Only models matter

Your guide to the role of women in fine art and the world.


Cintra Wilson
June 2, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

I realize that the art world has been corrupt and indifferent to actual art ever since galleries began doling it out on steam trays, and the art business has been wheeling along on its own ability to advertise artists into popular stardom, but it's interesting to me that advertising has now taken total precedence over art. Now, the advertising is the art, in a much more direct and venal way than even mean-spirited pranksters like Andy Warhol or Mark Kostabi or tumescent attention-whores like Julian Schnabel ever imagined it.

Go to SoHo, where there was a legitimate "art scene" once upon a time, and today you'll see a world arranged around white-girl models under the age of 23. Models are the Advertised Woman, As Seen On TV, and SoHo is basically a big strip mall, featuring the same stores as any mall in Omaha: J. Crew, Banana Republic, the Gap. All the models this year wear tiny, tight capri pants from one of these three stores and smaller tube tops that show off their five-inch diameters all the way down, and little triangular head-kerchiefs, and tiny, feathery, insignificant shoes with such lacy soles as to suggest that the model is carried by loin-clothed ebony eunuchs from jet to hotel to posh brunchery. Models pose on cardboard in SoHo window displays, models roam around inside the same stores and sit in restaurants with their heads together like tent poles, smoking. And the world around them, while pretending to act nonchalant, can't keep its eyes away and trips over itself and slobbers all over them like they're Cleopatra. As soon as one strides blithely and round-eyed out the door, the shop-girl/waitress/peon gushes "Oh, she's such a special girl. And her friend? With the long, blond hair? So beautiful. And so sweet. Such a special girl. I love her."

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If a chick is trying to become a super-popular visual artist, it helps a lot if she's a model, or just looks like one, and gets a lot of helpful mainstream advertising. I visited two art shows this week, both of which gave me that feeling I rarely get: that I dislike women so much I want to bore out my own reproductive system.

Japanese Wunderkind Mariko Mori's aptly titled show "Empty Dream" is at the Brooklyn Art Museum. Mori, whose publicity material says that she used to be a model, attended fashion design school before becoming a huge and ubiquitous face on the international art scene. When you see her stuff in magazines -- photo stills from her heavily effects-enhanced 3-D video works -- it looks super cool, very now and wow. Mori utilizes a Cindy Shermanesque technique of filming herself made up to be various fantasy people, in fantasy environments: She is dressed like a futuristic Japanimation character in some mundane shopping environment; she is a beautiful, hovering lotus spirit in a kimono, distributing rose petals over a pink and orange science-fiction lake; she is a Buddhist goddess in the desert, a Shinto goddess in the woods, a mermaid at a manmade beach, a 3-D teenage comic-book heroine. All very cute and fetching, with no boobies or crassness of any kind. The Japanese, when they want to be, are wonderfully fey and self-reflective about sending up their own sing-song, commercialized galaxy, and bands like the Pizzicato Five are great at concocting loungey lullabies to breakfast cereal and the like. However, when you actually see the very pop-culty Mariko Mori exhibit, and it dawns on you how Lite it really is, and what a fucking behemoth pile of raw unfiltered cash was sunk into every piece, it makes you kind of sick inside, like you've just eaten the four-by-eight-foot head of a marshmallow Hello Kitty.

All of the photo pieces are large and elegant, and the 3-D short movie is perfectly realized. Then, the credits roll and roll and roll and you witness the cavalcade of tech boys and genius cameramen and top lighting designers who made it all happen with that unstopping bounty of money, and you realize that Mori really is mostly a model; she may have some cute ideas, but she's hardly the crafty genius making her vision unfold. Later, I found out that Mori belongs to one of the richest families in the world, her father being a leading Japanese industrialist, and that she's always been able to realize any fancy that popped into her pretty little head. It is cool stuff, for an MTV video. When it's sitting in beautiful, huge, pristine white rooms and treated with the reverence normally afforded artists like Robert Irwin or Ellsworth Kelly, it makes you feel like you've just had your spiritual wallet stolen.

Meanwhile, British pop-icon-art-star Tracey Emin, whose show "Every Part of Me's Bleeding" is in SoHo at the Lehmann/Maupin gallery, has made a name for herself in the art world, it seems, largely by showing up on British TV screaming and belligerently drunk. Also, for talking a whole lot about all the men she fucked after she was raped at 13. Also, for being naked a lot, and sexy in a trashy, exotic kind of way. It's hard to dislike someone who appears to be so fundamentally "honest," but I'll do my best: It's not really Tracey Emin who needs her ass kicked, it's the people who make her Tracey Emin.

Emin is an artist who is doing what Courtney Love used to be doing, which is being an empoweredly revolting, fucked-up slag. This isn't entirely a bad thing: Women need more negative role models. Too many girls are hung up on being perfect and pliable and thin and desirable; we need more rude, polluted, unsocialized harpies around to maintain some kind of civilized balance between "real" women and the ones my mother always referred to as "Uncle Toms" (i.e. models, or those demure zombies who aspire to look like models in order to hunt rich gentlemen in the Hamptons). I find Tracey Emin kind of nervy yet dull in the same way that all neurotic, autobiographical, tabloid shite is nervy yet dull, but pro-Tracey critics seem to think that her reckless, alcoholic exhibitionism is some kind of breakthrough in human vulnerability.

She is a painful sex object, indulging a taste for what Courtney Love once dubbed "angry vagina" art: "My cunt is wet with fear" reads one of Emin's neon signs, posted over a filthy bed. I can think of a lot of unfamous people who've beaten the grotesque personal-disclosure horse for years (myself, even!), who are lots more interesting and tortured and outlandish than Emin and who merit no more than avoidance in public circumstances, but then again, those people weren't as photogenic as anorexic hottie-scamp Emin. They never got a big, leggy, pouty photo of themselves in a black slip and heels in the New Yorker.

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Besides a bunch of skill-free watercolors, Emin's super-confessional one-woman exhibit consists of strange, niggardly little quilts on which she's sewn cryptic and outrageously misspelled statements, and video of herself and more video of herself talking about herself, claiming and demanding respect and attention for the fact that she used to fuck a lot of people, she was raped, she was treated poorly by men she fucked, she was anorexic and so on. Oh, and lotsa bloody tampons lying around. For Christ's sake. Why old tampons? Why the browned and clotted old plugs? We really need to see this? The cheapest chick-trick in the old art book? Why not a white-on-white canvas or a spray-painted mannequin, if we're going for all the dumbest art clichis? Emin's contributions to the world of visual culture are very thin gruel. Anorexic gruel, even.

One of the most annoying things in the Emin exhibit is the framed pages from a London Times interview of herself, all dolled up in a little designer dress and big makeup, coyly smoking and acting the sexy enfant terrible, next to which she has framed a scrawled, semi-illiterate notebook entry about how shitty she felt the day of the photo shoot, how she hadn't eaten in days, how she trudged home in the rain, etc. Emin is trying to get over with Jackson Pollock behavior, but with no actual daring painting innovation; Jeanette Winterson's drunken, sexual dysfunction without any lyrical writing style. Emin's art is really just the viewer's totally indulged, prurient interest in her personal life, which is worn on her pretty face and black sleeve, and jets poisonously out of her mouth like the tequila heaves.

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The only beauty Emin brings to the table, besides the ugly truth about the squalid way she chooses to live, is whatever there is on her own body that she hasn't yet destroyed. I don't find Emin's pitiful, psychology-of-the-oppressed-female stance heroic; I think it's shallow in the same way Mariko Mori is shallow. She's just the dirty side of the same Mori-model coin. Real self-destroying nihilistic cult art victim/heroes all hit their glories and died in the '80s, for good, stupid reasons. Emin is too little too late. Besides, an exhibition for an exhibitionist is redundant.

Art-star Tracey's being raped a different way here in America: Doesn't she realize that American galleries only say they love her because they want to get into her popularity pants? They don't want to know her as an "artist," they want her to be famous here like she is in the U.K., a model for Bombay Gin ads. I can see it now, Absolut Emin: an empty bottle with a brownish tampon inside next to a dirty bed. Soon to be a billboard over a Banana Republic near you. Swanky.


Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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