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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