It is a safe bet to state that Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka are perhaps the world’s foremost writers to have expounded on and to have initiated a fictional genre that deals with art and the artist. Each of these writers delved into and expounded on the complex nature of the relationship between artist and audience, and each of them probed the following questions:
What is art? What is the purpose of art? What medium best conveys the artist’s inner soul? In what ways does the artist hold a mirror to life? And what role does the artist play in helping shape societal mores?
As a writer and a sculptor, I’ve always been fascinated with the aforementioned questions. Over the years, I’ve attempted to engage my students in these philosophical discussions by employing the Hegelian dialectic as a paradigm for the relationship between the artist and his audience. The positive feedback an artist receives from his audience serves as the motivating inspiration and impetus for venturing out into new mediums and artistic expressions.
Mann’s “Mario and the Magician,” “The Infant Prodigy,” “Death in Venice” and “Tonio Kroger” and Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and “A Hunger Artist,” have served as outstanding primary works that deal with art as political propaganda, art as affectation, art as a commercial enterprise, art as a splendid display of flamboyant performance void of substance, and art as a genuine expression of the deep-rooted universal human expressions of pathos, faith, hope, love and redemption. Simply put, art is all about all the things that make us human.
And that brings me to Michael Jackson.
At an early age, Michael Jackson charmed himself into the hearts of millions of people of all ages at home and abroad. Capitalizing on the charms and light-footed synergy of the prepubescent, handsome and highly talented child prodigy, his promoters, including close family members, packaged, showcased and promoted this child genius with all the fanfare that Hollywood could invent and all the savvy that Wall Street could underwrite and market.
One success led to another, and, by going solo, Jackson would soon claim his own niche in the august annals of American entertainment. This dynamo of synchronized energy, dance and rhythm attained international stardom and acclaim and touched the lives of millions around the world.
Whether it was song or dance, Michael Jackson had what Castiglione (“The Book of the Courtier”) called a sprezzatura (an air of nonchalance and the exercising of regal ease in all situations). He brought an innate and very natural passion to bear in all his performances. Of special importance is his refusal to venture into the world of rap music and the use of profanity and demeaning references to women.
Upon hearing of his death, I made the following comment to my wife: “What a broken piece of art he was.” Indeed, in spite of the myriad ground-breaking accomplishments and his ability to break the racial barrier in the world of entertainment, and in spite of his ability to reach and touch the lives of millions around the globe, Michael Jackson was at heart a frustrated artist with a troubled soul.
Like all tragic heroes, his need to re-invent himself and his preoccupation, if not obsession, with changing his physical appearance and the donning of an assortment of very fancy costumes are perhaps the tragic flaw and demons with which he wrestled for years. Spared from scandal (mainly because fans are willing to accept a certain measure of human weakness) and the clutches of the legal system, he withdrew further into the make-believe world of Neverland, where expensive toys and exotic animals dotted the landscape. One can only wonder what, how and if this world of reinventing one’s self, fathering children through donor-surrogate means, tranquilizers and lavish lifestyle provided any meaning to his existence.
And just as Michael Jackson’s life was lived in a dichotomous manner, fame through superlative artistic accomplishments that gave joy to millions in every clime, and pathos through a life driven to seek happiness and belonging through bizarre physical and other compensatory placebos, his death and its aftermath are unfolding into an equally tragic morality play.
Much like the parasitic fish that feed off the barnacles of the giant sperm whales, the hangers-on are now jockeying for a piece of the pie. The masses will go on idolizing, reliving and celebrating Michael Jackson’s life. The promoters, sharks, impresarios, including family members, will continue to squabble over adoption, inheritance, rights, royalties and the massive wealth to be realized by the ingenuity of shrewd promoters, accountants, lawyers and their ilk.
Michael Jackson’s epitaph should read: Throughout his life he strived to give joy to others, it is rather tragic that the King of Pop could not find that joy for himself.
Raouf J. Halaby is professor of English and visual arts at Ouachita Baptist University, Arkadelphia, Ark.