Miley Cyrus performing at the MTV Video Music Awards, 2013

Some might say that the biggest comparison between performance art and pop culture is budget. However, artists such as Marina Abramovic and Paul McCarthy with his over the top performative installations, have proved otherwise. If anything, this has lead to more and wider blurred lines defining the two genres.  What happens when a pop artist such as Lady Gaga or Jay Z enters into the realm of performance art? Does the venue determine whether or not something is commercial rather than executed with artistic intent? Recently, Jay Z performed at the Pace Gallery in New York City and several, well-renowned artists were in attendance including Marina Abramovic and many others. The “goal” of the performance was in fact a music video.

Was Jay Z’s intent to make art and if so did he think that choosing a celebrated art venue and respected contemporary artists would assist in making it so? A newly released song titled Picasso Baby was performed for six hours straight to a limited audience. If one is to make a definition then the six hour repetition is what would be deemed art. However, artists like Abramovic herself and more recently Ragnar Kjartansson who organized a song by the band The National to be played for six hours straight at the dome at MoMA PS1 in early May of this year, are both actively making work while also engaging the viewer in a non-threatening way.

What is it with a six hour repetitive time frame? It seems somewhat manageable for a general audience to watch and a band not trained for durational performance. In the latter situation, which I wrote about for Flash Art (Ragnar Kjartansson presents A Lot of Sorrow, featuring The National MoMA PS1, May 5th, 2013, by Katy Hamer), Kjartansson is the mastermind, the conductor, he is in fact the artist who is guiding the performers in order to achieve a particular outcome. Jay Z on the other hand seems to have used the possibilities filtered through contemporary art for his own purposes in what feels like something less about art and more about self promotion. The catch-22 with Jay Z’s performance and the song Picasso Baby is that it introduces certain art world persona’s to an otherwise unfamiliar audience in what could be perceived as inspirational, but he also associates purchasing art with a particular wealth and class which are not easy to attain for most. Rather than create a symbiotic alliance between pop music and performance art, he instead just further blurs the lens of the camera through which we all view the world and made most of the participating, off-beat artists appear downright silly.

Jay Z Performance still from Picasso Baby (here with Marina Abramovic)
Pace Gallery, NY, 2013
Image courtesy of

At the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Sunday, August 25th, 2013, MTV Video Music Awards were held and Miley Cyrus performed her new single ‘We Can’t Stop’ in a medley with Robin Thicke, 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar for medley including Blurred Lines and ‘Give It 2 U’. The award ceremony, held once a year is known for being a bit over the top and sparking controversy. Miley Cyrus, the twenty year old daughter of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus has succeeded in what it seems like she set out to do; cause a buzz and rock the Internet and social media venues. For this reason alone I was wary to actually write anything on this particular topic, but after reading copious articles and opinions on the performance, I felt the need to enter into the dialogue. Arriving on stage by way of a large, fuzzy stuffed bear, Cyrus stuck her tongue out in a gesture that could have been interpreted as ironic and silly; it was not. From the stand point of someone who often looks at art, I didn’t find much offense in the display but rather thought it was vacuous and unoriginal. My mind ventured to the common tools artists employ in their work including Rob Pruitt and panda bears (he was also in attendance at Pace Gallery for Picasso Baby) and the multitude of performers who’ve come before Cyrus shocking years before she was even born, Madonna being the most obvious. There is however a conversation that is trickling through the Internet about her performance and it focuses not only on the overt sexuality but also her enlisting of only curvy, black women as backup dancers. Their gyrating and twisting brought a racial divide to the forefront specifically in several instances where Cyrus awkwardly objectified the women. I will note now that I use the word “her” loosely. Miley Cyrus is a twenty year old woman, whose career is going through an evolution that stems from a childhood spent on the set of Disney’s Hannah Montana. As part of this viral transformation, she has cut her long brown hair to a short, bright blond skater cut. Symbolically, loosing the hair is also a departure from her childhood innocence into the world of adulthood. Strategically it is a good move for a woman who is hoping to be perceived in a new way and in this case, have her wholesome image flushed down the drain. If you detach the person from her performance, what are you left with? If you strip away the manager, the agent, the producer, there is just an individual swimming, grasping for something that feels real or allows her to feel more like herself. Could one say this is a reasonable explanation for the performance at the Video Music Awards? I think not. Actually, Cyrus is a media puppet. She is a shell for what someone else wants and a voice that can engage the masses and maintain a fan base, at least maybe until now. 

Could the performance have happened in a gallery, cameras rolling or not? Would this have changed the perspective of the masses who are now [mostly] vehemently against what they saw? My response to both questions would be a resounding yes and yes. 


Twerking, the type of dance that Cyrus boldly claims to be performing was founded in New Orleans and started gaining widespread attention in 2010 after an article in the New York Times, with accompanying photographs by Lyle Ashton Harris titled ‘New Orlean’s Gender-Bending Rap’ by Jonathan Dee. The article tells the tale of a movement called Sissy Bounce, largely within African Americans in the southern most US states and unlike many rap or other musical genre’s, visibly populated by the LGBT community. One of the early performances that occurred in New York was seeing a performer like Big Freedia perform at an art venue such as MoMA PS1. This also allowed for a (usually) more open audience, patient and armed with strong opinions. It was through this musical passage that allowed twerking to be born or at least exercised and I should add, it’s not easy. Under the guise of reinvention, Cyrus’ team have chosen to extract the dance from it’s core followers along with the particular lyrical content driven to make a booty shake. In this attempt at appropriation and similar to Jay Z (as he attempted to feign the role of artist), the powers that be attempted to insert the songstress into a mold that she will never comfortably fit in to, especially with a world wide audience, an over-sized budget and an aging, teeny-bop fan base.     

Self declared Queen of Bounce, Big Freedia was in concert as part of the AfroPunkFest in Fort Greene, Brooklyn on the same day of the MTV VMA ceremony held nearby. Big Freedia has played an integral role in the twerk and sissy bounce craze and below is in response to Miley Cyrus’ performance in conversation with Fuse writer Jason Newman below.

JN:What did you think of Miley’s performance?

BF: She was going too far. She’s trying to twerk, but don’t know how to twerk. It’s become offensive to a lot of people who’ve been twerking and shaking their asses for years, especially in the black culture. But it’s also helpful because it’s putting twerking on the map around the world. I’ve been transforming twerking for the last three years around the world and for her to just come up out of the blue and just start twerking, a lot of people are very offended by it, especially in New Orleans. When something get hot, everybody want to jump on the bandwagon and act like they created it. That’s totally understandable but they have to give credit where credit is due. 

JN: What specifically about the dance did she do wrong?

BFFor one thing, we have a dance in bounce music called “exercising” where you just open your legs and shake your butt a little bit from side to side. It was that part she did in front of Robin Thicke, but she still didn’t even get that right because she didn’t have any butt control. She needs more practice.

JN: Some critics have pointed to the performance’s racial overtones, with Vulture calling it a “minstral show.” Is that fair?                                          

BF: Most definitely. It should’ve been someone else having those dancers up there and not Miley. We want to empower women of all walks of life to express themselves through dance music. I definitely push that at a Big Freedia show and I have a lot of white fans who get up there and really twerk. I have some amazing white dancers who would get up there and shut Miley down. They could’ve used girls from New Orleans {where the style of dance originated}, even if they were not black, who knew what they’re doing. They’re just using anybody possible just to get that buzz since twerking is hot now. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this, though. I knew the twerking thing was really taking off, but I didn’t know it would blow up like this. 

The role of performance art is constantly in a state of flux. Like music, much has been done before and artists are looking for ways to expand upon the human experience, both personal and public. Pop culture appears to change with each generation. Like art, it shocks and satisfies, drowns and floats. Ultimately, art needs to continue to rely on agency while pop culture has a bit more leeway but can both please and offend on a much greater scale.

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