She crouched in the middle of the gallery floor and we stood outside, watching her. She clung to that spot, naked, neither posed nor at rest, her face turned away from us in base humiliation.
And yet she was looking right at us, her green eyes meeting our own, challenging and defiant.
She looked so alone in that barren space, separated from the rest of us by the windows and the locked glass door.
I wondered how it must feel for her as we crowded around her in the confined space of the gallery floor, looking down on her in mingled loathing, and confusion, and lust.
We had talked about her plan a few days before. At the appointed hour, she would lock herself inside the student gallery (having reserved it for the week) and then disrobe. Lined up in a semicircle around her perch, a row of tall dressing mirrors, of various sizes, were all angled in such a way that anyone standing at the glass doors and windows of the gallery would have a clear view of her.
She would then spend the next several hours waiting there, until either she could endure it no more, or the university officials got wind of the ‘happening’ and shut it down.
Unlike other student exhibitions in the gallery, there were no flyers posted ahead of time, no advertising of any kind, except by word of mouth.
I was one of the few she asked to spread the word for her, one of the few who knew what she was actually planning.
I was surprised that she had confided in me at all. I hardly knew her, although I had heard many rumors. People whispered (in overly loud voices) about her. They said that she was ‘easy’, and that she ‘put-out’ for anyone who so much as looked in her direction.
This, I thought, was highly unlikely. She’d have never had the time.
The fact is, everyone was looking at her. She was gorgeous and she moved with a sultry catlike sway that both turned heads and dredged jealous innuendo out of otherwise friendly people.
I was working late in the ceramics lab when she found me and asked me if I could spread the word about her ‘happening’ the next day. She warned me that there could be repercussions for anyone found to be involved. When I asked her why, she told me what she was planning.
As I said, I’d heard the loose talk about her, and I could only imagine what a display of this sort would do for her already poor reputation. When I tried, haltingly, to express that concern (without saying outright “but people already think you’re a slut”) she offered me a smile that said she knew exactly what people thought of her.
I didn’t get it.
The following morning, I casually spread the word, and then I joined the small crowd that had gathered outside the gallery.
Everyone in the gathering was talking at once; “How conceited to be making such a show of herself…, she’s always been an exhibitionist, have you seen how she dresses…, slut…, not like she’s showing anyone anything they haven’t seen before…, poor thing…, nice tits…, her parents must be SO proud…, what is she trying to prove…, this is NOT art.”
I looked at her sitting there.
I wanted her, and I felt sorry for her, and I still didn’t get it.
And then I looked up at the mirror, at the reflection of myself and the others framed there. I saw our faces, the faces of people looking at her in condemnation and pity and lust and I suddenly understood what she was trying to do.
“I want them to see how they look at me,” she had said.
She was not the show.
She was not the art.
We were the ones on display, exposed, naked.
It wasn’t a pretty picture.
And that’s the thing about art: sometimes it is ugly and vulgar and even poorly crafted, but those are not the qualities that determine its true quality. Good art does more than just liven up the room, provide pigeons a place to roost, or moulder away in some gallery. Art should make you think and question, it should challenge your way of looking at the world around you by offering you a view of that world from a perspective outside your own.
“…the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”
—Hamlet Act 3, Scene 2
If art, in whatever form, is the mirror we hold up to nature, it may be then that wherever we see ugliness, we see only the reflection of what is unpleasant in our own selves.
That lesson has stuck with me ever since, although I have not thought about that naked girl on the gallery floor, or the mirrors, or the leering scorn reflected there, in many long years.
And then, last week, all of social media seemed to explode with outrage over Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMA’s and the memories came flooding back.
I cannot claim to have any special insights on what it is Ms. Cyrus is doing.
Are her over-the-top gyrations and silly facial expressions truly meant to entertain? Or is this current incarnation simply another character, a “bad-gurl” caricature, designed to bookend the overtly wholesome “Hanna Montana”?
I don’t have the answers to those questions and I don’t really care.
Far more interesting to me has been the public reaction to her performance.
In the last week I have seen the foul-mouthed, the oversexed, and the neglectful parents making common cause with the puritanical, the self-righteous, and the holier than thou, to cast dreadful aspersions upon Miley Cyrus, upon her parents, and upon the “society of permissiveness” which they claim is at fault for her debauched antics.
Behind all the sneering, the rolling eyes, the pity, the slut-shaming, and in the secret heart of the teary-eyed pious, folding their hands in prayer for Miley’s soul, lurk the real players in this little drama.
And to them all I say, “look in the mirror.”
It is one thing to critique the art and quite another to demean the artist.
When you gaze down upon her from your lofty heights and cast your stones, you would do well to remember that.
She is not the show, and the real shame belongs to you.
The event in the student gallery was brief. University staff quickly dispersed the small crowd, entered the gallery and escorted the young student out, robed and weeping silently. Word spread, and the details of the event became more inventive with each passing day. The gallery remained closed and dark for the remainder of week and the administration threatened to revoke the privilege of managing our own gallery, should anything of that nature ever happen again. They were deeply disappointed in the irresponsibility shown by those involved.
They were also, they claimed, concerned for her safety. By exposing herself that way, she might have given people the wrong idea, and someone might act on that.
In other words, “she was asking for it.”
Because women who dress or act a certain way always are, right?
Of course the rumors didn’t go away, but then neither did she.
Sometimes when I’d pass her in the corridors, she would catch my eye and smile.
It was the smile of someone who knew she had shared a secret.
We had each stood naked before the mirror.