all to Heidegger’s notions of the purpose of art in his seminal essays from “Poetry, language, Thought“). Now Emin’s work, and that Obama print/painting certainly might evoke feeling, but granted they are nothing compared to the feeling one gets when witnessing the very first artistic expressions of man. The cave paintings do not fit in a reified notion of “art” the way we know it in the west as aesthetic beauty, in the same way most religious art in the east and west cannot be placed into such categories. Art such as this, from the Sistine chapel, to Sumi-e Chinese Taoist ink paintings, Carved Tibetan skulls, Sand mandalas, etc. May participate in the aesthetizisation of art, but ultimately serve a higher purpose, encompassing a varity of ritualistic and spiritual meanings. The cave paintings are like this in much the same way, they are the first and most primordial artistic utterances, informed by the life-world of the early advanced Man, whom were compelled to draw them for a variety of practical and some would say, spiritual reasons.

This is where I diverge from the usual analysis here in defending abstraction and so-called “modern art”. The cave paintings have a rough sense of draftsmanship, measurement, the weight of drawing, captured motion, some primitive color sense, etc. But in comparison to modern examples of art (especially later on in the thread where a variety of modern impressionist paintings are offered to compare) they participate in much of the same purpose. The works of Monet and Van Gogh have a life-world, technique, new and improved color sense, and realism, as well as the hideous and overtly idiosyncratic Obama painting (I will get to Emin real soon). But it is always that little fly in the ointment, that peculiar obsession with artistic Realism on the Right that more often than not, ventures into philistinism.

Now I would contend that one cannot begin to compare the works of the Chauvet caves in much the same way one cannot compare Rembrandt to Pollock. The former examples may require greater “skill” and “realism”, but skill and realism alone do not make for compelling and eternal art. If that were so, then one would pay more then a one second glance and a nod of “wow, I can’t do that” to the modern works of hyper/photo-realism. You know the ones, those paintings or drawings that are gridded-out in photo-shop and rendered unto the page or canvas, turning the artist into a human photo-copying machine, and 9 times out of 10 it is usually of some Hollywood celebrity or politician. Instagram like-bait types of photo-realism and digital art. So let us put this obsession with realism to bed. The genre painters, the old masters painted “High Realism” with many abstract bits mixed in with illustrative detailed passages upon close inspection. Their mindset was towards something above the all-too-human fray, and not merely rendering reality into paint or drawing form.

Another qualification is the quickness by which an abstract or contemporary artist can render the work, Like Emin, attempting to trace the linage of New York School women artists like Joan Mitchell, with those big and frenzied strokes of flesh tones and red. This seems to be a persistent myth since the 19th century that simply will not die, that artists must slave over a piece for months (often spent waiting in between oil layers). This is why some deride the use of newer mediums like Acrylic paint because of their accessibility and quickness of use. Sometimes a work of truly monumental and transcendental art has the energy of immediacy in them, and this is surly true of the Chinese Taoist and Japanese Zen ink painters. Near the end, Monet could paint a very good sketch in a few hours, and a completed painting in a few days, yet his works are (rightly) considered to have a transcendent quality to them. As a lot of “alla-prima” (all at once or at a single time) or Plein-air painters, who work fast and loose in order to capture a mood, the light source, and the evanescent moment.

and on a final point before I move onto Emin’s latest exhibition, there is a comparison to be made surly between any work of art from any period, but there is an odd synchronicity, or an affinity, between a lot of genres of modern and contemporary art, and the feats of art found in the most religious and primal reaches of the collective unconscious. (A good resource is this quick video here) Abstraction has been an ever-present feature of art since the dawn of artistic consciousness. Even Hegel, in observing the patterned mosaic art of the high Islamic period and the Mandalas of the Far East, stating that this art is closer to “geist”, precisely because of their expansiveness and intangibility. Present in every art from cultures around the world is this same heart of mimicking the multiplicity of creation through artistic abstraction, even the art of early man is rife with abstract carvings, drawings and insignia. Modernist abstraction tries to replicate this same sense of universal abstract, be it inspired from the flows of intensities found in music (such as Kandinsky and Gorky), the rhythm of nature (Frankenthaler) or even by directly communicating with the realm of heterogeneous spirit ( like Hilma Klimt and other perennialist and theosophist artists at the time).

Tracy At White Cube.

As I have stated above, I will try, and probably fail to objectively look at Emin’s work, so to clarify before this analysis moves forward, this will not come off as some ringing endorsement. Emin’s work to be quite frank, in may respects offends my traditionalist sensibilities, and often comes off as being pornographic, not just in terms of dealing mostly with a broken and traumatic picture of modern sexuality, but “pornographic” in the sense of its explicitness. And also, Emin’s work is (to put it mildly) vigorously and pridefully self-absorbed, and Tracy probably would not find this to be a detriment.

Emin was once quoted as saying a big inspiration for her work was her multiple abortions, including a horrendously botched one in the early 90s. She went so far as saying thatI felt that, in return for my Children’s souls, i have been given artistic success“. Stating further the usual anti-natalist line that she woudn’t be a fit mother, there is so much suffering in the world, her art is her creation like a child, etc. What is interesting about Emin is that, (I apologize for being this harsh) the quite frankly abominable and satanic act of sacrificing the lives of one’s unborn innocent children for art is not dealt with lightly by Emin, like so many callous and depraved abortion “activists” that couch the act in clinical and medicalized terms. Emin struggles with her past and her mess of a life in the starkest terms possible. This has led me, a virulent critic of her work, to reconsider at least in part, some negative judgements towards her art.

Like her corpus of life-works, the multi-media exhibition “a fortnight in tears” (the very same used as an example in the thread above) deals with a life led in ruins, the embodied pain of the feminine body, a crushing and exhausting case of life-long insomnia, and the most visceral and ugly reaches of the traumatized psyche. We also have various odes to her mother whom passed away a few years ago, such as the brutalist and minimalist sculpture “The Mother“. “We Said Goodbye” is also another piece dealing with the loss of her mother, as well as “You Kept Watching Me”, both done with quick monotone brushwork, and the latter one could see the outline of the back of a woman’s head, presumably her mother, watching over the splayed and evanescent outline of a woman lying down (Tracy herself), in a quick sketch style of composite drawing that is similar to that of Egon Shiele’s sketches, or Gustav Klimt..a critical art historian of the feminist variety would probably comment on Tracy’s fondness of Egon, a fellow artist that mixed a grotesque, yet honest view of bohemian sexuality. Only in Tracy’s hands, it comes from a female perspective, a reversal of the “male gaze” present in the sketches of Klimt and Egon. It is also worth noting that in “We Said Goodbye”, the sketch is now revered, and it is Tracy gazing upon her mother on the sick/death bed.

4903The Mother (2018). 9042_13We Said Goodbye (2018). 9042_6You Kept Watching Me (2018).

The painting (which is the title image of this article) “It Was all Too Much” (2018) depicts a maceration of splayed and frenzied brushstrokes, colliding together to form a fibrous, deterittorialized and agony-ridden female body. The head is distinguished by a tough of hair, you can barley see a bend arm and elbow, while the body is contorted towards the viewer with one breast, and a leg bent upwards. The acrylic paint is splashed onto the canvas in thick and wet strokes, producing drips, as if the flesh is tearing and dripping off of the canvas. there is a persistent pose in much of the works, and some of the body’s outlines are more distinguishable, while others have the body completely erased and bled away, such as the one work simply and dramatically entitled “Rape”. In this work is pure chaos, the body is now a jumbling of white strokes, bend over, twisted and broken, and underneath is a thick layer of blood draining from an orifice. There are a lot of works of orifices spewing blood, such as “The Abortion Waiting room” and a whole body covered in blood in “I Was Too Young to Carry Your Ashes”, all of them purposely abstract, brutal and fleshy, leaving little to the imagination.”Sometimes There Is No Reason” is another one of these “strongly vaginal” (as one critic described her) works of minimalist body sketching and grotesqueness.

(link to the full exhibit here).


So what can one make of Emin’s brand of introspective, brutal, soul-crushing art and artistic subject-matter? On one level, there may be a lack of skill, but the paintings themselves, relying on suggestion, certainly convey a meaning, albeit with a lack in any standard of beauty, a horrid and at some points tragicomic version of “beauty”, but beauty simply wouldn’t be the point. They certainly invoke thought, but could we say that it is a universal or primal thought or set of ideas? This is what is so challenging about the New British Artists, and a lion’s share of contemporary art that relies on self-expression for it’s own sake. Even the activist regions of contemporary conceptual art, with its righteous fury of (mostly bourgeois leftist) political connotations so often boils down to really being a foil for either self-absorbed narcissism, or crass political propaganda, or a mixture of the two.

Certainly it is hard to really place Emin’s work in any category because os much of it relies on personal experience. There is almost nothing that is transcendental in these works, and very little that is even about self-overcoming. They certainly have kernels (to be fair) of self-overcoming in them, but most of it is lost within a giant monologue of lamentation, opening and gouging of old wounds, an endless, big long sorrowful feat of psychic goring. There is the depiction of pure trauma from a women’s perspective, and a lot of contemporary feminist art is precisely about the exploration of the “taboo body”, the messiness of being, the bodies of trauma, and most of all (as this informative article posits) ‘the grotesque body“. If I may bracket my Trad bonifides for a moment, I do not readily condemn such a work, and perhaps a lot of it is important, at least in a self-therapeutic sense (the way old school Korn lyrics soothed a whole generation of frustrated post-gen X, post-industrial wastos in the North American heartlands).

Unlike her hero, the female art luminary Frida Kahlo, whom turned her deeply personal lifelong physical and emotional pain into great works of self-exploration and self-overcoming, there is a feeling that none of Tracy’s art is trying to overcoming anything, it is just an opening up to the world of one’s own personal struggles of lifelong trauma, Abortion, her experiences being raped and abused as a teenager, struggling with addiction, and her tumultuous and precarious career. Never the less, there is something oddly compelling to these works, even if it is that sort of “can’t look away from a train wreck” sort of inner sentiment.

I have to say, through thinking about this edition of MMAM, softened a bit to Tracy’s work, even if I find a lot of it personally offensive, so I leave this as a dialogue, as free-flowing content, albeit with a cliched saying of “debate about it and come to your own conclusions”, and tell me about it in the comments or on Twitter.



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