Arts column: What will the world come to if our YBAs all turn into CBEs?

TRACEY EMIN – bad girl of the contemporary art world, the women who put her manky bedsheets and blood-stained undies on display in a gallery, who burst into notoriety by appearing drunk and sweary on live TV – is being awarded a CBE.

If you were fully versed in her antics yet unfamiliar with the concept of the New Year Honours list you’d be forgiven for guessing CBE stands for Cannot Be Embarrassed.

It doesn’t. It stands for Commander of the British Empire (or Commander of the Order of the British Empire if you’re feeling pedantic).

It’s the sort of title you frankly expect to be worn by commanderish sorts of people. Non-slouching types with purposeful walks who do commandery sorts of things.

The kind of people who wouldn’t, to take a typical example from Emin’s CV, appliqué the names of the 102 people she had slept with on the interior walls of a tent for public perusal.

I have nothing against Emin. I bet she’d be a real laugh on a night out, I find a lot of her work really interesting and I envy the nerve it takes to stick her old period knickers in front of thousands when I wouldn’t be able to resist the mad get-the-pants-off-theradiator-when-the-doorbell-rings dash even if I was only drying my tiniest lacy pairs.

And it’s important for artists to be seen to be at least as significant to society as those who’ve carried out great service to cricket, dentistry and the contact lens industry.

Neither am I suggesting Emin should, like filmmaker and Olympics opening ceremony creator Danny Boyle, refuse the honour on principle. That’s entirely up to her. She’s worked hard, why shouldn’t she have a bit of recognition and a nice medal to keep in the drawer of her bedside table?

Artists have form for turning conventional. They start off doing something radical with colour that has all the critics shielding their eyes in pain and end up with their work printed on tea towels. They become the standard against which later artists feel compelled to rebel.

There’s almost no choice in the matter. A contemporary artist’s success is often measured by a Turner Prize win or a Tate exhibition – two brands that are about as establishment as you can get in the art world.

It doesn’t matter if you’re still creating work with shock factor – once you’ve sold a bottled shark for $12m you haven’t got a leg to stand on in the anti-establishment stakes (well you have several actually, but they probably belong to a cow you sliced in half earlier and popped in a glass case).

To be fair, with Emin the signs were always there. She may have been drunk and loudmouthed on that Channel 4 live discussion programme back in 1997, but she was also insisting, albeit in a drunk and loudmouthed way, that she wanted to go home to her mum.

And don’t forget she chose to appliqué those 102 names on the wall of that tent, not spraypaint them graffiti-style, suggesting a certain fondness for crafts.

Plus she likes cats. It’s not hard to imagine her sitting a home in a rocking chair, a moggie and a half-crocheted pair of worsted wool socks on her lap.

But what will the world come to if our rebels are mellowing, if our YBAs are turning into CBEs?

We need people to fill this very important role in society, particularly if we’re too busy knitting iPad cosies and growing organic chard to have time to rebel ourselves.

Liverpool Post. January 10, 2012

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