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Michael Jackson–the medium, the message, the art


I read this observation about Michael Jackson in Friday’s Times:

Michael Jackson will be remembered as a great and widely imitated mover. Other things about him will be remembered too, but it is amazing how many of them are apparent in his dancing. The sweet boy, the angry dissident and the weirdly glamorous star are all there; and so is the androgyne who gives off conflicting male/female signals in the course of a single number.–Alastair Macaulay

Michael Jackson as his dream self. Image from
Michael Jackson as his dream self. Image from

Not only did I think this was an interesting comment. But it also set me thinking. Never before had it occurred to me that a performer or a performance artist is the art, not just a creator of the art. Doh.

Michael Jackson, unfortunately, both got it and got it confused. He knew he was as important as his performance, that he was not just the medium but the message. Alas, however, he decided to improve on what was already excellent, reaching for some strange idea of perfection (the dude had too much money). Carving up his face, bleaching his skin–these are both expressions of self-loathing–and of creation. He makes Cher look like an Sunday painter in the plastic surgery department.

In some sense, every artist who reaches for the stars also seeks to create a perfect expression of themselves. And when the art is performance, the self is subsumed to whatever that performance requires. But Michael Jackson confused his spectacular performing abilities, his perfect dancing and singing and composing, with his face. In the continuation of the bell curve of wrong-headed body art, Jackson was at the extreme, the edge where Chris Burden put bullets through his body. I am puzzled at why this is accepted by anyone as OK.

This is not OK.

I wonder if Jackson’s many-layered new faces are more crazy or less crazy than Marina Abramovic. Does presence of a concept excuse cutting? Or maybe extreme pop reinvention and beauty are worthy concepts in and of themselves?

I am staking a very conservative position here. I can’t go for the cutting.

Maybe if I were a fan, a fan who thought a public figure was my personal friend, I would just embrace all this–after all, if you love the guy, you love him for his very wrong-headedness, accepting the transformation as part of the art and part of the act.

Not me. This wasn’t an act; this wasn’t art. This was desperation and insanity. If I were a fan sort of person, I think I’d fix my adoration on someone who liked themselves a little more.