A Little Bit Unholy

Even in its struggle against kitsch, pop music is a flypaper for our memories. Can art be the same?

Michael Curran, Amami Se Vuoi, 1994. Excerpt from single channel video, 5:00 min..

Rosanna asked me to sing her a song, and I did: “I’m a little drunk, I know it. I’ma get high as hell.” We were parked on a plywood bench, the art world’s eternal pop-up architecture, and kept there on a leash of free wine. “It’s the new Miley Cyrus,” I said, clearing my voice. “I’m a little bit unholy. So what? So is everyone else.” 

Amid the buzz of the art party, we were exhausted and wanted to disappear, so I crooned us a Miley bubble. Music swallows you and pushes everything else away. I was in Rosanna’s ear like a plug. 

I’m always looking to art for some glimpse of what’s irreconcilable and unruly (unholy?) about life. What it’s said you don’t find in algorithmic pop culture: deep, deep ambivalence. But actually I find it more often in music, even that coming out of such mass-produced vessels as Cyrus. 

I wasn’t high when I sang to Rosanna, but I think neither was Cyrus when she and her army of co-authors wrote that line. It’s a song about the desire for recklessness and escape sung into the confines of a Spotify subscription. She’s not a sinner or a saint, she’s just a bit unholy. Like all the people who listen as they ride their Uber bikes home at one in the morning, wheeling along the ore of life, feeling-hearing its pulse only ever through an invisible membrane. Pop music is the soundtrack of that slight, piercing separation that allows everything to go on with its usual humdrum tragedy.  

‘Don’t call me Angel’ – a should-have-been epic collaboration between Cyrus, Lana Del Rey, and Ariana Grande – premiered on my birthday last month and is a perfect example of the hopeless uninspired state of music videos at the moment. That aside, it shows Miley licking any body part she can get near. “She’s been snorting the dyke sherbet again,” Rosanna said. Miley’s been doing this for a while. Take the cover of the Dead Petz album. Take that famous wrecking ball – why not give it a lick? Ariana Grande? Lick lick. 

Why does she do it? Maybe the surface of whatever it is that the music presents should be licked. Maybe licking is a way of looking, a way of coming closer. This is an action not unlike art writing. To write about what we see is a process of understanding what it even is. Miley licks and licks like a child that presses their face against a fish tank attempting to overcome an invisible, but impossible resistance – to burst through the sheen into reality. The point of the exercise is that she never will. 

Kristian Vistrup Madsen. Illustration: Jenz Koudahl.

This summer, Willem and I were in front of Andrea Mantegna’s The Descent of Christ into Limbo (1492) when he brought up these lyrics from the new Madonna record: “Is it really love if it hurts? Is it really pain if it’s inside?” “What strange, dark questions to pose,” he said. And strategically moot, somehow. Those utterances seem to me the very definitions of love and pain, emotions experienced as all the more severe because they are not as tangible, as lickable, as we might have liked. 

Contrary to popular belief, Madonna has survived not for her bland mass-appeal, but – at least since 1990 – the opposite: the alien and complex position she occupies vis-a-vis her emotions. For Madonna, sincerity and vulnerability are caught in a half embrace, half defiance; suffocating beneath layers of production and iron professionalism, yet seeping out of every pore, like yoghurt through a nylon stocking. 

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes that “before we are forgotten we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.” Madonna’s struggle is against the limbo of kitsch (and my love for her is like love for the condemned: infinite), but it is also the struggle of all of pop music, manufactured as it is to tickle the zeitgeist, not lick the window of existence. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t. In fact, limbo offers a window seat on life. Not such a bad place for art to be either. 

Limbo is a somewhat contested notion that suggests a distinction between the hell of the damned, and the hell of those who might still be redeemed – those just slightly unholy. The first to be rescued from limbo were Adam and Eve. They meant well, after all. The central figure in Mantegna’s painting shrouds himself dramatically as if against a strong wind rushing from the underworld. We don’t recognise him as Christ because he is wearing clothes. Overcoming this transparent resistance, he descends into the cave, coming for us as only the son of God could, to break open reality. This is a religious delusion, a scene seldom depicted because it is not particularly useful. As Kundera hints, no one makes it out of limbo alive. 

One of the best artworks I’ve seen all year was in an exhibition curated by Paul Clinton at Galerie Emanuel Layr in Vienna this fall. In a video by Michael Curran from 1994, a man (the artist?) enters the frame and lies down to finish his cigarette. He’s naked and thin, like Jesus at crucifixion, skin wrapped tight over ribs, lower back arched – I love this arch, it’s the arch of surrender, of giving in to devotion. 

“You can put it on now,” the man says, and the 1950s Eurovision ballad by Tonina Torrielli ‘Amami se vuoi’ (Love me if you want to) begins to play. The song lends its name to the work; it’s a music video. Another man wearing a blue t-shirt crawls on top of him and spits in his wide-open mouth. Deep, deep chiaroscuroed ambivalence. Of course, the cycle of sin and redemption in Christianity is constant. Any fag can be Jesus and Jesus is unholy, and limbo is not a grotto, but everywhere all the time. In a kind of ecstasy, the back arches further, reaches climax. The song finishes. Reality is a storm of fig leaves and spit in the eye of which are we, rarely willing to see it. Licking is a way of seeing. Listening is a way of feeling. Music is a flypaper for our memories. Can art be the same? I’m not done thinking about this. More soon. 

Andrea Mantegna, Christ’s Descent into Limbo, 1470-75.

– Kristian Vistrup Madsen is a Danish writer and art critic based in Berlin. He holds degrees from Goldsmiths and The Royal College of Art in London, and is a regular contributor to Kunstkritikk, and to magazines such as Artforum, Frieze and Spike.