By Seth Abramson | Press Play October 10, 2013 at 9:00AM
Just days after Miley Cyrus' bizarre, off-putting performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards—which saw the twenty year-old performer rubbing herself provocatively with a foam finger, “twerking” against the genitals of thirty-six year-old singer Robin Thicke, and gleefully slapping the buttocks of her backup dancers—Camille Paglia wrote a piece for Time decrying Cyrus' decidedly unsexy three-ring circus primarily on artistic grounds. Miley has never been given “the time or space to develop emotional depth or creative skills,” and therefore lacks “professional focus,” wrote Paglia. Paglia ended her essay with an impassioned exhortation: “Miley, go back to school!” Instead, Miley went to New York City, where she hosted Saturday Night Live and announced to a cheering studio audience that her reasonably well-behaved Disney Channel alter ego, teenage schoolgirl Hannah Montana, had been “murdered.” Played for laughs, the gag was funny in part because it was true: the Disney Corporation, with a subtle but equally reckless assist by Miley’s fans, killed Miley's childhood dead, and neither wishes nor revisionism will ever bring it back. It’s a cycle we’ve seen played out with nausea-inducing regularity: America, its legions of consumers just as much as its faceless institutions, siphons away any sense of normalcy its artist-heroes might ever have enjoyed, then stands in mock outrage above the debris field that invariably results.
The idea that performing artists need time and space—perhaps even the time and space afforded by a school-like setting—to learn something about the history of their art and thereby develop so-called “professional focus” makes a certain sense in the music industry. Because touring brings in as much or more revenue than album sales do, there's a strong incentive for recording artists to stay perpetually in the limelight. The utility of time, space, focus, and professionalism is less clear in other art-making genres. It's easy to see why singers ought to sometimes flee the glare of the national spotlight and the equally searing heat of their record companies' profit-margin assessments, but what about poets, sculptors, painters, potters, and the millions of other artists working daily in unprofitable and rarely acknowledged sectors of America's art culture? What (and when and how) should they be fleeing?
One possible answer: the ravages of a culture that annually finds ever more ingenious ways to screw up the lives of profit-driven and profit-blind artists alike. The means of such systemic destruction may be different in different genres, but the end result is all too frequently the same—whether it's for Miley Cyrus or Lindsay Lohan, Justin Bieber or Britney Spears, Corey Feldman or Danny Bonaduce. Whenever an artistic sensibility is given too much or too little leash, the risk of a public or private disaster resulting is high. A young singer with little proper schooling (Miley was home-, set-, and tour-schooled following middle school), a perpetually abnormal social life, only sporadic parenting, and too much expendable income to use responsibly will often enough end up—using Miley as just one example—twerking on the privates of someone almost twice her age for a screaming national audience. Likewise, a writer with no job, no health insurance, no stable and affordable housing, no reliably encouraging community, a spotty sense of history, and a virtual rogues' gallery of indifferent role models is equally likely to end up in an emergency room as making Great Art. When individuals as emotionally and psychologically temperamental as artists habitually are lack access to high-quality healthcare, employment, and support networks, they all too often under-medicate, under-insure, under-employ, and over-isolate themselves into episodes of financial and spiritual despair.
Because often it's lack, not surfeit, that's most conducive to artistic greatness, we can't really say that instability is always unhealthy for budding artists in the short term. What we can say is that the Muse of suffering ought not be foisted upon all artists indiscriminately, as even those who benefit from it often don't benefit from it for long, and even when and where suffering inspires an artist one can't know whether a different medium might have worked as well or better as a conduit for genius. In any case, at no point in the process of watching artists' lives play out do audiences earn the right to expect more from their artists than the pitfall-riddled lives to which they've been left. You (that is to say, we) get the Miley we overpaid for, just as we invariably get the poets, sculptors, painters, and potters we've habitually refused to pay for at all. While formal schooling only lends focus to those artists already inclined to be focused or to benefit from a particular emphasis on skill-development and historical awareness, the time, space, depth of seriousness, and range of skills Camille Paglia wished for Miley in her Time essay should be wished for for all our nation's artists—and so we shouldn't be surprised when the lack of any of these leads an artist to a public or private meltdown.
This isn't to say that denying artists time and space for the development of serious ambitions and a versatile skill-set invariably leads to disaster, merely to note that the fact that it may is foreseeable and therefore unworthy of public shamings in Time or elsewhere. Likewise, none of this is to say that artists should face no censure for poor behavior; they can be, they should be, and they frequently are held to account (often unfairly) for bucking the norms our culture so authoritatively insists upon. A media outlet like TMZ, for instance, exists for no other reason than to shame artists for their ill-considered antics; the vicissitudes of the academic and corporate job markets do similar work in ensuring that literary and visual artists never stray too far from the behavior employers expect from their investments.
Yet even if we account for all of this, it’s still the case that public criticism of artists should not be willfully ignorant of the personal and professional milieu of working artists generally. Those criticizing Miley Cyrus should somewhere in their critiques give some indication that they know they're criticizing a socially maladjusted teen-equivalent who's been surrounded by uncaring, selfish, morally incompetent adults her entire life. Should Miley’s mother be managing her daughter’s most important professional decisions, thereby confusing two roles with entirely different expectations, responsibilities, and prerequisites? Should someone have stopped a fifteen year-old Miley from granting what appeared to be a topless photo-shoot to Annie Leibovitz? Should the bosses at the Disney Channel have granted the then-thirteen year-old Miley a shooting schedule that permitted her to be schooled amongst her peers rather than hurriedly and on-set? Could Miley’s father, the one-hit wonder country singer Billy Ray Cyrus—who recently said that Hannah Montana “destroyed my family . . . I’d take [Miley being on the show] back in a second”—have resuscitated his own fading career via something other than a co-starring role alongside his teenage daughter? Absolutely. A bevy of poor decisions—personal, professional, educational, and otherwise—led Miley to where she is now, and only a few of those decisions were solely Miley’s to make.
Miley's decision to appropriate black culture for financial gain was certainly an elective act—but it shouldn't be deconstructed in the same way one academic takes another to task. Rather, critics should in some way acknowledge that however foolish and race/gender-insensitive Miley's shtick may be, she's still a young woman with little education who's had no reasonable limits on her spending since she was a child, who's grown up in full view of the nation's hundred million living rooms, and who hasn't lived the sort of life that induces more temperate conduct since, well, never. Miley gets paid an exorbitant amount of money to have no sense whatsoever of musical history or even the barest standards of professionalism, and she gets paid that money by the very same culture that subsequently derides her misbehavior as though it were evidence of a system failure rather than a young person’s temperamental decision-making. In other words, Miley's been exploited by corporations, unscrupulous charlatans, and blindly adoring fans her whole life, and almost certainly hasn't enjoyed a truly “normal” moment in more than a decade. Under the same circumstances, you'd be twerking, too.
That an artist's life is a relatively easy one is as much an invisible presumption of American culture as is the idea that no culture can long survive without Art. You'd think that decades of celebrity mug-shots, Behind the Music episodes, and checkout-aisle gossip rags would have convinced us that the last thing you'd want your son or daughter to become is an artist of any kind. Yet somehow America still encourages its children to pursue their artistic inclinations, and celebrates their ambitions and successes as unambiguously healthy and just. What's the harm, after all? Sure, we know from mountains of academic and pop-culture biographies that an alarming number of the literary, musical, dramatic, and material artists whose work we most enjoy have died penniless in ditches, or by their own hand, or with their hands on a bottle, or choking on their own vomit following a drug overdose, but wasn't that song sublime? That poem? That novel? That sculpture? We know making Art often takes a terrible toll on the psyche, on one's mental health and physical well-being, and on one's finances—think Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, Gary Coleman, or any one of a thousand other young, much-heralded artists. But nothing can stop American culture from consuming the energies of its artists so voraciously that hardly any time or space is left them to catch their breath.
No one but Miley Cyrus' doctor and closest family and friends know her mental health status specifically or her current medical condition generally, and no one outside that circle should deign to speculate authoritatively on either. But here's what we do know: Miley has been in the public eye since she was eleven. When I was eleven, I was still alone in my room trying to figure out how to masturbate properly. So to converse about Miley Cyrus as though she were a normally socialized twenty year-old defies both the evidence and common sense.
This isn't a matter of crying “Leave Britney alone!”, it's a question of knowing the cost and value of the throes of American culture. In other words, with Miley, as with all artists, you get what you pay for, America: If you offer your artists no jobs, no patronage, no supportive communities, and no means for coexisting with any measure of comfort alongside their fellow citizens, you end up with artists whose lives are unstable, uncertain, and in at least some identifiable percentage of instances, psychologically and/or physically unhealthy. Moreover, you end up with artists who begin to falsely associate infelicities with predestination, who believe that being at loose ends emotionally and financially is the only way to make Art that they and—on occasion, perhaps—other Americans will respect. On the other end of the spectrum, if you throw millions of dollars at children before they've reached puberty, if you pull them from their local middle school to “help” them avoid paparazzi they shouldn't have to deal with in the first instance, if you juxtapose the roles of parent and manager, if you reward ethical misbehavior or profligate spending or shoddy songwriting with ever larger and larger royalty checks, you are ruining a childhood and you'll undoubtedly see that ruination play out on your television set in a few short years. The conversation about Miley Cyrus isn't dull because we've done it before—it isn’t dull because it's hard to see much daylight between Paris Hilton, Amy Winehouse, Justin Bieber, Lindsay Lohan, et cetera—but because it's so cynically and insidiously hypocritical it's nauseating. Miley isn't shocking; in fact, she's so predictably derivative of the way our culture condones the abuse of young artists across all genres that it's painful to see all our self-servingly unreasonable expectations unfolding in real time.
Those who take Miley to task for appropriating black culture, or for undercutting responsible notions of femininity—as Sinead O'Connor infamously did recently—are willfully missing the point. The time for cultural critics to have intervened in the fiasco Miley's life has become was when she was a corporate wunderkind on the Disney Channel. Time and time again we've seen children ruined by early success go on to harrowing tribulations as adults—for every resurgent Christina Aguilera or Justin Timberlake, there's a whole dollar-bin of Britneys—yet we speak of an unsocialized teen's predictable nervous breakdown (or, the apparent non-clinical equivalent) as though it takes a gaggle of scholars to sort it all out. Though the analogy is by no means a perfect one, I for one am no more surprised by Miley appropriating black culture or undercutting third-wave feminism's political gains than I would be by an abused child re-enacting the horrors once visited upon her by insidious elders.
If indeed Miley has offended or done damage with her straight-from-the-playbook youth rebellion, I'm more insulted by those who are insulted than by the one purportedly doing the insulting. If you don't want your consumer dollars going directly to the abuse of children whose antics you'll later find repugnant and comment-worthy, don't watch the MTV Video Music Awards, don't watch Miley's YouTube videos or follow her on Twitter, don't buy her albums or attend her concerts, and most of all don't participate in farcical remonstrations over Miley's antisocial displays. Not because Miley does or doesn't deserve your patronage, but because America's moral degradation is long past the point you've any right left to ignore it. After all, this is a country that establishes national campaigns to protect urban youth from the ravages of drugs—on the theory that many such youth have few or no responsible adults available to help them avoid drug addiction—and then pounces on them when they turn sixteen, as the nation's anti-drug campaign, having failed to save any of those it was charged to save, turns on a dime into a nationwide, incarceration-happy flash-mob. Miley bears a good deal of responsibility for Miley, certainly, but the responsibility of a child to raise herself in a nest of vipers is by no means limitless. America helped raise Miley in a very real way—indeed, it did so carefully, consciously, and conscientiously over more than a decade—so it has little right now to decry its own failure to protect a vulnerable, impressionable, and naive young artist. To Camille Paglia I would say, Miley doesn't need a better school; what she's long needed, and what she never got nor will ever get, is a better country to grow up in.
Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.