Susan Best / Visual Culture

Innermost Feelings in Art

The confessional, of course, has its appeal, but wouldn’t we rather have art that stimulates the mind as well as our emotions?

Sophie Calle | Take Care of Yourself

I recently discovered that acclaimed British artist, Tracey Emin, is a Professor of Confessional Art at the European Graduate School in Switzerland. She takes summer master classes there, presumably in this very particular area of art practice. It’s intriguing to consider what this means. Is the expression of our innermost thoughts and feelings now a subject in the art curriculum? And does this mean that confessional art is a specialisation, just like sculpture and photography?

The expression of inner feelings, one might think, is a core aspect of art that needs no tutoring. Isn’t the artist’s capacity to give form to elusive, or indeed typical, feelings what we have come to value and enjoy about visual art? We embrace the quiet and meditative joy of Agnes Martin’s abstract paintings; we suffer with the angst of Francis Bacon’s tortured figures; or empathise with the shame, and celebrate the shamelessness, presented by Tracey Emin’s drawings, videos, installation and writings.

The exposure of the self as a subject matter in art is certainly not limited to Tracey Emin’s art.  The French artist Sophie Calle is another woman artist who has seemingly wrought her art from confession and exposure. I say ‘seemingly,’ because the rhetoric of rawness, immediacy and openness is not consistently applied to the work of Calle. We are never quite sure if she really experienced the things her art shows us.

This is reflected in her method: there is often a distance between Calle and her subject matter. For example, one of her recent works Take Care of Yourself (2007) was a response to a break-up email that we are told was sent to Calle by her lover. Instead of telling us how she felt she got 107 women to help her interpret the letter: to make sense of it, to work it through. The final form of the work is an installation made up of videos and other written and visual responses by the women.

The women’s professions range from the predictable—a literary analyst, a psychoanalyst, an opera singer, a romance writer, a lawyer—to the more exotic: a cross-word puzzle writer, a rifle shooter, a ballet dancer, and a cockatoo. The cockatoo, whose name is Brenda, eats a printed form of the email while repeating some snippets of it in a raucous screech.  The email is rendered hilarious in this irreverent treatment. Most of the other women respond in their various professional capacities in a supportive way; broad solidarity with Calle’s predicament is shown, as indeed one would expect such an email would elicit from a group of women.

Who hasn’t been painfully and unceremoniously dumped and who hasn’t fantasized about this kind of revenge? The man who was the catalyst for the work, who we only know as G., must be reeling from the public exposure, that is, if he really did dump Calle in this callous electronic fashion.

I have to confess, I much prefer feeling in art that has this kind of range and nuanced complexity and where you are not entirely sure what to feel.  Should I empathise with Sophie, or is this work an elaborate conceptual art conceit? Should I laugh at the man’s words being digested by a bird, or is this too cruel?  Rawness, of course, has its appeal, but I personally prefer art that stimulates the mind as well as the emotions. ■

Visualizing Feeling
Susan Best is the author of Visualizing Feeling: Affect and the Feminine Avant-garde, winner of the AAANZ (Art Association of Australia & New Zealand) Best Book Prize for 2012, and Professor of Art Theory, Queensland College of Art, Griffith University. Her research focuses on modern and contemporary art, with a particular emphasis on women’s art, conceptual art and South American art.
Image shows the ballerina from Take Care of Yourself (2007) by Sophie Calle

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