‘The Power and the Beauty in Looking Different’ - Tracey Emin

November 09, 2016

Tracey Emin is attempting to alter the customary, orthodox, understanding and perception of beauty. It looks as if not so much as to extend it but rather to replace it; to displace it.

There’s a TV show on soon in which she is to present an array of people; all of whom are strikingly different to any Renaissance or Classical idealised image of the form of the ‘perfect’ human body. She offers the citation above which I have made the title of this article as her rationale for doing so.

Tracy Emin has said she associates ‘aggression’ with beauty; and the idea expressed in the citation from Emin which is my title to this article; that ‘power’ and ‘beauty’ go hand in hand; with ‘power’ being prior to and an essential aspect to this human beauty she sees in her subjects; is perhaps not a surprising conception for Emin given the aesthetic of aggression she prefers.

There is a question – a large question – begged by a concerted conscious and belligerent campaign by Emin and by other contemporary people prominent in the world of contemporary art; to shift the rest of us in our apprehensions of beauty to a place where power and aggression applied to what may be vaguely termed ‘human difference’ is a form of beauty. That question is: why desire and promote so insistently such a deliberate violent fracture with most of the art aesthetic and ethos of the past?

The power of such ‘new’ art is able to make beholders of it look again; able to capture its viewers’ attention and invoke questions for them which challenge their settled views. If this is the power Emin means OK – only a photo or newsreel of for instance, the horrors of The Vietnam War back in the 1960s was able to and actually did this. Those newsreels and photos were not thought Turner Prize material; nor even thought art.

Looking at other recent works; buildings; installations; monuments, made by people in recent years, the expression of power appears to be a prominent theme of what these artefacts are saying to an observer. In buildings and in sculpture the monolithic style of power statement is commonly in use; Capital’s more decorative version of Soviet ‘realism’.

No one who is sensitive to beauty is able to deny the power of beauty to affect and to sway a person and a person’s mind. But it is very different to say that beauty is beautiful because it expresses power. This is to say that power itself is beautiful; which in its due measure used discriminatingly it might possibly be so sometimes – as in a beauteous ethical sense say.

Bald and outright declarations in the media and the formats reserved for the arts which are saying that power is an aesthetic in itself, beautiful, as it were, a priori, and an axiom of any aesthetic; are perhaps statements carrying more than aesthetic or ethical intentions?

Here a defence is raised by contenders against whereabouts I am heading; that all art is political; and has always been so; art in the service of religion or the state or corporate capital etc; that artists like us all have to serve somebody or some ideology; and usually one as shared with their audiences sets of beliefs. The makers of artefacts today write apologetic s for their views on life; which apologies act as commentaries here and there on the works they produce. In this way, like the feminist lobby; like the LGBT lobby; and like the euthanasia lobby; to name three ascendant lobbies of our times; the 21st century art lobby is selling a product; persuading a populace; deliberately and calculatedly aiming to change the views of ordinary people into the ways of thinking represented by these lobbies.

In the main, and ever to the ordinary person; these calculated persuasions are not labelled as such – are not owned-up to as campaigns of calculated persuasion; but rather they are labelled by tags which tend to disperse the perceptual focus away from this their essential object; and into subsidiary paths or else conjunctive issues; which the lobbyists might in passing want to make use of or else seek to place bearing upon.

It is easy for many such glanced-at side issues and lesser concerns attacked on their ways, to act to assist in the successful promulgation of their would-be new aesthetics and ethics. By way of taking potshots at what are assumed to be the dying and older orders of things. One very common side-issue taking such a battering by the way is the Christian faith; and many such lobbyists work actively to help destroy the Christian faith; especially in Britain right now. Because Christ stands in the way of all their promulgations and eagerness for change The Christian faith is presently pretty well everybody’s coconut shy and Aunt Sally; and the chucking of muck is being led by and aided and abetted by the lobbyists; so as for them better to have opportunity to set up their ‘replacement’ ethoses and aesthetics, but none of them religious.

In part this state of affairs, that Christian thinking is being forced into decline, is a massive and pounding headache arisen from the hangover many people suffer having taken the heady drink of certain late and some still-living post-modernist theorists. In the absurdist drama also there have been Anouilh and Beckett, Pinter and Kane and others who have made their contributions to the concerted destruction of the old ways of thinking.  One might go back earlier but no need – the paths are well trodden and acknowledged generally to be the right tracks by the opposers of as well as the persuaders for the newly-arising outlooks and thinking.

I want to bring forward a defence for some Post-Modern Critical Theorists, those who have done good work which has cleared away a certain amount of old clutter and stinky garbage from the old ways of thinking and feeling. During centuries of relative stability for this old mode of thought there had been ample time and great opportunity for accretions and misconceptions to arise within it and these accretions deserved pruning back and what was left as the remainder had been in much need of re-potting.

Derrida, the best of the Post Modernist Theorists has himself done excellent work in laying open for anyone with a will and an application to persist with him, a vast array of ideas and thoughts which in no way preclude religion – or a Christ – or a God – whatever you want to name your Almighty. By the sheer numbers of foundational questions he uncovers and leaves hanging concerning existence and concerning the structures of human culture; Derrida offers any earnest reader of him a way to become aware very soon that things (phenomena) are not as they seem; and that things (cultural history) is not as it is because it could not have been otherwise.

There’s a certain head for heights needed to read Derrida; and one needs to be assured of having a safe footing one before one attempts the task. The easy route for those without such footing is to go straight to the jail of absurdity and to collect nihilism there as your jailer. The absurdist playwrights and the lesser Post Modern Theorists nearly all ended-up here; although Anouilh was in fact a believer in God; even though his world view is an absurdist one; but he reconciled this incongruity and I believe I might see how.

In fact nihilism, and its blood-brother-buddy, atheism, are the easy routes; the easy answers; the lazy and the impetuous impulsive answers. Reinforcing this willingness in readers of the post-modernists to jump on the first bus coming without checking out the route first; have been the progress of the disciplines of psychology and of its psychologists; who have similarly claimed to have opened up the workings of the human mind and soul, since the time Freud did his original spadework in 1900 in The Interpretation of Dreams. Thus, what was once a closed book – so they would have us believe – is now open and translated into a ‘learning by numbers’ analysis sure set of beliefs about what makes people tick; and these beliefs are held in stunted crippled fashion nowadays by many, maybe most, people; as varying degrees of half-knowledge. Science and its scientists likewise have as have the Critical Theorists of Post Modernism; and the psychologists; publicised – by publicising themselves - their own persuasions to us and likewise they too claim have sewn all things up into a bag for themselves labelled it boldly ‘our baby’. Each discipline then; science, psychology, theory, and the arts, would have it that itself is the discipline which explains most, if not all – and thereby thus it explains away – the world, society, sex, instinct, fantasy, and existence and being in general.

Ask any ordinarily educated person a question bearing on teleology, ontology, or epistemology; but make it a question couched in familiar daily terms so that you do not sound daunting to them; and you are nearly certain to get an answer from them which invokes and evokes one of these disciplines – science, art, psychology/social science and theory – and also bringing forth claims for the answer given to you to be the cut and dried, done and dusted ‘final’ conclusion on the matter in hand. This 'dead certainty' has arisen because of there has been and is still a great cloud of intellectuals in these disciplines who have worked to persuade and to cajole the ordinary person, so far as to stuff her/his mind with an allotment of half-formed disparate and ill-suited fruit and veg beliefs about modern life, society, and people. Thus the ordinary person has now a mind filled like a ragbag with parings and peelings which can in no way make a broth of any appetite. And so the ordinary person’s mind today presents itself to a thinking person’s as being a loosely stuffed pig's bladder filled with idle blanks of unfeasible prejudice.

This situation has happened because there is today no time or space in the ordinary person’s life for him/her to make sense of this baggage carried as a burden inside a head, less room to think it through and so make it more clear; and this is because everyday lives are lived for the most part as distractions from the real issues of life; and so there exists a led by the nose half-conscious people caught up in shopping malls and auction sites; and in the stadia dedicated to The Pythian and other Games which are adored so devoutly; crowds in the technological sweetshops of our gadget era; and yet by no means may people go into a quiet half an hour in silence and alone daily; whereabouts to consider what on earth might be going on in this astounding cosmological, intellectual, biological, neurological, sensory as well as generally wondrous place we live in and subsist on.

I have written elsewhere about how political power and other psychological perceptions of power are all human mental constructs; it is we who create the responses which allow such power to be realised and effected; and it is we allow it to have its effects in the world. Exercise of human power is more or less anything which is able to compel or to persuade a person; and such power may be assumed to reside in persons themselves or in organisations institutions traditions authority and suchlike.

We are the crowds in the cloud of our social structures; which act to shape and pattern our lives in ways which we are not often greatly conscious of; and we accept these shapings and patternings in the same way as famous brand names are accepted by children; who see brands of their early years even in their later life as yet being wholly real and authentic; as much as is an abrasion or a fall to their bodies. These structures and patterns are very often working on us as covert controllers of our actions, provoking by our stimuli our precluded responses. Think of the obvious and plain things like dialling 911 or 999 in emergencies; stopping at red lights; placing your platform ticket through the barrier; all of which we learn to do just as if we were born to it. We pick these habits up like glue very quickly.

The whole of society is embroidered with exercises in this kind of direction and constraint upon and over us its citizens; and most of us its citizens call it ‘life’. It is in fact being obedient without thinking why one ought to be obedient. It is a covert and generally unacknowledged exercise of political social and economic power over us.

Given this is the case; and I believe I can go further and say it is self-evident when thought about that it is the case; how might human power, human manifestations of power, be beautiful; how might any aesthetic or ethos be soundly based on the beautification of such human power?

This is not to say that there are no opportunities for the expression of such human power in the arts; nor is it to say that ethics have no part in human business, economics, society and political life. It is to say however that an aesthetic may not successfully be based on an ethos of human power. And by ‘successfully’ I mean such an aesthetic and ethos if widespread will inevitably tend society towards disintegration and towards greater and greater everyday antisocial behaviour in persons; and in the actions of society’s institutions.

This is because the espousal of an idea that at bottom is at work in all things absurdity; from such an outlook springs inevitably nihilism; from which outlook in turn springs inevitably as a last bastion a championing of oneself, of ones individual personal desires and ones abilities to obtain them; followed eventually by a Phyrric triumph of the ego over every other criteria for living.  Such an ethos and aesthetic runs naturally in such a sequence, such a declension, into world-views representing utter intellectual prostration and moral surrender before the fact of the enormity and enigma of cosmic vastity.

I suggest that any ethos and any aesthetic based on human power and which assert that this worldly human power is inherently, innately, beautiful; and that promulgates by persuasion and apologetics such views, and their use, in the world of art in this our era; are in fact all commercial propositions and represent merely further tentacles pendant from the Kraken of consumerism; its fervour and avarice.

The selling of this ethos and aesthetic to a wider public runs in parallel with the selling of the items of artefact which are made as representing and embodying these ethoses and aesthetics. Thus these new aesthetics and ethoses are nothing much more than the bandwagons of the fashion; the order of the day, and have their counterparts in ‘reality TV’ and in ‘shockumentaries’ and in ‘fly-on-the-wall’ dramas and the like. Their aim is to make a big splash, to make a lot of money, by promoting the self by selling one’s ego and its imaginings to a waiting public.

It may even be cruel for a person to persist in a claim that one is empowering people by suggesting they have a human power which is a priori beautiful; that such a formula will work its magic on them and for them; that all they have to do for the spell to happen is to follow the word and the ideas of the purveyors of the ethos and aesthetic. There has been massive damage done to general day to day consideration, to assumed prima facie goodwill, and to reasonable holding one another in good respect, by this lobbyist railroading of UK life into this declension of and deterioration; into belief in nothing but oneself, and in the social space one makes for oneself. To be persuading persons to go public by persuading them in a faith in the beauty that is human power is as likely as not to be allowing the disrespecters and scoffers an indulgence of their appalling bad behaviour. These scoffers will see in the practical presentation of such an idea that beauty arises out of human power as little more than just another chance to obtain titillation and so will laugh at others’ misfortunes.

The sympathy that Tracy Emin’s ideas show towards unfortunate people in her proclamation of such an aesthetic and ethos is laudable; and the unfortunates themselves deserve better than they receive presently – from us all who are AOK - more or less. How one provides this ‘better’ without being condescendingly obsequious in the provision is a tough call. Tracey Emin may perhaps be hoping that something like her intellectualisation of the problem is a way forward. But I think not at an expense of veracity and validity. Telling a lie, if she sees it as a lie and does not see it as true at its face value, may have a certain nobility and even kindness about it; but yet it is so often true that, on the contrary, expressions of human power are innately and outrageously ethically distasteful, because human power belongs solely to and is fed hugely by the human ego alone.  In such circumstances the ordinary responses to any of Emin’s emancipatory intentions to the benefit of others, which reside in her design and its ideas, are as likely as not to to be nasty and salacious.

You can also find this article at our metanomalies blog.