Friday, 30 August 2013

A Twerk of Art

If you live somewhere polite and classy, not bothering to take much notice of the rum goings-on by starlets, you may well have missed this performance which occurred at the MTV Awards last weekend...

No, sorry, I'm at a loss to explain this...
Right then, the 'gentleman' on the left (apparently wearing Beetlejuice's suit) is Robin Thicke and the young lady entreating him to play leapfrog is Miley Cyrus.  The focus of the moral outrage the morning after was the erstwhile Miss Cyrus, who managed to break the fabric of civilisation with a routine involving teddy bears, cultural appropriation, a lot of tongue poking and something called 'twerking'.  I naturally thought of Rossetti.

Miley and her Bears.  Before she pulled her swimsuit off.  And twerked Mr Thicke.
I'm not kidding when I said I thought of Rossetti (not least because we all know he would have loved a good twerk).  When it came down to it, within the hubbub that surrounded Miley's performance there seemed to be two main charges against her.  Firstly, she was guilty of super-sexualising her presentation and secondly, that she greedily misappropriated aspects of another culture.

Oh, before I go on, 'Twerking' is a sort of dancing where you bend about.  The word is possibly a portmanteau of 'twist' and 'jerk'.  It has cultural significance which are lost by the time it reaches the masses, I must admit, because really in this context, it seems to merely signify extrovert libidinal urges.  You heard me.  Anyway, talking of urges...

Bocca Baciata (1859) D G Rossetti
During the 1850s, Rossetti produced watercoloured maidens, chaste kisses and honour.  His Medieval ladies tied pennants onto spears and everyone attempted to keep themselves under control.  Then he found oil and Fanny Cornforth and look what happened.  Suddenly, it's a cavalcade of snogging and more and the woman comes out fresh as the moon.  It's a very convenient mantra for Rossetti to chant, but this is revolutionary, even by today's standards.  Apparently the phrase used for the disapproval of a woman who displays her sexuality a little more freely than we're comfortable is 'slut-shaming'. One thing I read over and over after Miley's performance was the mourning wail for Miley's lost youth.  Miss Cyrus rose to stardom as the pop-starlet Hannah Montana in a Disney series.  She was fresh-faced, virginal and wholesome. Yes, she may have gotten into some scrapes, but she emerged with a song in her heart and her clothing on.  What her reinvention has done is to completely reverse that.  Her video for 'We Can't Stop' shows an orgy of partying and free sexuality in which Miley participates and emerges defiant.  She wants to show that she is grown up, and what do grown ups do?  They don't obey rules and they take their pants off. A lot.

Miley twerks a lady, because that's what grown-ups do.
Just out of shot is Mrs Walker having a sit down with a book,
which is also what grown-ups do.
Maybe there is a cross-over between publicly shedding a youthful persona and using sex as a method of expression.  As a child, sexuality is the most baffling part of adulthood, something readily seen but not understood.  As soon as we are old enough we rush to embrace that part of life, maybe as a public statement that we have indeed grown up.  With all that allure to be adult and autonomous, comes the chance for others to make money.  Hence the monotonous regularity that child stars get sexy.  Miley isn't the first, she won't be the last and to be honest, she wasn't doing anything that we haven't seen before.  While people may all be horrified, outraged and disgusted by a 20 year old woman pretending to fondle herself with a giant foam finger, she certainly got publicity and probably sold a lot of records.  Sex sells.  Queue Rossetti in 1860s...

Venus Verticordia (1865) D G Rossetti
Ruskin found this picture as vulgar and disturbing as many critics found Miss Cyrus.  One commentator described it as the lust of the flesh that never perishes.  Not love, not beauty, but raw, naked sexy-sex and as Miley say, we can't stop.  It's compelling, it's all too human, and it sells.  Look at it this way, you don't have to buy it.  Vote with your money, that would stop it.  It's done for your amusement, so if you aren't amused, don't buy it.  Enough painters in the past had to cover up nudey bits in order to make their money.  If we really find Miley dancing around in a fur swimsuit to be too much then switch over and don't buy her record.  She probably wouldn't do it then.

To be honest, the sexy-sex bit of the performance was not as shocking as a few people seemed to declare it.  No-one was struck dead by God, really, let's not forget it was a lady pretending to do stuff whilst wearing a gianty foam finger.  Rather more disturbing was the fact that Miley 'borrowed' rather heavily from another culture, or rather paraded a lot of nasty cultural stereotypes about to declare something 'cool' about her.

Miley and a friend.  Oh dear.
 Part of the song refers to her 'home girl with the big butt'. In her performance, Miley pretended to lick, bite and smack one of the dancers on the behind.  I think that was the point when people wished she would stop.  Part of Miley's 'growing up' has been to become what is euphemistically referred to as Urban, as displayed on this charming garment...

Miley does a 'selfie' in the mirror
By Urban we mean stereotypical Black American, let's not pretend.  That entails, according to Miley's tshirt, sex, drugs and rap.  She smacked the ladies arse because that lady is all about sex.  She refers to waiting in line for the toilet in order to do 'a line'.  She struts and apes the stance of Rappers.  She is all about the sex and who is more about the sex than Black Americans?  Apparently.  (This was news to me as I grew up with the Cosby Show and therefore my tshirt would say 'Jumpers, Nice Parents, & Trying Hard at School.') Is she alone in her assumption that other cultures are all about sex?  Rossetti, anything to say?

The Blue Bower (1865) D G Rossetti
How tame it all looks, but if you think about it by appropriating Japonism and placing a woman in the context you are playing with notions of Geisha.  Although the role of a Geisha is far more complex than sex (as is 'twerking'), that is what it gets boiled down to.  The excitement of a woman who is sexual ready, willing and able is a powerful thing because it goes against the other extreme, that women are none of those things.  Both are nonsense and women have written copious amounts on our frustration of being told we are one and should be the other.

The Beloved D G Rossetti
The addition of other cultures implies that as Caucasians we are devoid of sexuality, which is insulting, and so we have to drag in some people of a darker hue because they are all about sex, also really insulting.  It also speaks of an insecurity, a boredom with the culture you have been born into.  When Rossetti painted the black boy at the front of the picture, in addition to the black and the gypsy bridesmaids, he was short-handing the eroticism of the passage from Song of Solomon that the painting is based on.  He shared the racial stereotyping of his contemporaries but supported the North in the American Civil War, for which he was mocked by his friends.  His use of the figures is to do with a cultural currency which translates into actual currency without looking any deeper.

Gwen Stefani and Love, Angel, Music and Baby, her Harajuku Girls
It's hard to talk about cultural appropriation as a vaguely middle-class, white, first-world woman because I'm guessing I do it.  It's culturally ingrained for us to borrow from others and it comes from a good and bad place.  On one hand, we are genuinely interested in other cultures.  Other people are fascinating.  It emanates from the same place as our love of the past and is just part of being human.  We are interested in other humans because we are all the same, even when we seem completely different.  When Gwen Stefani based her 2004 album Love, Angel, Music, Baby on her fascination with Harajuku (street fashion and culture in Tokyo), she no doubt made a lot of money (no pun intended).  She received a lot of criticism for cultural theft but I was left with the feeling that she truly did love the culture.  Her appropriation, although fiscally rewarding, came from a place of interest, not just cynical money-picking.  Also, she reflected  Japanese street fashion that evolved from borrowing fashion from the West and changing it to reflect their own tastes.  Maybe that feels different because it comes from a place of sharing.

On the other hand, Culture-picking is used for amusement, to say how funny others are, belittling and patronising and using cultural objects and attitudes deeply inappropriately.  We also misuse things to reaffirm our prejudice.  Some of us use other cultures for monetary gain.  Then it gets really offensive.  A tshirt that sums up even a tiny aspect of another culture as 'Sex, Drugs and Rap' is disturbing because it glamorizes something that harms whilst book-ending it with two big stereotypes.

But then how about this...?

Yes, you know this one.
As a woman with a history of mental health issues, how do I feel about Millais' Ophelia?  It could be argued that it utterly glamorizes something that is not pretty and makes it look cool.  This is a picture of a woman killing herself because she has a mental illness.  Isn't it beautiful?

Sorry for the rambling, but the more I think about cultural appropriation, the bigger the problem is.  I have been told that my style of dress and behaviour is deeply offensive.  Whilst I do not waggle my bottom against random men while playing at being 'Gangsta', I do wear a circle skirt, net petticoats and am known for my enthusiasm for baking.  I was informed I was playing at being oppressed, and could not possibly appreciate how much I would hate actually being a 1950s housewife.  Now that may be true but I did not for a moment consider how borrowing from the past could be the same as borrowing from a modern culture (albeit a stereotype of one).  When the Pre-Raphaelites reached back to embrace Medievalism did they really know what they were doing, or was it because it suited an aesthetic?  William Morris wished to recreate the handcrafting of belongings, just like the good old days, but for our ancestors work tended to be hard and cut short by limb-loss and death.

I have no answers for all of this.  I would be interested to hear what you have to say and if you would like to see some of the modern things I refer to, here are some links:

If you want to see Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke's performance at the VMA Awards, here it is.  Have a sit down and a stiff drink, you'll be fine.

If you want to see Miley's We Can't Stop video, here it is. Again, a stiff drink will sort it out.

For Gwen Stefani's Alice in Wonderland inspired, Harajuku anthem What You Waiting For? look here.


  1. Dear Kirsty
    I must admit that Miley Cyrus et al. had completely passed me by, but I watched the video before commenting. Cultural usurping aside, it made me feel so sad. Why are women the ones who have to parade around in very little, performing choreogrpahy which could be seen as offensive, while men are fully suited, usually with scanitily clad females? Is it because the music industry is run by men? This gender imbalance would suggest that women are only good for one thing and the only way they can be popular/famous/have a career in the music industry is to strip off and act suggestively. To be fair to her, it is not only Miley Cyrus doing it - I remember the furore around Madonna's tour where she managed to upset everyone, including the Catholic Church. Expressing sexuality is something that people should be able to do, but this type of performance just seems to emphasise the sleaziness. The difference to me between Rosetti's paintings and these performances are that the paintings are tasteful and dignified - how did Miley's friends and family rate her performance? Rossetti still portrays the sexuality of women, but in an alluring and luxurious way. However, at the time, they were considered shocking. Does this mean that in the future, the sleaziness of sex will be normal? As for the cultural cross overs, cultures have always borrowed from each other, through clothing, interior design etc. However, there does appear to be an undercurrent of borrowing the nastier sides of cultures prevalent today (such as in rap), which is worrying. Sorry for such a long comment, which probably doesn't help in any way, but you have highlighted a complex issue.
    Best wishes

  2. Thanks Ellie, it is complicated. It could be argued that a certain amount of borrowing happens because you respect the culture or see a commonality of condition in certain things. I don't understand the assumption of such negative stereotypes though. Many people questioned why Robin Thicke would want to be associated with such a bad performance at the MTV Awards, but I equally would question why Miley Cyrus would be associated with such a dodgy (albeit awfully catchy) song about women being wild animals. Thanks for that Mr Thicke.

  3. I agree, people should vote with their money and their time. Instead of being righteously indignant that Miley Cyrus would ever do such a thing, they should ask themselves why they were watching it in the first place. And what right they have to be angry at her, seeing as (most people I would think) don't know her in person and weren't forced to watch it. And maybe then they should stop to think about how creepy and icky and sexist and objectifying Blurred Lines is, and be more disgusted with Thicke than anyone else. People should be doing a lot more thinking. :P And that's what this blog post is! So thank you!

  4. Well, my work here is done!

    Thanks for your comments. I really should have provided a link to Thicke's video which takes the objectification of women to an exciting new level. It makes Robert Palmer's 'Addicted to Love' video look like a feminist manifesto.

    Oh what the hell, here you go :
    There is also an 'adult' version too which contains more nipples than Hylas and the Nymphs. For goodness sake.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx