Saturday 3 June 2017

How not to defend Tracey Emin's 'Being an artist is about making art, not money'

Tracey Emin at the Hay festival:  Photograph: David Levenson.

When British artist, Tracey Emin, spoke at the Hay Literary Festival in Wales, she talked  about happiness, among other issues of her career. According to The Guardian, Emin, 54, argued that she was growing as an artist, compared to the career of her  contemporaries. Her contemporaries are members of a well known movement Young  British Artists (YBAs).

  “I know artists who make the same fucking work day in, day out,” she said. “They make it, they sell it, they make it, they sell it, they make another version, they sell it. They get a bigger house, they sell it. They get another house, they make some more work, they make more of the same work – that is what their fucking life is... that is not being an artist. Being an artist is about making art, not about making money.”

Emin, who is the most vocal member of the famed YBA of the 1990s, is controversial for quite a number of reasons. Among such controversies are her conceptual work and choice of private life.

Whatever anyone, including Emin, says about critical and commercial appreciation of art, is not exactly new: the two have always been viewed as either parallel or together in the art world  depending on where your art ideology lies. But the context in which Emin expressed her view has been taken with mixed reactions on social media. For example, Nigerian independent curator, Bisi Silva, who posted The Guardian link of the publication on her facebook drew identical line between Emin's statement and the behavioural pattern of artists in the West African country as regards making money and not art. "Hehehe same in Nja o!!!", Silva wrote on her facebook. 'Nja' or 'Naija' is a funkified word for Nigeria.

Expectedly, the Facebook post by Silva generated comments that ended up dividing contributors along the lines of critical and commercial appreciation of art.

But Emin wasn't speaking within the context of that well-known two sides to art appreciation. She was clearly being political within the frame of her local rivalry with some members of the YBAs movement. "It tends to happen much more with male artists," she told her audience. And just in case you still can't get Emin's political tones and possible angst against someone, she clarified: "I’m not talking about Picasso."   
  That clarification indicated her grouse was confined within a space and of ideological differences among her contemporaries. In fact, she was probably using the opportunity of the Wales event to throw stones at a particular individual artist, most likely, Damien Hirst.

 The perceived cold war among few of the YBAs, seemed to have been widened with Emin's statement. And clearly it would not be understood in the context of commercial versus critical appreciation at a broader scale.

It was however worrisome that the debate on Silva's Facebook degenerated to the point of calling people names. For example, those who disagreed with the argument of "making art and not money" were called the "olodos". In English translation, 'olodos' is a Yoruba word for dullards. At that point of the debate, I stopped tracking it.

Nothing could be more complex and arrogant as trying to whip other professional colleagues into a particular line of thought in 21st Century debate over an art-related subject.

Every art professional has the right of what to do with their art. And to behave like one Headmaster in spreading your line of thought, please go and set up some kind of school for dummies who won't have their right to think, independent of the headmaster's dictates.

As much as critical and commercial appreciation of art should always go together, it is the right of any artist to strictly stick to one and dump the other or take the two along. In Nigeria, where there is no equivalent of Arts Council England for artists to get grant, it makes little or no sense to blackmail professionals who lean on the commercial side of the divides.

-Tajudeen Sowole.


  1. Brilliant post. I think you speak for many people who have at times felt bullied by Ms.Silva for thinking differently from her. Many well known curators today didn't attend any curatorial school. But come from rich diverse backgrounds that have in turn enriched their curatorial practice. I think and believe that there's room for everyone at the top.

  2. Interesting read.
    Personally, as an artist practicing Here, I see it wise for Artists to have some form of business mindedness being an Artist. I say this because it starts as a hobby and if one wishes to be professional about it, you must also think of your practice as a business plan or you will not last in the Proffession called Art(be it music, dance, drama, poetry, sculpture or painting). One must first invest in your talent and grow it with time.
    It's easy to criticize and condem but artists, writers, curators and scholars, have we asked the question; what is it like growing as an Artists and practicing Here?
    You will be shocked at answers...

    1. Lovely response sir, it takes a real artist to understand what ART itself is and stand for; before knowing the right thing to do with or about it.For instance only a real mother can tell how much of her love she share with her child, so it is for HE WHO CALLS HIM SELF AN ARTIST...