Tracy Emin talk at the Hay Festival by Alice Straker

Tracy Emin is known for creating ‘confessional art’ about her personal life, whereby she is very much at the core of her message. She said that 30 years ago this approach was very novel, but in today’s society self obsession and narcissism is everywhere and all consuming, in a rather concerning way. You only have to look at the number of selfies in your Instagram and Facebook feeds to get an idea of this obsession. She said that the only selfies she ever took were so that she could look back and see how she was thinking from a psychological and philosophical point of view at different times in her life, and to track the progression.

During the talk, Emin shared some useful insights on what it is to be an Artist today. The first thing of note was be honest with yourself and what you are creating, and create things because you like it and it comes from within the soul. Over the years Emin has worked in a variety of media including painting, sculpture, film, photography and her neon text where she expresses her thoughts, desires, fears and feelings in her own illuminated handwriting. She has always been honest with who she is, confronting herself and her mistakes in life, which is evident in her body of work. Her renowned installation ‘My Bed’ 1998 is a classic example of such ‘confessional art’ whereby she showed her bed in a state of disarray after a four-day alcohol binge, with a mess of empty alcohol bottles, fag butts, stained sheets and worn underwear littering the scene. It’s a bold and honest statement of herself as a vulnerable and imperfect human being. This sort of scene is actually quite shocking if you think that most people like to present their lives in positive light on social media. Could you imagine yourself uploading a photo of your unmade bed with all the trimmings of a binge weekend? I didn’t think so. I wouldn’t either. It’s important to iterate here that as an artist this is her way of being honest with herself and her work. For you or me that might be something completely different.

The second point is make mistakes. She said ‘the best learners in the whole world are children because they keep on making mistakes and they keep on learning from their mistakes.’ It’s an interesting point as we live in a society that slants on perfection. It’s true that most lessons are learnt when you’ve done something incorrectly, which applies to life as well as in art. Be bold, experiment and get things wrong. It is all progression.

The third point is to create an emotional response. Emin stated that, ‘Art for me is something that should make you stop and stand still, and be emotionally bound by. A lot of things happening now avoid feeling. Without true feeling and emotion you don’t develop as a human, as a soul.’ I agree with Emin that your work should come from an emotional source, and that it’s a truthful response to what you are seeing or trying to portray. If what your creating has meaning to you, then that will come across in the work and hopefully move the viewer. That is why I paint delicious things; because I am moved by the beauty of food, and the creativity involved in the kitchen, and that sense is what I want to convey in my work, which again links back to the first point about honesty.

The final thing is don’t worry about what others are doing. Of course take an interest in what your contemporaries are creating, but ultimately you should focus on yourself, your journey and your development as an Artist.

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