The other day, I went to an exhibition of the artist Edgar Degas at a local museum. It was a great exhibit and I learned a lot. The accompanying commentary was fascinating and demonstrated how far Degas pushed the various media he used in previously unseen ways, all in the pursuit of his own expression. He literally allowed nothing to interfere with his need to free himself from established norms- to employ paints, brushes, charcoals, wax, pastels, etc in ways other than how they were traditionally used and beyond what others had done before with them.
This man- Degas- used everything at his disposal to express himself, completely and fully. No technique, no material was safe from his obsessive need to create, to mutate styles and in so doing, mutate the ways people looked at both objects and art.
He was creating his own language- a means of communication never before seen in visual art. His own personal expression.
He broke down barriers, changed people’s perceptions and changed the world. He was an artist.
The other week, Miley Cyrus got up at the VMA’s and did something roughly resembling a performance in front of a largely disinterested and unshocked audience. Oddly enough, that very performance became the ultimate cause célèbre; the most important item of news throughout most of the free world- trumping such relatively unimportant stories such as the United States building its case to invade Syria for crimes against its own citizenry.
In her few minutes onstage at the VMA’s, Miley Cyrus did nothing that many others haven’t recently done in similar circumstances- playing with taboo aspects of sexuality and race in order to provoke and shock people, to upstage the other performers in her midst and boost her importance as a commodity in the entertainment business marketplace. The only thing that distinguishes her from many others who have been similarly motivated by sheer desperation is that a few years ago, she was Hannah Montana- America’s Sweetheart.
We live in a society which clearly adores degradation as much as it loves lucre- how quickly and far youth will allow itself to fall if only for a few table scraps of attention.
Unlike Edgar Degas, Miley Cyrus is not an artist. She used a one-dimensional medium to put on a deliberate, preconceived spectacle which touches on the most base impulses (extraordinarily easy targets, these) in human beings and creates a canned artificial sexuality. She has broken no barriers, nor has she altered anyone’s perception of anything (apart from how they will now see Hannah Montana reruns).
Unlike a performance artist, who goes to great lengths to shock her audience (the express purpose in this case being to challenge and kick start her audience’s brains), Miley Cyrus clearly wasn’t interested in getting anyone to think. What she did is calculated salesmanship, entrepreneurial oneupmanship- a calculated risk, not expressive and definitely not art.
There is an immutable 100% guarantee that the spectacle of a near-naked, well known young girl acting in a sexual manner, having her actions broadcast with great fervor across media which also purvey news, family related shows, etc, will get a reaction from almost everyone who does in contact with it. This scenario is akin to shooting fish in a barrel.
We, the audience- those manipulated by said spectacle- are always ripe and randy for the plucking.
Since the late nineteenth centruy, artists have been tweaking the noses of the establishment; shocking polite society and art intelligentsia alike in the pursuit of new means of expression and concomitantly helping the collective unconscious to evolve. A classic example of this was Marcel Duchamp’s famous entry of a urinal signed R. Mutt 1917 to a serious art exhibition. This action caused a great furore and literal rioting in the streets.
This variety of provocation is much different than that of our contemporary very famous and mixed up 20 year old whose obvious priority is in keeping her name in the public consciousness by any and all means necessary. Artists such as Duchamp enjoyed disturbing people, provoking their limited views and challenging their prejudices, however, they also saw the obvious social responsibilty of pushing the outer limits of what people found acceptable or comprehensible in art. Art often involves a liberal quantity of manipulation by the artist, however, those reaping the longterm benefits of this manipulation are nearly always the people who encounter it.