The art of misspelling

30th September 2005 at 01:00
Whether Tracey Emin's "mistakes" are intended or accidental, they provide a great focus for discussing artistic effect in writing, says Stephen Lucas

I wanted to believe in Mad Tracey from Margate - crazed, unschooled, a woman who plunders her past for gritty tales of rape, abortion and failed relationships. Tales she retells with a stark immediacy that flirts with artlessness. I was at a Tate Britain lecture on Tracey Emin when the speaker announced that Mad Tracey's art was painstakingly premeditated and steeped in tradition. I left feeling thoroughly depressed - it was like when I was told there's no Santa Claus.

Letters appear in reverse on her monoprints and appliqued blankets, words are misspelled (psycho becomes PYSCO on her Pysco Slut blanket), sentences are scratched out. The sense that her art is dashed off invests it with an immediacy which drags Emin's past traumas into the present.

But in his Tate Britain lecture earlier this year Chris Townsend argued that monoprints - where the artist draws in reverse on a sheet of paper laid on inked glass - cannot be rushed. Emin disagrees.

Furthermore, Townsend suggested the tampons in "My Bed" - Emin's infamous sculpture which appeared at Tate Britain when she was unsuccessfully shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999 - apparently reference a feminist tradition in art. A woman - with similar illusions to my own - heckled Townsend at that point: "Maybe she had a bad experience with a tampon!"

The idea of conjuring a persona through unconventional use of language sparked the imagination of Alan Gardiner, head of English at Birkenhead Sixth Form College and author of Pearson Education's ASA2 English Language.

Sixth-formers could compare Emin with Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Peter Carey's Booker prize-winning True History of the Kelly Gang, a first-person narrative purportedly written by an Australian outlaw: "There's a long tradition of breaking the conventions of the English language to evoke character and a sense of personal voice.

Huckleberry Finn spells the word civilise as "sivilize" at the beginning of the novel. There's very little conventional punctuation in Carey's book, and Catcher in the Rye is full of colloquialisms.

"The difference between them and Emin is that there is a clear distinction between the author and the persona, the characters have got names. With Emin the boundaries are much more blurred. I would use her as a point of contrast to the other authors. I would ask if her non-standard language successfully creates an authentic personal voice, or does it merely seem an affectation, a bit like Nigel Kennedy's mockney accent."

Since "My Bed" got art critics in a lather, Emin has modelled for Vivienne Westwood and endorsed Becks Beer and Bombay Sapphire Gin. Next month, her autobiography, Strangeland, is published. Emin attributes her stardom to a happy coincidence: it has chimed with society's current obsession with reality TV and confessional chat shows. The contention over Emin's authenticity opens a debate on how prescriptive the rules of language should be.

"I would have my students study Emin's so-called mistakes," says Alan Gardiner. "Are they genuine or included for artistic effect? If genuine, students could consider what is gained by leaving the material in its original form rather than correcting it. Is it rawer, more powerful, more authentic?

"Looking at the material could open up a debate about how rigidly prescriptive we should be in our approach to language. Why do we have rules about language use, and when is it appropriate to enforce them? Grammar and spelling mistakes can be a barrier to understanding. Or there's the elitist argument that it is a sign of society going to the dogs if we let everyone spell the way they want. On the other hand the writing becomes more authentic if we leave spelling mistakes in and then there's the freedom of expression argument."

Emin wants us to believe that her misspellings, back-to-front letters and crossed-out sentences scrawled across her furious monoprints and appliqued blankets are for real, not part of a contrived persona. "I just never learned to spell. It is not a pretentious thing," she told interviewer Jean Wainwright.

Faked or for real, her art is effective. Perhaps she is not so different from JD Salinger, Mark Twain and Peter Carey. Salinger does become Holden Caulfield, Twain becomes Finn, and Carey becomes Ned Kelly, thanks to the authors' skill in persuading us to suspend our disbelief. When we are confronted with her slap-dash aesthetic Emin sucks us in, too. It slips our minds that she is a super-rich mate of Madonna, a muse of Vivienne Westwood, a Royal College of Art graduate. We believe in Mad Tracey, the unrestrained, over-sexed art punk from Margate, an out-of-control conundrum of vulnerability and assertive aggression.

But, unlike Salinger et al - who reveal themselves when we close their books - Emin galvanises her persona by surfacing in the media to remind us of it after we leave her shows. It is left to the critics to remind us of the craft that underpins her work. Spoilsports.


Tracey Emin's autobiography Strangeland is published by Sceptre next month

The Eye - Tracey Emin a DVD profile

The Art of Tracey Emin, edited by Chris Townsend and Mandy Merck, Thames and Hudson

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