Recently I met a 40-year-old journalist from Mexico City at a nightclub in Las Vegas, who tried to sell me on the sex appeal of Miley Cyrus and her “Bangerz” tour. Amongst the teenage twerking and pole-dancing taking place around us, I responded that the tour was more cute and saccharine than actually sexy, even with Miley exploring her post-Disney star sexuality on-stage.
Sex appeal is obviously subjective, but I realized something as he described her entrance onto the stage, where she walks out of a giant replica of her head, going down a slide meant to be her tongue.
Miley is comfortable being a caricature of herself when she performs.
The tour is a visual extension of her 2013 MTV VMAs performance, which was primarily concerned with getting viewers’ attention by any means necessary (including by stroking Robin Thicke’s crotch with a foam finger). During “Bangerz,” she wears a cannabis print leotard, rides a giant, phallic hot dog, and simulates oral sex on a dancer, who wears a mask resembling Bill Clinton.
The live show is intentionally kitschy, provocative, and hard to look away from, like the arts and crafts Miley’s been doing late at night and sharing on Instagram for months. In a recent cover story with V magazine she says, “I just sit around and smoke weed anyway, so I might as well sit around, smoke weed, and do something.”
Miley also admits that the collaged, glued together pieces are a metaphor for her life—a junk amalgamation of a lot of “shit things” happening to her—her dog dying, being hospitalized on tour, and having a very public breakup—after always being “so fucking lucky.”
With the help of artist Todd James, who designed the dancing bear suits in her VMA performance, Miley has begun to create visual objects that match the ones she usually sings and dances in front of—in the form of sculptures and accessories. Like her tour, these works purposefully explore sex and sexuality. When referring to a particular piece, she tells V, “[Todd] involves sex in his pieces in a really cool way, which is what I want to do. I feel there’s something fairly sexual here, besides just the dick. There’s something sexy about the masks. They’re a little fucked up and childish.”
Statements like that reveal Miley’s decision to maintain her post-Hannah Montana, wild-child persona on and off-stage, whether it’s her own image or the images around her. It’s evident in the materials she makes her art with, which were shown backstage and on models at Jeremy Scott’s Spring/Summer 2015 show during New York Fashion week. The sculptures are made from things fans throw on stage (including hand-made jewelry and vibrators), colored cotton balls, fake hair, an iPod player, USB drives, a camera, beads, and marijuana joints. They’re glued together, DIY, and intentionally juvenile like Miley's current portrayal of herself.
Miley’s creations seem to liberate her. One sculpture backstage at Jeremy Scott, a piece she explained to 2 Chainz before the show, was created with items made by her fans glued to a tall bong. Nearly four years after she was filmed smoking a salvia-filled bong on her 18th birthday, she’s confidently produced her own crowdsourced readymade, embracing and decorating the paraphernalia she was once criticized for engaging with.
Miley isn’t the first celebrity to create and get attention for her visual art. And even if her sculptures don’t resemble the Impressionistic paintings of Bob Dylan or the Cindy Sherman-inspired photographs of James Franco, they contain the most effective elements of any art, despite the existing fame of its creator. Miley's art pieces combine personal stories and struggles with sex, humor, and youthfulness, while staying true to the creator’s intention. For Miley, the intention is to create something authentic that’s meaningful to her life, even if the pieces are made with the kind of simple, synthetic materials one would find in an elementary school classroom.
There are great artists—embraced by the art world and art market—who purposefully make their art look juvenile. Despite having the skills to make detailed, realistic work, artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Cy Twombly drew scribbles in an intentionally child-like way. The colorful, cotton-based pieces of Takashi Murakami are technically more advanced, organized versions of Miley’s sculptures (the one below was photographed in Pharrell Williams’ Miami condo). And just as her pieces contain actual drugs and sex toys, contrasting the tamer supplies, Matthew Brandt splatters cocaine on black velvet canvases to look like constellations, and Terence Koh ejaculates and bleeds on his sculptures.
Jeff Koons, whose retrospective is on view at The Whitney Museum in New York, has built a record-breaking career on making meaning from the artifacts of childhood, like his 43-foot Puppy topiary sculpture (1992), his Balloon Dog sculptures (1994), and his new Play-Doh sculpture (which Robert Smith writes, "evokes paint, dessert, and psychedelic poop"). It's worth noting that Koons made Puppy to rebound from the criticism towards his Made in Heaven series, where he posed naked, mid-sex with his ex-wife, the pornstar Illona Staller. Effectively, Koons and Miley have both used youthful, innocent-looking visual art, with sexual undertones, to counteract periods of using their own bodies in hyper-sexualized, controversial ways.
Miley's pre-VMAs "We Can't Stop" music video pulled from many more art references than viewers probably realize. It's not a coincidence that the video's director, Diane Martel, also creative directed Miley's VMA performance and "Bangerz" tour. It's as if Martel decidedly injected fine art into Miley's reinvented "Bangerz" DNA from the start. Martel says of the video, "Miley and I wanted to make a trippy, fucked-up video that was like a giant selfie." And Miley's art pieces are the biggest selfies she's made so far.
The obvious reaction would be to dismiss Miley's art because of what it looks like or who she is, but without those preconceptions, her work is indicative of artists creating in our post-pop era. She's using the language, materials, and process of visual artists who have come before her to make impactful, personally-charged pieces that can stand on their own, separate from her music or past as an entertainer.
If nothing else, Miley doesn't appear to be making her art for money. “There’s no point in me focusing on getting any fucking richer. Obviously the shit you buy doesn’t make you happier because I’m sitting here gluing a bunch of junk to stuff," she says. For a moment in the V interview, Miley puts down the glitter and lets people see maturity and self-awareness beyond the glued-together exterior.
It seems odd and ridiculous to glorify a celebrity who could just be taking advantage of their status to promote a fleeting side-project, but with Miley's sculptures, there's a vulnerability and honesty to be admired. Look past the twerking and other momentary entertainment antics, and there's art that immediately expresses her desire to be free, grow, and share. As she creates these pieces, she plays into the audience's assumptions of her overwhelming infantilism, but inverts it all to reveal depth.