The assumption about Miley Cyrus—the former Hannah Montana good girl turned twerking, toking bad girl—is that she’s trying to grow up (a judgment that’s hard even to write without sounding paternalistic). But more likely it’s us, the audience, who need to grow up. And a lot of famous if mostly dead artists might agree.
Take this guy, Gustave Caillebotte: upper-class, born into a respected family. Became a painter-about-Paris in the late 19th century, a dilettante but a good one. In 1880, he painted Nude on a Couch (shown above), which was such an affront to the artistic sensibilities of the day that he was ridiculed and the painting was never exhibited or sold in his lifetime. Not because he showed a nude woman, but how he showed her. And it hardly mattered that Monsieur Caillebotte, a cad who never married, was having an affair with the model—the painting was prurient enough. Disgusting. Trash.
Today, it’s hanging in Gallery 355 at the MIA.
That’s perspective. Mock her all you want, as some sly blogger did in a meme of Miley twerking in famous paintings. History suggests she may get the last laugh.
The apoplectic comments that inevitably accompany stories about Miley—”I guess they’ll put ANYTHING on TV in Europe,” “How does the network allow such gross acts as this?”—read like less literate versions of the jabs taken 130 years ago at the Impressionists. “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape,” was a memorable one. One critic said of Cézanne that he “merely gives the impression of being a sort of madman, painting in a state of delirium tremens.” Kind of like twerking.
This isn’t to say that Miley has the insight of Picasso or the foresight of Manet. Compared to Caillebotte, Miley still qualifies for the Mouseketeers. For that matter, what does Miley have on Piss Christ, which was hanging until recently in the Sacred exhibition at the MIA? Or the male nude Thomas, by Robert Mapplethorpe, currently hanging in the museum’s Harrison Photography Galleries? Or anything by Balthus, whose queasily erotic scenes of dawning female sexuality are front-and-center in a major retrospective at the Met?
Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring ballet, with its outrageous costumes, dissonant music, and story of pagan sacrifice, opened to a literal riot in 1913—the director of the Ballet Russes flashed the house lights to silence the jeering audience. When Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, the crowd booed him off the stage. So far, Miley hasn’t so much as been fined by the FCC.
What’s shocking about Miley isn’t what she’s done, it’s the predictability of the response. We can’t stand it when someone breaks the rules—until the rules change. Then, with any luck, you get into museums.