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Art Culture

The Artist: A New Age

Marina Rabin explores how the role of the artist has differed in the twenty-first century.

Tracey Emin. Image courtesy of Financial Times

“I have made sure, after my death, I will not become a nail file, or a keyring,” Tracey Emin told the Talk Art podcast in 2020. She was bewailing the perils of commodifying art, referencing the reduction of the psychological anguish in her hero Edvard Munch’s work to thumb-size merchandisable memorabilia; creating, she felt, a misunderstood legacy undermining the gravitas of the topics he dealt with. There are undoubted parallels with her own career trajectory, in the unabashed confessionalism underpinning much of her now notorious early work, generating criticism that often overshadowed the work itself. Such questions of one’s own artistic legacy have perhaps been of recent pertinence to Emin, confronted with her own mortality in 2020 by a bladder cancer diagnosis, rendering her unable to work for four months.

So, with corporal frankness characteristic to her work, Emin has unveiled plans by which she refuses the risk of suffering a similar fate to Munch: she is establishing her own art school. Named TKE Studios (after Tracey Karima Emin), her revolutionary plans will be housed in a set of former Victorian baths and mortuary in her native Margate. The latter will become a museum for Emin’s own work, and the rest, 30 artists’ studios. There will be strict rules, she told the Times: “No sub-letting, no smoking, no loud music”. Gone then, is the hedonism historically associated with such hubs of creativity.

Emin’s contribution is two-fold, in both fostering a new generation of creatives, and also, securing her community’s continued purchase in British art culture. In situating her revolutionary studios in her hometown, she extends the rapid gentrification process Margate is already undergoing. Once a seaside town defined by poverty, Margate is now an arts hub with all configurations of creatives flocking to live there – owing largely to Emin’s return in 2009. There are hopes that the studios’ residency scheme will pull further artists who will then decide to stay. 

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Emin is not alone in her efforts to bolster her community’s creative standing. Grayson Perry’s rentable ‘A House for Essex,’ designed around the fictional character of Julie Cope, an ‘everywoman’ of Essex, is a celebration of Perry’s native county. Perry’s quintessential eccentricities are visible in every element of the house. Staying in it offers the opportunity for immersion in an idiosyncratically Perry-esque creation, taking advantage of the unprecedented possibilities for the immediacy of interaction between an artist and their audience available in the 21st century to draw art lovers to Essex.

Grayson Perry, House for Essex, 2015. Image courtesy of Living Architecture

Being an artist in the 21st century, these ventures suggest, goes beyond the material legacy one leaves behind – it is also about the social impact which artists enable. TKE studios further present a suggestion as to what being an artist is in a post-pandemic world. The studios’ philosophy is underscored by sociality. Nodding towards a renewed value in community in a pandemic-adapting world, Emin intends for a conglomeration of generations of artists – “baby artists, middle artists, older artists” – to interact and help each other, contradicting the solitariness often assumed of artistry.

For many, art is inherently social, in its purpose as social activism in illustrating the cracks of social inequality. The role of the artist, therefore, is as the spokesperson bringing inequalities to light, pointing to tension in art in the 21st century. In an increasingly stratified art culture, in which the echelons of success are progressively less accessible, the question arises of how artists with experience informing social commentary can continue to emerge. This is where the likes of Emin and Perry come in. Offering the opportunity for both their communities and upcoming artists to flourish, they provide a fresh sense of egalitarianism, democratisation and increased accessibility of art for art lovers and artists alike. To me, this is tied to the advent of social media, and artists’ own recognition of their status as “celebrity”. This enables a faster-paced, reactionary interplay between art and society, necessitating artists’ acknowledgement of the influence which accompanies this. Social media also allows artists to include their audience in the process of creating art. This real-time interactionism shifts the emphasis from solely being on the product, but rather, the community created in the process: this is the unique position 21st-century artists find themselves in – the onus is on them in how they utilise this.

Image courtesy of Andy Hay via Flickr