Miley Cyrus at the VMAs: a six-minute guide to the prejudices of the entertainment industry

From Miley grinding Robin Thicke to smacking her backing dancer's buttocks, the VMAs showed that, once again, white men run the show, black men play support, all the women get mostly naked, and black women get to hold up the bottom of the objectification

Not to get all philosophical about pop, but when Miley Cyrus starting singing "It's our party, we can do what we want" in her MTV VMAs appearance, the question that comes to mind is: oh yeah Miley, whose party? Because by the time the We Can't Stop/Blurred Lines medley is up, Cyrus has been stripped down to a supporting role in Robin Thicke's show.

Dressed in latex pants and bra the colour of her skin, like the models in Blurred Lines' Benny-Hill-goes-to-American-Apparel video, Cyrus ends up bent over in front of a suited Thicke, wiggling and hanging her tongue out the side of her mouth. Is what you want definitely such a close match with King Leer behind you, Miley?

Mind you, it's turn and turnabout in the objectification stakes. Cyrus's segment of the performance includes her bending over a black dancer and spanking her while singing the weirdly slow and mournful line: "To my homegirls here with the big butts/Shaking it like we at a strip club." Oh we're doing the Hottentot Venus thing now, are we? I haven't run the full sums on my Is-This-Racist calculator, but preliminary estimates suggests that yes, this is pretty stinkingly racist.

In fact, if you wanted a six-minute guide to the prejudices of the entertainment industry, this performance has it covered: white men run the show, black men play support, all the women get mostly naked, and black women get to hold up the bottom of the objectification pile. It is, simply, horrible, and made worse by the fact that Cyrus looks wildly awkward. She's at her best as a clowning comedian, a Disney Channel Lucille Ball, and can't play the affectless wanton. No wonder Rihanna seems to be shooting her evils: Rihanna knows sexy, and this isn't it.

But it is one of the only roles that's available to female pop stars – certainly for Cyrus, who's trying to get away from the country-pop sweetheart persona of Hannah Montana that Taylor Swift now occupies. "You're a good girl," croons Thicke ironically over Cyrus's jiggling heiny, and what do ironic good girls do? They get nasty in exactly the way boys want them to, while the boys stay neatly clothed. It makes it drearily obvious just who's in charge.

In this tedious atmosphere where everything tends to women ending up in their bras and pants, even Gaga's giddying performance-of-performance for Applause ends up feeling null when it climaxes with her dancing in bra and pants. Hey, everyone's naked today, Gaga. Next time try blowing my mind by wearing a three-piece suit or something. If the endgame is always a skinny white woman in her underwear, it doesn't seem to make much odds what the hooks are or what wit and gameplaying goes into getting there.

Yes, but pop music is about sex, right? No: pop music is sexy, but that twitching force doesn't always have to be driven into a dull pantomime of rutting, with available female bodies and smugly self-contained male ones. I cheered inside last year when Cyrus spoke up, saying "it’s ignorant not to talk to your kids about [sex] or [not] make it seem as magical or cool as it actually is." The kind of sex on show last night? Not magical. Not cool. Not my party.

Yes, Jaden Smith. We know.

Miley Cyrus grinds on Robin Thicke. Photo: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle