Inspired by Andy Warhol’s comment, “Good business is the best art”, the Tate Modern’s current exhibition, Pop Life: Art in the Material World, inspired me to look at two of Britain’s YBA’s (young British Artists). The two artists are Gavin Turk and the oftentimes controversial Tracey Emin. Both artists, as with most of the other artists in the group, have one thing in common: Their artistic persona is as important, if not more important, than their art. They are the brand, much in the same way Warhol was the brand. Their art is the product of their branded persona – think “fifteen minutes” of fame enjoyed over and over again.
Gavin Turk [who actually spends a good deal of time thinking about his work] got his first fifteen minutes of fame when the Royal College of Art refused to give him his MA in 1991. The reason? His final work, entitled Cave [one of the versions seen above], consisted of a white-washed studio space. Hung on one of the walls was a blue heritage plaque, the same kind of plaque found on heritage buildings and monuments of famous dead people. Inscribed on the plaque were the words: Burough of Kensington/GAVIN TURK/Sculptor/Worked Here 1989-1991. The plaque and words gave a sort of ironic finality to a career that hadn’t yet begun. Gavin Turk, sculptor, was too young to be considered “heritage”, too unknown to be considered “famous”, and too alive to be considered “dead”, yet none of these “blue heritage plaque prerequisites” deterred him from commemorating himself. As such, the plaque becomes the ultimate self-promotion – I declare myself to be, therefore I am. Now add a little bit of hype brought about by a stuffy, narrow minded college’s refusal to grant a poor young artist his degree and voila! Turk’s first fifteen minutes of fame which have since been followed by more fifteen minutes.
More than anything, however, Turk’s Cave put the finger on what Warhol already knew – we are a brand-obsessed society that cares more about the name than it does the art. Artists, such as Turk, Emin, and most notably Hirst [to name some of the British ones], understand this. It is what Turk calls the “cult of the signature”.
What is especially interesting about these artists is that they spend as much time “branding” themselves as they do “de-branding” their art. Again, think of Warhol and his soup cans. It’s like a weird circle that feeds on itself: Turk creates garbage bags and carton boxes that, were it not for the fact that they are in a museum or gallery, would look like a garbage bag or carton box; paradoxically, the garbage bags and carton boxes would still look like garbage bags and carton boxes [in spite of their museum/gallery setting] if it weren’t for the fact that Turk is the artist. In other words, the brand – Gavin Turk – is what gives the art its relevance and explains why the art is in a museum/gallery setting.
Foul-mouthed slut – not the brand most people would embrace, yet Tracey Emin has appropriated the “bad girl” image as her very own. My bed, which is exactly that – Emin’s bed – would be just another bed if it weren’t for the undeniable persona of its creator. Emin spent four days in this bed contemplating suicide. While she contemplated, she drank, smoked, and had lots of sex – at least if you are to judge by the empty vodka bottles, the cigarette buts, and the condoms. The way she tells it, and retells it, and then retells it again – she had one hell of an awful childhood and so she drinks too much, swears too much, and sleeps around. It’s visual Oprah where everything is revealed, and then revealed again.
Warhol wasn’t wrong when he said “good business is the best art”. Nor is there anything wrong with self-promotion. After all, artists do have to sell their work, something art galleries and art dealers have been doing forever and controversy, for better or for worse, is the best ad campaign one can hope for. Art is not objective, it is subjective. As such, it is the physical embodiment of its creater and there is nothing wrong with that. Where it goes wrong and where the art collector has to be careful is when the brand takes over the art. I am great and I have something to express should never be confused with I am great simply because I tell you I am.