Last Friday I went down - or "up", as we old Oxford hands say - to Oxford to hear Tom Stoppard delivering the annual Richard Hillary Lecture, on the theme of theatre as "A Pragmatic Art". The title didn't have a lot to do with the lecture, except that at one point Sir Tom divided playwrights into those who are all about the text and those who regard the text as in service to the moment, the event: he placed himself in the latter camp; to some this will come as a surprise.
He opened by expressing an anxiety about the ease with which the artist today is "validated", illustrating the point with dialogue from Travesties (1975), his play about the convergence of Lenin, Joyce and Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dadaism, in Zurich in 1917. Tzara extols to Henry Carr, the minor English diplomat out of whose hazy recollections the play is constructed, the life of the artist; Carr regrets that he "can do none of the things by which is meant Art."
TZARA: Doing the things by which is meant Art is no longer considered the proper concern of the artist. In fact it is frowned upon. Nowadays, an artist is someone who makes art mean the things he does. A man may be an artist by exhibiting his hindquarters. He may be a poet by drawing words out of a hat. In fact some of my best poems have been drawn out of my hat which I afterwards exhibited to general acclaim at the Dada Gallery in Bahnhofstrasse.
CARR: But that is simply to change the meaning of the word Art.
TZARA: I see I have made myself clear.
CARR: Then you are not actually an artist at all.
TZARA: On the contrary. I have just told you I am.
There's glory for you. Tzara's has become the dominant conception of art. It has inspired masses of shit and a very few possibly great works. Then again, you could say the same about any aesthetic doctrine; it's not the doctrine that makes the art. And Tzara's version has this to be said for it: in the face of academic correctness, bourgeois taste, the capriciousness and ego that go with patronage, it asserts the absolute autonomy of artist and art; that's a kind of heroism.
On the face of it, Tracey Emin, with her unmade beds and her lists of lovers, sits with Tzara. But here she is in an interview with the Scotsman in 2008:
"I'm not stupid," Emin says. "I don't go around throwing up and saying, 'This is art.' I went to art school for seven years. I've got a first-class honours degree in printmaking. I've got a master of arts in painting. I really know what I'm talking about. I'm a brilliant f***ing artist. If I wasn't, I wouldn't be having the level of success that I am."
Not "I am an artist by my own act of will" but "I am an artist because I've got a certificate. Also, cash": portrait of the artist as a lapdog, submitting to the authority of the academy, of money, of opinion. It's not an isolated incident, by the way - I've heard Emin say as much in a radio interview.
It shouldn't come as a surprise to find her, in the Guardian, justifying her conversion to Toryism on the grounds of their support for the arts:
"And remember, Tory people are massive collectors of the arts. For a lot of my friends, who think I'm crazy voting for the Tories - I want to know who buys their work? Who are the biggest philanthropists? I promise you, it's not Labour voters."
You might think support for the arts had something to do with putting art before the public, with education, rather than encouraging patronage by the rich (Matthew Arnold: "Culture seeks to do away with classes"). Nuh-uh. Politics, aesthetics, principle - sod 'em: who's going to flash the biggest wad? It would be easy to get cross about Emin's views if they weren't so pathetic.