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The tent is empty

“The art market is on a knife-edge,” Tracey Emin has declared. Launching a series of investigations

For a while now, money has been drawn to misery. Throughout the New Labour years we have found a good deal of our entertainment in the exposed frailty of others. Walking through the latest exhibition by Tracey Emin, “Those Who Suffer Love”, at White Cube in London a couple of weeks ago, I was struck by two things. The first was the comfort of the familiar – Emin’s emotional pain, so remorselessly raked over and marketed in the past decade or so, has become like a reliable old friend. The jiltings, the abortions, the insistent naked trauma: we would miss them if they were not here. The latest ar­ticulations of her dyslexic neuroses in neon – “Oh Christ, I wanted you to fuck me, then I got greedy and wanted you to love me” – are as welcoming these days as her tapestried security blankets. We know where we stand with Our Trace: she has suffered for our art.

The second thing that struck me at White Cube was that the appetite for this lucrative suffering shows signs of slackening. There was a time when an Emin show would be alive with Banksy-esque excitement. On the day I visited, the only people in the gallery, besides the languid greeters, were myself and an elderly chap with a walking stick. We watched Emin’s sketchy masturbation video – a 21st-century What the Butler Saw, fresh from Margate Pier. We also had the various stations of Tracey’s cross downstairs to ourselves, leading us down a predictable path from self-pleasure to self-harm.

When the old man had had enough of Emin’s lonely contortions, I stood for a long while waiting for some other gallery-goers. Eventually, a woman in her thirties came by with her mother to peer at the various sketches and needlepoints of Emin’s gaping crotch; a pinstriped businessman on his lunch hour paused in front of the childlike reminiscences of abusive sex; a couple of French tourists translated the torn-out pages of Emin’s back-to-front “secret” diary and giggled; and for a long time that was it. The initial shock value of the dirty laundry and the unmade bed has long seeped out of Emin’s art, and to a large degree, one suspects, out of her life. What is left is all the old gnawing, dysfunctional, defiant self-abasement recollected in tranquillity. Emin was recently appointed a Royal Academician, and she is in danger of becoming both national treasure and grande dame – a Vivienne Westwood-in-waiting.

This well-rehearsed transformation from urchin to mainstream artist is mirrored in the gallery space itself. White Cube, Mason’s Yard, which opened in 2006, marked the return of Jay Jopling’s Hoxton enterprise to the West End, in a minimalist box that landed among the walnut-panelled Old Master galleries off Duke Street in St James’s, central London. Jopling, who with Charles Saatchi did most to create the Britart brand, had always been of the Establishment (he is the Eton-educated son of a former agriculture minister of Margaret Thatcher’s), but for a while he saw the commercial possibilities of roughing it in the East End. The once-derelict industrial buildings of Spitalfields and Shoreditch, where property developers had encouraged art students to squat in order to give their conversions an authentic street atmosphere, had been flogged as loft spaces for the City’s bonus boys. Jopling could see how he might sell the packaged extreme expressions of his artists to anyone who wanted a bit of edgy conceptual art on their walls: a perfect reminder to friends that, despite the day job, they had not lost touch with their anarchic youth.

More than Damien Hirst who, with his red-in-tooth-and-claw entrepreneurial instincts, was clearly a product of late Thatcherism, Emin was the stroppy poster-child of this shift eastwards, the signature artist of the New Labour years, the pearly queen of emotional capitalism. She was magnificently self-obsessed (there was no such thing as society in the work of most of the Brit­artists, and certainly not in hers) and artfully melodramatic, and had an eye to the main chance. She was among the first to see clearly that there was a career in confession.

The “Sensation” show at the Royal Academy, which first brought Emin to widespread public attention, opened in the week after the Princess of Wales’s funeral in September 1997, with the nation high on cortèges and catharsis. The “field of flowers” at Kensington Palace had begun to compost and attract flies, a Britart installation if ever there was one. For all those record numbers of people who crawled into Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With tent, its interior appliquéd with names of friends and lovers, the message was clear – you, too, can let the world know of your betrayals and indiscretions; you, too, can be a “people’s princess”.

Emin democratised the victimhood embodied by Diana. Abandonment, bulimia and depression were not royal prerogatives; anyone with a heart could experience them. The artist cemented the association a couple of years later when she produced a series of drawings in tribute to the dead princess, They Wanted You To Be Destroyed (1999). The show included homiletic texts such as “Love Was On Your Side” and a childlike description of Diana’s dress with puffy sleeves. “It’s pretty difficult for me to do drawings not about me and about someone else,” Emin noted at the time. “But I have a lot of ideas. They’re quite sentimental, I think, and there’s nothing cynical about it whatsoever.”

It is not hard to see how Emin’s art became a favourite with the generation that would begin to advertise its internal dramas on blogs and networking sites, and be hooked on the nightly exposures of reality TV. (By an odd coincidence, the idea for Big Brother also formed in the mind of the Dutch television producer John de Mol in that week after Diana’s death, on 4 September 1997, during a brainstorming session about the future of television. To begin with no one believed the show would be allowed; it was too exploitative, too exposing, too exhibitionistic. Little did they know.)

Emin instinctively understood this shift in values from the start. Like a latter-day Edie Sedgwick, the original Warhol Factory girl, she would use her ruined life as her art, only this time the subject would be in control of it. Emin was the only one of the original Britartists who did not trade in irony; we were asked to believe that her needlework was an unmediated expression of her restless desires and her endlessly disappointed reality. She needed to share her pain, and there were plenty of willing takers.

A few years ago, I spent a couple of weeks reading nothing but so-called “misery memoirs”. I wanted to try to get inside the head of a reading public that had made Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It a number-one bestseller. But the more I read, the less I could understand the attraction, so I turned to the reader recommendations on Amazon for help. The publisher of Jenny Tomlin’s memoir Behind Closed Doors, for example, advertised it as a book in which “no one was safe [from] her father’s violent beatings, humiliations and sexual abuse”, in which her mother was his accomplice and a family outing was a trip to make a porn film. It seemed readers, however, couldn’t get enough of it. “It will take you through all emotions, and really pull on your heartstrings,” wrote Claire from Gloucestershire. “Buy a box of tissues, lock the door, take the phone off the hook and be prepared to read a book that will touch your soul for ever.”

Emin’s art touched the same nerve in a different audience. In “Those Who Suffer Love” there was a shorthand misery memoir in each maladroit line, a whole Jeremy Kyle show of anxiety in every neat cross-stitch (even though, after her first success, Emin stopped sewing her misspelt tapestries herself, farming them out to a local seamstress). She sold the product of her pain – how to make a Margate quilt – and buyers across the world demanded a piece of it. Elton John and George Michael, no strangers to melodramatic confessionals, are among the keenest collectors of her work.

What was it about such expressions of pain that made them so seductive, that helped them to command record prices? My conclusion, after reading all the abuse memoirs, was that, in a time of relative ease and plenty (at least for the book-buying, art-consuming classes), these books represented a need for war stories – odd, given what was on the nightly news by then from Iraq and Afghanistan. Here were expressions of triumph over cruel adversity, except that the wars were nearly all private ones and the battleground rarely extended beyond the author’s family home. It had been an abrupt shift in taste: Dave Pelzer’s book spent several years at the top of the bestseller list in the United States, but initially no publisher in the UK wanted to buy it, thinking that his mixture of abasement and aggrandisement would not wash on this side of the Atlantic. Emin could have told them how wrong they were; nothing would sell quite as well as the cult of victimhood.

Has that moment passed? It is possible that it is beginning to. Critics have been announcing the death of Britart for almost as long as they have been heralding the demise of the English novel, but with the onset of a severe economic winter, it is a fair bet that the vicarious pleasures of childhood deprivation and adult squalor will lose some of their addictive charm. Repetitive angst and calculated stories of abuse are likely to prove less seductive to an audience that has anxieties of its own. It is hard to believe that Emin herself, at least in her public expressions, will ever grow up (the brand would not allow it), but it is possible that her audience and her buyers will have to.

You can trace the rise of Britart to the deregulation of the City and the growth of a class of super-moneyed hedge funders and share-optioned investment bankers just as clearly as you can date start of the Renaissance to the emergence of the Medici family in Florence. You could wager your negative equity on its demise being just as marked. The close of “Those Who Suffer Love” on 4 July looked a lot like the end of an era.

Tim Adams is the New Statesman’s art critic

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.