Grand aesthetic of the dumped. We have all slept with Tracey Emin. Her art is a desperate plea for love and reassurance, but should we take her seriously? Toby Litt on a troubled romance

The Art of Tracey Emin

Mandy Merck and Chris Townsend <I>Thames & Hudson, 224pp, £12.95

ISBN 0

I feel very awkward writing about Tracey Emin, because we used to be lovers. What's most embarrassing is that I knew nothing about our relationship, even when our affair was at its height. Plus she was cheating on me - cheating on me with everyone else in the world, cheating on me with you. You went out with Tracey Emin - you loved her, you had fantastic sex with her, you shared good times and bad, you were soul-mates (at least, Tracey thought you were) - and then, you heartless bastard, you dumped her. And I did, too. And so did absolutely everyone else in the world.

At least, that's the version of the world that exists in Tracey Emin's art. In Tracey's world Everyone I've Ever Slept With (the title of her famous applique tent) has, over the years, mutated into I've Slept With Everyone Ever. Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele, Sarah Kent, Brian Sewell, Joe and Joanne Public - influences, critics, anonymous gallery visitors - all of them, all of us, humped her and dumped her.

Emin's address to her audience, her 100 million massed exes, comes as a drunken, midnight phone call. I've got it all, she slurs, insisting just how good her life has been since we dumped her. Sometimes, she says, I feel beautiful. But then the self-pity kicks in: The Last Thing I Said To You Is Don't Leave Me Here. And the repetition: Don't just leave me here. (All these being titles of works she has thrown our way.)

So, how can we put together the Tracey we once went out with? What kind of girlfriend does her art reveal her to be?

She is a young woman with a desperate and constant need for reassurance - mainly that she is beautiful. She knows she has serious body-image problems and is, in her own way, attempting to deal with them. But she wants more than anything to be loved-for-who-she-is. Her previous relationships, both with lovers and critics, have gone inevitably from honeymoon to hate to nostalgia for honeymoon. She is tenderly sentimental and, the flip side of this, viciously abusive. There has been much abuse. Everything she says is in anticipation of rejection, so comes either as a plea, begging us not to join the mass of previous bastard-dumpers, or as an insult which guarantees that we do. In fact, she seems to assume that she has already been rejected, and is asking for a second, third or - if it comes to that - last chance.

She is basically honest: she acknowledges some guilt, some misbehaviour. She knows that she isn't easy to put up with. But we should put up with her because - because she's worth it.

And what is the cause of all this? Why is Tracey as she is? In a word, Margate - the place she rejected and which rejected her. In Why I never became a dancer she tells an almost mythical story. It was "the big one": the British Disco Dance Championship 1978. Tracey was good, really good.

"And as I started to dance/ people started to clap/I was going to win/and then I was out of here/Nothing could stop me/And then they started/SLAG SLAG SLAG/A gang of blokes, most of whom I'd had sex with/at sometime or another/ started to chant/The chant became louder/SLAG SLAG SLAG."

Thank you, Margate, and goodnight.

The editors of The Art of Tracey Emin say, in their introduction, that they aim "to raise the general level of discussion of Emin's work". They go on to give a pretty vivid impression of the current level: "The principal publication devoted to the work of Tracey Emin (the catalogue to her show 'I Need Art Like I Need God') contains three essays. The first begins: 'Tracey Emin has big tits and comes from Margate.' The third is entitled 'Just How Big Are They?'."

It would take a real Keith Allen-type effort to keep the essays down to this level of banality, and, luckily, it's an effort the contributors aren't prepared to make. For the most part, The Art of Tracey Emin is an intelligent and sincere attempt to get to grips with a troublesome subject.

Her respectable academic critics react with varying degrees of disappointment and dismay to Emin's pleading, incoherent statements on her art. As soon as they try to make an argument about her intentions, Emin contradicts it; as soon as they try to fit her into some lineage, Emin re-enacts her rejection.

In the first essay, Rosemary Betterton attempts, with much special pleading, to trace Emin's emergence back to feminist art practices of the 1970s and 80s. "I would suggest that Emin, as a young woman on a fine art course who worked hard, was talented enough to get a first-class degree and who went on to a master's degree at the Royal College of Art (RCA), would perhaps [sic] have been aware of such debates, although she does not refer to them." And then, in crashes the authentic voice of Tracey: "She does, however, cite her time at the RCA as the worst two years of her life" (that includes 1978 and the fateful Disco Dance Championship).

All the other critics, with greater or lesser success, grapple with Emin's grand aesthetic of the dumped. The most confident and convincing are Ulrich Lehmann, who discusses Emin's use of incessant confessionalism as a sort of trademark, and Jennifer Doyle, who writes insightfully about Emin's "Bad-Sex Aesthetics". For many of the other essayists, Emin is a riddle hidden inside a mouthy girl from Margate. Their job would be much much easier if she weren't so stubbornly vocal, so incessantly alive.

This artistic volubility is a problem for anyone wishing to say something worthwhile about contemporary art. Two of the most important recent books on the subject, High Art Lite by Julian Stallabrass and Trangressions: the offences of art by Anthony Julius, make it clear that these writers feel intellectually insulted both by these new artworks and their creators. Stallabrass and Julius would prefer to write about artists controversial but safely dead - Duchamp and Picasso, Manet and Goya. But this is not where the public's interest lies at the moment. (Nor, one suspects, is it in the interest of art publishers, either.)

The relationship of lover to lover, perfected in one form (dumpee to dumper) by Tracey Emin, isn't a bad non-academic way of analysing the stance adopted towards their public by the best-known of the young British artists. Damien Hirst has dumped us and is now treating us with savage contempt: no one could buy one of his spin paintings except out of a strongly masochistic impulse. More often, though, the art is a come-on to a potential lover. Jake and Dinos Chapman say: "Aren't we gothy, screwed up and deeply interesting, over here in our dark corner?" And so, to a lesser extent, does Matt Collishaw. Sarah Lucas says: "Come and have a go, if you think you're hard enough." She isn't making any promises about a long-term, nurturing relationship. Sam Taylor-Wood says: "This is how it feels to be one of the beautiful people." Gillian Wearing says: "I'm a really good listener." Chris Ofili says: "I see beauty in all things, dung included - I see beauty in you." Gary Hume says: "I'd be really good at interior decoration."

It's hardly any wonder that this kind of directness, this brand of flirtatiousness, appeals to a contemporary public. Compared to those of the YBAs, the chat-up line offered by Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud is less seductive: "I am a great artist - come and sit for hours and hours in my dirty, uncomfortable studio while I do my damnedest to get at the harsh truth of your appearance."

Of all these artist-public relationships, the one insisted upon by Tracey Emin is the most original and the most limited. Hers is an art about mess, often (but not always) messily made, and, as far as one can tell, messily conceived. It is almost certainly going to frustrate any attempts at emotional and critical tidying - at least in the short term. Categorisation is exactly what Emin isn't about. She is an artist in equal parts vital and dismaying.

The early high-point of Emin's career, Everyone I've Ever Slept With 1963-1995 (1995), was a disconcerting work. To engage with it properly, you had to embarrass yourself by going down on your hands and knees in a public place, crawling into the tent's confined space. This was the point at which many of us entered Tracey's world - when we first lay down with her.

More recently, My Bed (1998) took this embarrassment a stage further. Like TS Eliot's Tiresias, we had "foresuffered all/ Enacted on this same divan or bed". In fact, it wasn't so much Tracey's Bed as Our Bed - the one we'd shared with her. And here she was, putting the evidence of our whole sordid, intimate, broken relationship on display for all her other ex-lovers to see. No wonder so many of us reacted so strongly against it.

In her latest work, Self-portrait as a Small Bird (2002), Emin offers us a chance to redeem ourselves; a limited edition print, offered through the Tate, is giving 200 of her ex-lovers the opportunity to show they think she's beautiful, to love-her-for-who-she-is, to take her back again. Whether they sell or not, I can see this is going to get messy, again.

Toby Litt is the author of Exhibitionism (Hamish Hamilton)

This article first appeared in the 25 November 2002 issue of the New Statesman, World at war