Once upon a time there were three beds and each of these beds was a work of art. A young British artist was lost and looking for some art. She saw Robert Rauchenberg’s “Bed”, 1955 in any number of books about modern art. “Robert Rauchenberg’s Bed is too old, too dirty and hanging on a wall; I could never sleep in that.” She said.
Then she saw Stewart Home’s “Art Strike Bed” 1993 at “Yerself is Steam” exhibition in London, curated by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard in 1995. “Stewart Home’s Art Strike Bed is too polemical, too new and too clean; I could never sleep in that.” (See Andrew Scott-Bolton’s article in 3AM Magazine “In bed with Tracey Emin and Stewart Home”)
Finally she read about J’s bed in Arthur Danto’s The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981) and it was just right. Danto wrote: “It would remain for our artist J to have gone the full distance, and to have exhibited his own bed as a work of art, without having to give it that last bit of vestigial paint that Rauchenberg superstitiously dripped over his bed, perhaps to make it plain that it was still an artwork. J says his bed is not an imitation of anything: it is a bed.” (p.12-13)
Now Tracey Emin’s 1999 Turner Prize-nominated installation is clearly different to both Rauchenberg and Home’s beds but in what way is it different from J’s bed? J’s bed is copyright Arthur Danto 1981.
Let’s look at the possible defence of Tracey Emin “My Bed”: such as appropriation art, spontaneous independent invention of an identical idea.
One could argue that J’s bed is fictional, as is the artist J, and that Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” is real and although an appropriation it is a clear transformation. However, Danto is not writing fiction but philosophy and in his example the alphanumeric sign “J” is not a name but symbol for a variable name e.g. J = Tracey Emin. Emin’s “My Bed” is like trying to patent an invention that had already been completely described in an engineering manual as the work of a fictional example inventor.
Tracey Emin claims that that J’s bed is her “My Bed”. J’s bed has become her bed but that is just an argument over ownership not over the meaning or transformative differences between her bed and J’s bed except the possessive. What exactly is the difference between J’s bed and Emin’s bed? J’s Bed is defined as “not an imitation of anything: it is a bed.” Emin’s bed is not appropriation art as there is no recontextualizing: J “exhibited his bed as a work of art”. Emin is only recreating J’s bed following Danto’s instructions; like a curatorial team assembling a work according the to instructions of the artist. Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” is not an interpretation of J’s bed but simply a token example of J’s bed.
It could be claimed that “My Bed” is a spontaneous independent invention by Tracey Emin as there is no evidence that she read Danto’s book. This would put her in the same position as a curmudgeonly old man who lived slightly apart the rest of his small village in the upper Amazon and when interviewed by an anthropologist about his religious beliefs turned out to be a solipsist. Being a solipsist he refused to believe that there were other people who shared his belief and maintain that he was sole inventor of the idea, but a solipsist would claim exactly that.
Arthur Danto is aware of Tracey Emin’s bed but is also aware how common theft is in the art world. Danto pointed out: “Actually, Rauschenberg stole the quilt from the laundry room at Black Mountain College. It belonged to the artist Dorothea Rickburn, who wrapped her baby in it.” And Stewart Home’s “Art Strike” is a copy of Gustav Metzger’s Art Strike 1977-1980. Nor is this the first time that an YBA has been accused of plagiarism; Charles Thomson, co-founder of the Stuckist art group accuses Damien Hirst of over a dozen counts of plagiarism; the accusations are of varying quality. The Guardian reports that “in 2000 that Hirst agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to head off legal action for breach of copyright by the designer and makers of a £14.99 toy which bore a resemblance to his celebrated 20ft bronze sculpture, Hymn.”
And J said: “Someone’s been sleeping in my bed too and it’s me!”