In mid-2018, Michael Jackson landed at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in a grand exhibition. Like David Bowie, Björk, Jackson has joined the increasing number of artists who have seen their work stand at museum halls.
Six months later, it is probably time to digest what that exhibition was really about. This time, strangely, this pop artist-themed exhibition was not about showing objects and personal traces which the artist left behind.
Instead, the public was offered a show about Jackson’s influence over contemporary visual artists. Below I reflected on the reverential character of the exhibition. It says less about the troubled artist while allowing for a reflection about the poor curatorial state of mainstream art institutions.
Questioning an image
Here at the NPG, the acclaimed performer has no doubt reached a strange kind of sanctification.
If it was a Christian mass, the narrative of his influence over us, ordinary contemporary people, would fit a homily dedicated to a powerful saint, whose miracles are evident, given his enormous sect of followers.
In a secular perspective, though, the sanctification of Michael Jackson does not place questions to him. They reproduce the “icon” “on the wall” over and over. And that’s it.
A number of well-intentioned artists, mostly Americans that lived through Jackson-mania were invited on this mission.
Sadly, not only their presence is treated as a second reason for their pieces being shown, as their works ended up placed in a rather awkward way.
At London’s NPG, the lack of logical sequence for the exhibition arrangement, its route, and the concept hasn’t done any justice to anyone featured there. Rather than having each artist’s efforts being highlighted, the display mirrored the lack of a binding narrative that convinced Jackson’s supposedly influence in our world (perhaps because there isn’t one yet).
It will be unfortunate if this awkward show design is going to be repeated in France, Germany, Finland, the capitals where the show is heading next.
The exhibition’s press release did little to clarify:
Why so many contemporary artists have been drawn to Jackson as an image and a subject, and also why he continues to loom so large in our collective cultural imagination
If we assume that the idea is to dialogue with Jackson’s position in our culture through the less to the most obvious way of representing him and his face, it starts making more sense.
If in format, the show is vague; in content, it corresponds to a cornucopian retrospective suited to medicate a chronic degree of nostalgia which nobody knows where it starts and ends.
This feeling of adoring Jackson, shouting for Jackson, dubbing Jackson, and so forth, opens ways to obfuscating otherwise rich and critical works in their own merit.
In Romania, Dan Mihaltianu filmed the impact of Jackson’s concerts in a changing political regime. The artist’s performance has led to fans being dragged out from the crowd and images of ambulances are interspersed with those of his choreography. Was this enough to call the concert a political gesture from an oddly apolitical artist? Maybe not, but there was space for debating this with other similar works. This enormous subject finds in this exhibition a very transitory link, which visitors couldn’t even read it properly in such a dark room.
Other ambitious interpretations of Jackson are given in other moments. Todd Gray’s photographs placed Michael Jackson as a proud son of the African diaspora. Would the popstar think of himself like this? Wiley’s large-scale portrait fit the magazine covers as both works – whether consented or not by Jackson – draw on the mythological black man that he probably was or was not, even though it could also serve to illustrate him as also the victim of his or other people’s obsessions.
At the main corridor, a path leads to a door assembled like the cover art of Jackson’s Dangerous album. It is here when the visitor could also appreciate the fashion-religious essays by David Lachapelle before entering the spectacular portal.
From one side, Jackson goes atop a horse, from the other, it poses as if he was advertising a product besides a blonde model. In effect, another missing debate here lies in Jackson’s ability to self-mythologise and self-transform and go away with it. He goes from sacred to product with no apparent contradiction, at least for the fans.
These are some other possibilities that could make this series of works fit better in the Jackson kaleidoscope but all of those appear under-explored or muted for commercial reasons. And yet the star himself remains silent. More serious, though, is that none of these silences about Michael Jackson really matter here.
There are other issues that lie far apart from Jackson and pop music, belonging to the crisis of museums or their failure to provoke deep thought on visual arts.
Beyond Jackson’s fantastic figure, we could argue about the real need for an exhibition like that in an extremely pressurised art world, multitudes of underpaid, under-recognised artists, and alienation of big audience towards interesting, political, in sum, bold, proposals that could enrich the public’s art education.
The fact is art quits being art when leading institutions bow so easily to popular media; likewise, the museum quits being a museum whenever we could find all that on the Internet. Curators slowly abandon the slow-paced assimilation of groups of artists and movements, which used to mean culture, to urgently bring the crowds interested in seeing one single celebrity, no matter how talented and popular he or she used to be.
This view can be limited and somehow elitist. I know. But so it is Jackson’s flattening influence on art on top of hundreds of artists that wished to have one-tenth of that space.
Besides Jackson’s blockbuster, the same NPG exhibited (probably by chance) hundreds of new photographers. They were all squeezed in a micro room, where one couldn’t see not even one single name.
With its ambition to create dialogue and resonance at any price, the Jackson exhibition not only flattens the soil where nothing else can grow, as it provides the public with a very poor statement on what is influence, culture, and finally, art.
There’s an attempt to play the counter-hegemonic card here (against the hegemony of the so-called elite, who used to run these same museums without popular artists) by throwing pieces of pop art of million-dollar celebrities to the masses.
This new popularisation can perhaps suit museum budget holders and PR departments but are they filling the so much needed void of meditation and collection? Are they educating based on the grounds of historically-accurate and bottom-up voices? (One could argue on Jackson’s emergence from blackness and poverty to fame, but he was still a millionaire, American artist at the end of his game).
If museums are to survive artificial intelligence and other computational resources that excuse their existence, they will have to prove that collecting and preserving equals being attractive, funded and visited. If museums are to remain funded and visitable as galleries, they must take their educative mission more seriously.
Whether we miss him or not, Michael Jackson is still present. We don’t need to be educated about him. In 2019, it will only turn ten years without him. Jackson is still played in popular music, revivals, film characters. Jackson does not need museums to memorialise him or transform his music into a theme, at least for a while.
On the other hand, if it is expected that TV programmes, celebrities, musicians can profit from pop culture and social media, are museums, at the same time, trying to get their share in this industry? Is this an easy ride on what is “out there”? What is the share of grassroots visual artists in this rationale?
For example, if less-known artists could enjoy visibility by showing their works in this NPG exhibition, these same artists were diminished under the shadow of the big man.
Rush to memorialisation
On the other hand, let’s assume for one moment that Jackson as a theme worked well here.
Still, the show had to count on a handful of landmark works that were absent. For example, Jeff Koons’ landmark porcelain sculpture that shattered any seriousness behind Jackson’s prominent persona in the 1980s. That would have given commentary and less aura.
Is it to expect much from a three-month exhibition?
The museums’ crisis apart, what is really striking is not this show per se, but the rush to consolidate Jackson’s “legacy.”
Curating Michael Jackson influence in culture could have been about an investigation of his life. It would have given a more robust contribution to the artist, to museums, and to fans. For instance, by provoking dialogue on his contribution to gender fluidity. In sum, it would remove his memory from the comfort zone (so necessary for American artists to thrive).
It is not that music fans, art fans, and everyone else didn’t need a Michael Jackson exhibition in 2018, or in 2019, or in 2049.
What one can regret, in the end, is that even after Jackson’s introduction as a piece of a museum (or Madonna’s or any other upcoming pop star) he had to continue such a big mystery for the public. Expectedly, when commercialism conquers art, serious art review and criticism is the first one to die.