The Tent Is Empty: "The Art Market Is on a Knife-Edge," Tracey Emin Has Declared. Launching a Series of Investigations into Art and the Financial Crisis, Tim Adams Traces the Falling Stock of the Melodramatic Poster-Child of Britart

Article excerpt

For a while now, money has been drawn to misery. Throughout the New Labour years we have found a good deal of our entertainment in the exposed frailty of others. Walking through the latest exhibition by Tracey Emin, "Those Who Suffer Love", at White Cube in London a couple of weeks ago, I was struck by two things. The first was the comfort of the familiar--Emin's emotional pain, so remorselessly raked over and marketed in the past decade or so, has become like a reliable old friend. The jiltings, the abortions, the insistent naked trauma: we would miss them if they were not here. The latest articulations of her dyslexic neuroses in neon--"Oh Christ, I wanted you to fuck me, then I got greedy and wanted you to love me"--are as welcoming these days as her tapestried security blankets. We know where we stand with Our Trace: she has suffered for our art.

The second thing that struck me at White Cube was that the appetite for this lucrative suffering shows signs of slackening. There was a time when an Emin show would be alive with Banksy-esque excitement. On the day I visited, the only people in the gallery, besides the languid greeters, were myself and an elderly chap with a walking stick. We watched Emin's sketchy masturbation video--a 21st-century What the Butler Saw, fresh from Margate Pier. We also had the various stations of Tracey's cross downstairs to ourselves, leading us down a predictable path from self-pleasure to self-harm.

When the old man had had enough of Emin's lonely contortions, I stood for a long while waiting for some other gallery-goers. Eventually, a woman in her thirties came by with her mother to peer at the various sketches and needlepoints of Emin's gaping crotch; a pinstriped businessman on his lunch hour paused in front of the childlike reminiscences of abusive sex; a couple of French tourists translated the torn-out pages of Emin's back-to-front "secret" diary and giggled; and for a long time that was it. The initial shock value of the dirty laundry and the unmade bed has long seeped out of Emin's art, and to a large degree, one suspects, out of her life. What is left is all the old gnawing, dysfunctional, defiant self-abasement recollected in tranquillity. Emin was recently appointed a Royal Academician, and she is in danger of becoming both national treasure and grande dame--a Vivienne West-wood-in-waiting.

This well-rehearsed transformation from urchin to mainstream artist is mirrored in the gallery space itself. White Cube, Mason's Yard, which opened in 2006, marked the return of Jay Jopling's Hoxton enterprise to the West End, in a minimalist box that landed among the walnut-panelled Old Master galleries off Duke Street in St James's, central London. Jopling, who with Charles Saatchi did most to create the Britart brand, had always been of the Establishment (he is the Eton-educated son of a former agriculture minister of Margaret Thatcher's), but for a while he saw the commercial possibilities of roughing it in the East End. The once-derelict industrial buildings of Spitalfields and Shoreditch, where property developers had encouraged art students to squat in order to give their conversions an authentic street atmosphere, had been flogged as loft spaces for the City's bonus boys. Jopling could see how he might sell the packaged extreme expressions of his artists to anyone who wanted a bit of edgy conceptual art on their walls: a perfect reminder to friends that, despite the day job, they had not lost touch with their anarchic youth.

More than Damien Hirst who, with his red-in-tooth-and-claw entrepreneurial instincts, was clearly a product of late Thatcherism, Emin was the stroppy poster-child of this shift eastwards, the signature artist of the New Labour years, the pearly queen of emotional capitalism. She was magnificently self-obsessed (there was no such thing as society in the work of most of the Brit-artists, and certainly not in hers) and artfully melodramatic, and had an eye to the main chance. …