Wordsworth's Prelude, Tracey Emin, and Romantic Autobiography

Article excerpt

Controversy over a contemporary art object rarely leads to re-evaluating a nineteenth-century literary tradition, but that is what happened after the critical debate about Tracey Emin's "My Bed," an installation created in 1998. Emin's entry for the 1999 Turner Prize, "My Bed" is an unmade bed with stained, rumpled sheets, surrounded by dirty ashtrays, vodka bottles, underwear, nylon stockings, a candle, condoms and other paraphernalia. In the summer of 2000, this piece was purchased by Charles Saatchi, who reportedly paid 150,000 [pounds sterling] for it (Brooks 7, Goode 4). For those who take an interest in contemporary British art, "My Bed" is a well-worn topos, and in some quarters it is now considered vulgar even to mention Tracey Emin. So wrote Peter Watson in the New Statesman in 2002, anyway, pronouncing her "unfit" to keep company with significant artists, and predicting that the directors of the Tate Gallery would soon put an end to "Turner Prize shenanigans" (Watson 10). Emin has many devoted admirers, however, some of them in North America. A second Emin bed, without the surrounding mess, was exhibited in New York in the fall, 2002, and promptly sold for an undisclosed sum (Morrison 7). The American critic, Bill Arning, writing about Emin's first U.S. solo show at the Lehmann Maupin gallery, remarks: "Emin's art defies all notions of universal spectatorship or objective criteria. I, for one, found myself worshiping her as a goddess and eating up even the most banal details" (114).

Among literary scholars who have championed her, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson argue that Emin's "My Bed" is not only a working-class riposte to the moneyed preciousness of the art establishment, but a clever and ironic comment about "the practice of autobiography at this cultural moment" (4). Emin's best-known pieces are all thoroughly "autobiographical" exercises in self-exposure of a particularly graphic kind. She goes further than the author of even the most candid autobiography in print: she presents the spectator not with an interpretation of her life, or even a narrative which would constitute an interpretation, but with the raw material itself. Visually she trashes all notions of decorum, as if saying to the viewer "You want to know about my life: this is my life." It's raw and vulgar, but Smith and Watson make the point that life-writing of all kinds, especially autobiography, has always been popular with the reading public despite the stigma of "vulgarity" that has been attached to it by arbiters of correct taste: "If academic critics want to say 'no' to excessive and repeated self-display, the enthusiastic public response ... has been 'yes'" (9).

This debate is unsettling for Romanticists because Emin is portrayed (in the broadsheet press, anyway) as the direct descendant of English Romanticism. The unmade bed as art object is considered a commentary on the tradition of Romantic self-exploration, the modern-day equivalent of Wollstonecraft's Short Residence, Byron's Childe Harold, Hazlitt's Liber Amoris, De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and Wordsworth's The Prelude. Michael Glover, reporting on a recent exhibition of new work at the White Cube Gallery in London SW1, scathingly characterizes Emin as typifying "the fag end of Romanticism." What he sees in Emin's work (in contrast to Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson) is not feminist revolt or a radical aesthetic but exhausted Romantic narcissism. To Glover, the problem is not that this art is autobiographical, but that Tracey Emin, the "self" being explored, is simply not interesting. Artists like Wordsworth and Coleridge, he says, "shared these same essential Romantic impulses: the profound exploration of subjectivity." But they were fortunate in having interesting selves to explore. "In order to practice Romanticism successfully ... you must be an interesting person" (11).

Perhaps Wordsworth scholars should be grateful for Glover's remarks: it is not often that Wordsworth is so straightforwardly described in a Sunday newspaper as an "interesting person. …