Molly Guinness

Tracey Emin’s knickers – a short history of contemporary British art

Tracey Emin’s bed is to be sold at auction this summer with a guide price of £800,000 to £1.2 million, although the man who sold it to Charles Saatchi has said it’s priceless. Emin was part of the British art movement in the ‘90s that gave Richard Dorment trouble at dinner parties; this scene is an occupational hazard of being an art critic, he said.

‘The beautiful person I’m sitting next to has bluntly informed me that modern art is rubbish. We’re only on the soup, and a long evening stretches ahead. Whether or not we round this dangerous corner depends on my neighbour’s tone of voice, which can range from raw aggression to lively interest. If it is confrontation she is after, the rule is: change the subject as fast as possible. If she persists, the rule remains: don’t go there. But if, by now, she’s on to Tracey’s knickers, then I’ve got a full-blown case of modern-art rage on my hands.’

Just as long as his neighbour wasn’t too angry, these confrontations could sometimes give Richard Dorment a chance to wax lyrical about contemporary art.

‘Why this obsession with modern art? In a period of huge social change, artists show us what is happening to us even before we are aware that it is taking place. This work rattles around in our heads because it tells us something we didn’t know about ourselves…As for Tracey’s knickers, it still amazes me that within months of the exhibition of her famous unmade bed, most of the population of Britain were glued to Big Brother on television. I’m not saying that the bed is a great work of art, but I do say that long before the rest of us figured it out Emin understood the changing nature of popular culture and exploited her knowledge brilliantly.

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