MTV’s Video Music Awards (VMAs) have, historically, featured the most current and shocking work in music entertainment since 1984 when Madonna gave her infamous Like a Virgin performance. That tradition is alive today both in shock value and cultural currency. With the VMAs’ illustrious history in mind I was aware that I would be in for some time-tested shock-and-awe entertainment, but I had no idea the strong reaction the VMAs would elicit within me. It left me feeling empty, confused, and a little violated. I found myself asking, “Was that what passes for Art?” Miley’s crassly underwhelming hosting, Kanye’s stoned sonnet on the very emotional task of being an artist...was that art? When looking at art critically, as Christians, the question we have to ask ourselves is “Was there anything redeemable?” I will attempt to argue that yes, there was at least some small somethings that were redeemable.
What has happened in our day and age is that we are losing artists but gaining artisans. Mrs. George Sand (best-known as Chopin’s “lady on the side”) once said, “Art for art’s sake is an empty phrase. Art for the sake of truth, art for the sake of the good and the beautiful, that is the faith I am searching for.” I can’t completely agree with everything Sand says in this statement, but she does hit on some common grace in that art should be both truthful and beautiful. The debauchery that was the VMA’s did not embody truth through art. It was realistic in portraying the majority of what the world believes, but it was not truth, because realism and truth are not the same thing. Art is a responsibility not a free for all. Celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj are not “artists” as much as they are image creators and personifiers.
However, when you look past the personalities and the egos, you begin to see the artistry of the craft that goes into the mass cultivation of these personalities that we call celebrities. Crafting the persona of the celebrity could be considered an art in and of itself, as it is cultivated by hundreds of artisans, designers, makeup artists, PR reps, managers, songwriters, and producers. Their work is a collaboration of some of the finest talent that the media has to offer. For example, if you look closely during Justin Bieber’s performance, he is about two seconds offbeat from his backup dancers. This increases to five seconds towards the end of the performance. Justin’s backup dancers, on the other hand, are flawlessly in time, and they do their job well. Of course, their job, in all reality, is to make Justin Beiber look as good as possible. There was art and beauty in their performance alone. I’m not saying Bieber isn’t talented—he just has the advantage of being able to hire people to make him look even more talented. The same principle applies to Miley Cyrus. The outfits she wore were art—provocative art at times, but art nonetheless. By her wearing those pieces of art, she gives that art new meaning and context within her persona. And furthermore, it personifies her and what she desires to portray herself as.
There are some artists, though they are few and far between, that transcend this rule: Adele, Lorde, Sia, Kevin Spacey, Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, and Anthony Hopkins. These artists have defined themselves not by spectacle but by the truth and beauty that their art brings to the world. Their art is beautiful without having to shock you. When your art is your persona, it begins to lose its integrity. When removed from the context of the artist, art can exist in its own realm of interpretation, free from the trappings of being a celebrity.