Why is Tracey Emin’s Unmade Bed Art and Yours Isn’t?

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By Ellie Clarke

Upon loitering into the gallery room where Tracy Emin’s unmade bed stands, I wonder if you would pay any second thought as to the complexity of the sculpture (if you would call it that). Perhaps, instead, you might find the dirty sheets, sprawled over the mattress and laced with vodka bottles, condoms, and panty hose, a little on the repulsive side. For many people, the notion that art can be an expression, as opposed to something that took a strenuous amount of effort and skill with paint or marble, has not yet been fully explored.


Emin uses ‘My bed’ as a confession, embarking on a critique of the detritus of a life quintessentially her own. The bed is a motif in which she highlights not only her own flaws, but also the overlapping contexts of sexual politics, homelessness and displacement. Rooted deeply amid her tortured emotions, the bed sent out convulsions of shock to the public. After its first appearance at the Tate, it became an overnight sensation.

Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’

Certainly, the work was greeted with some disdain. The Sunday Mirror reported how ‘elderly readers have written in their thousands to grumble about the so-called artwork.’ The Sunday Times dismissed the work, claiming that ‘at least the naughty school girls liked it.’ In a more sensitive response to Emin’s unmade bed, Richard Cork, writing for The Times, said; ‘nobody inside the show was fulminating about her unwashed knickers, or doubling up in satirical mirth at the revelations about her unbridled teenage libido and its disastrous consequences. Rather they were attending, quietly and seriously to a young woman’s frankness about the calamity and mess of her life so far.’

If Tracey Emin can throw together an untidy bed which inspires a modern art sensation, why can’t we all? Perhaps it is her tormented past and her existing status as a controversial artist that allows her to produce such pieces. However, it is important to realise that the bed was not composed upon a whim, but was the product of months of planning and work. Nevertheless, I’m sure that many will maintain that the only difference between Tracey Emin’s unmade bed and yours is the fact that it is particularly disgusting, and in the Tate Gallery.

In a time when radicalisation continues to push the boundaries of modern art as we know it, we ask ourselves: what really makes modern art…art? The question was explored at great length by Yale academic, Paul Bloom. He conducted a careful experiment to assess the response to modern art by showing a painting to two groups of three year olds. The painting consisted of a blob of paint on a canvas. The first group was told that the blob was an accidental spillage of paint which inspired little interest in the group of children. The second group was told that the blob had been carefully created for the children who consequently called the splash of colour a ‘painting.’ In his assessment, Bloom concluded that aesthetical judgment does not exist. What one believes is a painting is in direct correlation to how one feels about it. Bloom is not an inherent admirer of modern art, yet he appreciates the complexity of modern art as a movement which tries to represent the world with a personal response, whilst traditional art is untainted by opinion. He writes: “Any dope can marvel at a Rembrandt, but only an elite few can make any sense of a work such as Sherrie Levine’s Fountain, and so only an elite few are going to enjoy it.” One of his most interesting suggestions was to compare the modern artist to a comedian due to their aptitude to push boundaries, “And some people hate modern art because they feel they are the butt of that joke.”

Whether you love or hate modern art, it is important to realise its complexity. Art is not simply art because the nicely composed still life has taken a long time and the ‘detail is pretty,’ but art is what the viewer makes of it and the feelings which it inspires.

Photograph courtesy of Stephen Hird.

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