Art critic calls Tracey Emin “drunken slut”, gives us uncomfortable insight into his psyche

// 20 May 2011

Tags: ,

GGposter.jpgIt’s hard to know where to start with Brian Sewell’s preview of Tracey Emin’s retrospective at the Hayward Gallery.

One can’t help wondering if Sewell realised how much of a sexist ass he was making himself out to be.

Such as when he patronisingly says that Emin uses the word cunt in her works only for “the small shock value that it may still have”. Then he approvingly lists various male artists and writers who he judges to be using the word cunt in an appropriately educated manner.

This is probably the most precious quote in the ‘review’:

…a carefully posed photograph of Miss Emin enthralling us with legs wide apart stuffing banknotes into her vagina? For this there is a classical precedent in that DanaĆ«, consequently mother of Perseus, was seduced by Zeus metamorphosed into a shower of gold – a not uncommon subject in Renaissance painting, an allegory of prostitution and an opportunity for mild pornography tinged with wry male humour – but, as Miss Emin shows no evidence of education, it is to be doubted that she knows of it and the kinship of imagery is mere coincidence.

Obviously Emin couldn’t be aware of one of the most well-known subjects of art and literature. Sewell is the first person to think of the comparison! She’s barely been into an art gallery before!

Sewell goes on to praise other artists and writers – all men – and criticise the two women quoted in the catalogue for Emin’s show, who are set to give talks. The brilliant author Ali Smith’s contribution is dismissed as “ekphrastic bilge”, while academic Jennifer Doyle is lambasted for identifying too much with Emin’s subject matter.

8 Tracey Emin Love is What You Want at the Hayward Gallery. Photo David Levene.jpg

And that’s the crux of it. Sewell is deeply discomforted by artwork with which he can’t engage on a personal level, having got used to the precedent that ‘great’ art and literature is by men and, even when it takes a woman as its subject matter, she is observed through the male eye. Emin’s work demands more, because her art sometimes touches on issues such as rape (and not in the form of an ancient Greek myth sanitised through allegory and the distancing effect of hundreds of years), abortion, sex, menopause. Making any art about these issues, from Sewell’s perspective, represents “miserable self-concern”.

In reality, it is Sewell who shows himself to be self-absorbed, because he can only appreciate art in which he can see his own reflection:

In truth, I feel nothing for her relaxations of the sphincter of her bladder, nothing for her masturbation, nothing for her sexual conjugations, nothing for her abortions and nothing for her current menopausal state. I am utterly unmoved by all the means that she ineptly employs to mirror or narrate her various experiences, her silly patchwork blankets, her feeble scratchy monoprints and drawings, her Kodak Brownie photographs, her neon signs, videos and records of futile live performances, and her variations on the shed I see only as clear evidence of an arrested infantile craving for the aedicula – she should indeed have seen a psychiatrist in 1981, as was advised when she dropped out of the Medway College of Design.

But of course I have to call attention to Sewell’s unreconstructed, unreclaimed use of the word slut (not that he is in a position to do any reclaiming, having always been a wielder of this ‘insult’ and always protected by male privilege from having it used against him):

the more Miss Emin played the drunken slut, the more attention the press paid

None of this is even slightly surprising: the more success that female artists accrue, the more blathering backlash we should expect.

(Hat tip to Kate Smurthwaite)

Photo from the exhibition. Works copyright Tracey Emin, photo by David Levene, used with kind permission from the Southbank Centre

Comments From You

Feminist Avatar // Posted 20 May 2011 at 2:34 pm

I also have the suspicion that an ‘uneducated’ male artist who accidentally hit upon a classical reference in his work, wouldn’t have been criticised, but instead praised for his insight and presience only matched by greater minds in previous centuries. (Not that I think Emin is necessarily this unknowledge, I really don’t know).

Jess McCabe // Posted 20 May 2011 at 2:46 pm

@Feminist Avatar Quite right. If it was accidental, then so what – the question of what is artistic intent versus what is something the viewer brings to a work is always an unstable area. It doesn’t really matter all that much.

That said, it strikes me as a reference-point and I’ve had no particular art history education, so I can’t imagine that it was accidental. While Sewell’s faux-intellectualism and schoolboy, show-off references are grating and obvious.

Juliette Harrisson // Posted 20 May 2011 at 3:43 pm

Sewell’s piece is insulting on so many levels. Quite apart from the ridiculous idea that Emin can’t possibly have heard of a famous Greek myth like he has, as someone who specialises in the reception of Greek myths in modern culture, I still find the idea that if it’s got a Greek myth in it, suddenly it’s great art utterly ridiculous. I’m all for using the myths if you want to (anaylsing such uses is how I make my living!) but this idea that ancient+privately educated so you know Latin = better is the sort of stupid, reactionary notion that’s holding our subject back and putting so many people off.

And I would really like to ban the hideously sexist word ‘slut’ forever…

Alex_T // Posted 21 May 2011 at 11:07 am

Drunken slut?

Oh riiiiiiight, because male artists throughout history have always been sober and celibate. Sure.

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds