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Miley Cyrus and the culture of excess in American history

Miley Cyrus has shocked the world anew with a recent CANDY Magazine photo shoot by over-the-top fashion photographer Terry Richardson. Cyrus sticks her tongue out with enthusiasm—and does much more. In one image, she is “dressed” in a police officer’s uniform, except that she is not wearing a shirt and a pair of handcuffs is displayed prominently. She appears to be sucking the end of a hard black police club. Such images come two years after Ms. Cyrus stunned millions of viewers at the MTV Music Video Awards in August 2013 with her twerking, and in a later performance, simulating sex with singer Robin Thicke. For many, Cyrus had gone too far or simply taken already stale assaults on taste—think here of Madonna or Iggy Pop’s on-stage performances years ago.

Going too far, pushing artistic boundaries, and blurring lines is by now a hallowed tradition, and it is useful to think about Cyrus within this context. We live in a culture of excess. Artists—especially young ones seeking a next step in their career—seek to push the envelope. Sometimes they succeed but usually after the fact. Perhaps someday Cyrus’s sexual gyrations will be seen as a Dionysian salvo in favor of sexual androgyny.

When John Cage, back in 1952, premiered his work for piano, 4’33”the piece where a pianist sits at the piano for that time duration without striking a key—many considered the work disrespectful, childish, and an assault on musical propriety. When the piece was performed another time, John Cage’s mother was in attendance, and she remarked to a friend, “Don’t you think that John has gone too far this time?” Going too far, cutting against the grain of tradition, was Cage’s M.O. He had, earlier on, rigged pianos with nuts and bolts, had various radios tuned to different stations playing at the same time, and organized the first “Happening” (“Theatre Piece #1”) at Black Mountain College. During this 45 minutes of organized chaos, Cage, a few steps up a ladder, recited a lecture about something or nothing, painter Robert Rauschenberg played records on a Victrola (Edith Piaf songs, some recall), Merce Cunningham and some others weaved in some sort of dance, while Mary Caroline Richard and Charles Olson read poetry, and David Tudor played the piano.

John Cage in 1988. Photograph by Rob Bogaerts. Image courtesy of the Dutch National Archives.
“John Cage in 1988” by Rob Bogaerts. CC-SA 3.0 via Fotocollectie Anefo, Nationaal Archief, Den Haag.

Over 20 years later, Cage was up to his old tricks. In a new piece, Empty Words, Cage “demonstrated” that 27 different things could be done with a sentence. Parsing, splaying, and splitting sentences from Thoreau’s Journals, and employing his trusted method of using the I Ching to organize material, he offered four “lectures” to the audience. He knew that these lectures—which he read in his solemn basso voice—would confound and offend. Indeed, he had predicted as much on a radio talk show, telling listeners that tickets for the lectures would be easy to obtain soon after the start of the program: just wait outside the venue and folks would soon leave.

And with good reason. The concert was an A-bomb dropped on syntax, with silences of inordinate length punctuated by what seemed to be an occasional bird call. Meaningless, “non-syntactical writing” flowed from Cage’s lips: “Bou-a-the dherlyth gth db tgn-phl ng.” Got it?

The audience revolted at the hour-and-a-half mark, laughing, yelling, tossing objects onto the stage, and even improvising their own entertainment during lull periods. Poet Allen Ginsberg feared for Cage’s safety, so along with some pals he formed a protective cordon around the artist. Cage told the audience, “I know what limb I’m out on, I’ve known it all of my life.” The audience, he announced, needed to open itself up to the therapeutic value of boringness and meaninglessness.

Such affronts to audiences and artistic propriety have a long history in the twentieth century; think here of Dadaism in the years around the First World War. But Cage’s actions helped resuscitate art as performance and protest in the United States. This is not to argue that there is a direct line from Cage to Cyrus, but the artist as provocateur—passionate about going too far—has been a hallmark of American culture since Cage. Allow a few episodes to suffice as evidence.

The year after Cage’s 4’33”, his pal Rauschenberg displayed monochromatic paintings, as well as a box filled with dirt, on gallery walls. Most shockingly, Rauschenberg asked Willem De Kooning, then regnant in the art world, to give him, at no cost, a drawing. Rauschenberg was up front with his plans for the drawing—he wanted to erase it! DeKooning, no fool, knew that this was an act of Freudian revolt against an artistic father, as well as a wry critique of the value and permanency of the work of art. DeKooning gave Rauschenberg a work, done in charcoal, ink, crayon, grease and pencil, which he knew would resist to erasure. Rauschenberg erased away for a month—some have estimated that he employed close to forty gummy erasers – until only a taste of the original remained. The work was titled: Erased DeKooning. Today it is part of the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The tempo of artistic rebellion and willingness to go too far picked up steam in the 1960s, as would be expected. Think here of Warhol’s films, in particular, Empire (1964). Warhol set up an immobile camera in an office some 40 floors up in the Time-Life Building and then trained the lens on the Empire State Building across the street. Filming started around 8:00 p.m., just before sunset, and continued into the early morning hours. The result: a film eight hours long, focused on a building that personified the phallus. One wag remarked that the film was “an eight hour hard-on.” Excessive even for our Viagra age.

Over a few years in the 1970s, artist Chris Burden assaulted notions of what constituted art with his performances. Among his pieces: he had himself literally crucified against the sway back of a Volkswagen Beetle; in another he was contained in a two-foot high by two-foot wide by three-foot deep locker for five days. In Shoot (1971), in front of an audience of between eight and 12, Burden had himself shot in the arm. The plan had been for the bullet only to graze the arm but things did go awry. The piece was about shocking the audience, to be sure, but it also involved the audience in its logic. As art critic Maggie Nelson points out, in this piece as in many dangerous stunts by Burden, the ethical onus was on the audience to intervene. What was going to transpire was no secret to those in attendance; the invitation read: “I will be shot with a rifle at 7:45 p.m.” Burden left the performance hall bleeding, looking like he was in a state of shock. He later noted, the piece was intended to be “an inquiryabout the nature of art, the role of the body in performance, and more.

Such examples only skim the surface of outrageousness in American culture that long precedes Miley Cyrus’s gyrations and photo shoot. Perhaps someday Cyrus’s challenges will be logged into the tradition adumbrated above. Perhaps not. It is too soon to tell. But we should allow ourselves to be open to the role of artistic excess in pushing boundaries, opening minds, and trying to go too far.

Image Credit: “Miley Cyrus-Bangerz Tour” karina3094. CC BY SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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