Cultural Exchange: Tracey Emin’s art and politics provoke

Tracey Emin always sets out to provoke — her stock in trade is the outrageous and the obscene. But it wasn’t just the array of used tampons, pregnancy tests and expletive appliqué tapestry that shocked audiences at her new exhibition “Love Is What You Want,” which just opened at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank.

Instead of her usual outbursts of profanity and perversion, Emin used her limelight to do something perhaps more shocking — she pledged her support for Britain’s Conservative-led government, opining that “The Tories are the only hope for the arts.”

Was this a piece of performance art? Not at all. The former radical YBA (Young British Artist) who once railed against Margaret Thatcher (and even spurned her own collector Charles Saatchi for his support of the Iron Lady) has been wooed by David Cameron’s administration. Emin confessed her admiration for the “amazing arts minister,” Ed Vaizey. “And remember,” she told a reporter for the Guardian, “Tory people are massive collectors of the arts. For a lot of my friends, who think I’m crazy voting for the Tories — I want to know who buys their work? Who are the biggest philanthropists? I promise you, it’s not Labour voters.”

Emin is an anomaly among London’s art crowd, but her comments fanned the flames of the debate between free-market thinkers who believe that art should rely on commerce, corporate sponsorship and philanthropy and those who believe in the social benefits of state funding. They came in the wake of deep cuts to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which had had its budget slashed by 24%, leaving artists, curators and gallery directors reeling and indignant.


Artists from Anish Kapoor to Antony Gormley campaigned vociferously against the plans. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was christened Attila the Hunt. Nicholas Serota, head of London’s Tate Modern, called the measures a “blitzkrieg” on the arts and warned that the country was heading toward the greatest crisis in the arts and heritage since government funding began in 1940.

“I don’t think Tracey speaks for anyone except herself,” says Robert Hewison, professor of cultural policy at London’s City University. “She’s a very important artist, but she’s not an intellectual. The reason she’s made these absurd statements is because she’s thinking back to a time under the last Thatcher government when her generation had to duck and dive. What she doesn’t realize is that these cuts are much, much worse. This government sees the arts as something decorative.”

During its decade in power, the Labour government plowed money into arts and used galleries as a form of urban regeneration. New Labour championed a mixed economy of corporate sponsors, private donors — supported by lashings of public cash. (Arts Council funding went from 186.1 million pounds in 1998 to 443.5 million in 2009.) Deprived outposts like Emin’s home town, Margate in Kent, were given state funds to build contemporary art spaces by top architects. In a sweeping gesture in 2000, Tony Blair’s government made all government-run museums and galleries free.

Although he has pledged to keep national museums and galleries free, Hunt has made no secret of his vision of a more U.S.-style philanthropic support network.

“Surely we must ask ourselves what we can learn from a country in which cultural giving per capita is 37 pounds a month compared to just 6 pounds in the U.K.,” he said in December, or a difference of about $61 to $10. “The best model for financing the arts [is] one that secures not just financial independence but artistic independence too.”

The art establishment disagrees. “The reason why the arts is really good at the moment is because public money is at the core,” says Alan Davey, chief executive, Arts Council England, a national development agency that distributes money from the government and the National Lottery. “Our money underpins a lot of innovation. You could argue that when, say, U.S. institutions have to reply to private funders that’s when conservatism creeps in. That’s when you start to see self-censorship.”

Emin’s show is packed full of work made in those rough days when she lived on a 12-pound-a-week state unemployment benefit. The makeshift sculptures she sold in an “art shop” she co-opened with the artist Sarah Lucas in 1993 now sit in glass cabinets. At one point Emin was so poor she wrote to all of her friends offering Emin bonds.

The Hayward retrospective is Emin’s coming of age — the show was praised by critics for its brave emotional realism. “I used to live in Waterloo in a little co-op flat,” she said at the opening press conference. “I was on the dole, and I had a ticket that allowed me to come to the Hayward Gallery for nothing. I would spend hours and hours walking around this gallery. I couldn’t think of anywhere more fantastic for me to have this opportunity.”