Thursday, May 6, 2010

Michael Jackson and the fatal spirit of the true artist

A telling side effect of a celebrity's death is the degree to which it prompts some people towards autobiography, memoir, or to indulge the urge to examine their own history as a parallel course to the trajectory of the more famously deceased. Those of us over fifty have only to recall the unending tide of essays and books where Americans recalled where they were, precisely, the day and moment that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The effort, of course, was more than merely paying tribute the brilliance the departed embodied; more than that, it is a recollection of how they'd been made to imagine greater possibilities for a  world they otherwise couldn't challenge.It's the tiresome ode to a dream deferred . There is something to the notion that celebrities cease to  be human in our estimations once they acquire certain saturation in the culture--they become, in a sense, a personal god one measures their best and worst qualities against. It is a tendency that can become pathology  Patti Davis, daughter of the departed President Ronald Reagan and someone who knows something about growing up in a fishbowl, weighed in with a brief commentary in Newsweek last year  about the unexpected death of Michael Jackson. The piece isn’t as cloying as one would have suspected—she notes the similarities between Jackson and another child star, Judy Garland, reasonably speculating reasonable that these talents were essentially raised in a bubble by a horde of managers, executives and an unlimited variety of sycophants whose interests weren’t those of their nominal employer, but rather their livelihoods. There’s more than enough evidence to support for Davis to make her case, which we find in the case of Jimi Hendrix and certainly Elvis Presley, two major talents and money makers who , it seems, lacked the discerning voice in their midst to say “no”, or to give advice that was free of enabling. Davis, though, spoils her entry with a rationalization that absolves Jackson and a host of other bright unfortunates who’ve met with untimely demises of any responsibility for the odd choices they’ve made.


Those who are born with a towering talent, something that can't be contained or even understood, never have a chance at a normal life. The world grabs onto them early and can't get enough. The demands are daunting, the crowds are huge, the spotlight is blinding. There is little or no opportunity to grow slowly and organically into knowledge of who can be trusted and who should be avoided.
can be trusted and who should be avoided.

Therein lies the biggest danger of a life lived in so much brightness, with so many eyes watching—the fragility of a human being gets overlooked, even disregarded. Artists—true artists who arrive on this earth bearing gifts that make the rest of us stand in awe—often don't have tough skins and well-honed survival skills. They don't have the stamina of warriors, they have the souls of poets. And that makes them easy prey.



Michael Jackson, Jack Kerouac, , Jack Kennedy, Charlie Parker, Sylvia Plath, Jimi Hendrix, and the lot died of causes that had nothing to do with the fact that each of them had varying degrees of talent. People die daily who haven't distinguished themselves as singers, dancers, writers, poets, jazz improvisers; they drank themselves to death, they overdosed, they committed suicide due to untreated clinical depression, they were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. No one, though, latches on to a single name of the average anonymous drug casualty or suicide and speculates as to the nature of the sad, early death, no one really wonders about the soul of the everyman that just might be too sensitive to deal with the harsh facts of life and is driven to end the endless pain. Rather, we shrug, we say”ain't that shame" and then go about our business, mildly annoyed. We love celebrity hood, though, we are obsessed with as a culture, and indeed celebrity has become our religion--we create a mythology about the doings of the famous Gods and wonder about their inner lives, their moods, and their ability to cope.


Davis, a marginally well known artist/writer herself, picks up the stalest cliches around, the most exhausted of all tired tropes, the most insipid of perspectives by wondering aloud if there is something in the tortured psyches that compels the brilliant and the intensely gifted to short circuit themselves and bring an end to their lives. The implication is that sensitive artist types are sentenced fates even an enemy shouldn't suffer, an especially perverse elaboration that artists are not really the source of their talents and the inspiration that comes with it, but rather a channel of a Higher Power's wisdom and good graces. Davis not only gives absolution to doomed geniuses and near geniuses,but offers up the notion that for them Free Will is impossible. One always has a choice, though, and anyone of the people named in the second paragraph, not least of all Jackson, all the the ability to choose what their circumstances would be and the company they could keep; brilliant or not, they, like the rest of us, make bad decisions and they, like some of us, make choices that sooner or later prove fatal. Assuming without question that the tragedy was inevitable due to predestination only makes the tragedy deeper. What freedoms and insight the work might have provided us is negated by an overwhelming assumption that divine forces were at play. The circumstances, though, are human, all too human.

It's  irritating  enough that Davis concludes her commentary so insipidly, but it is also aggravating she's given such a big microphone from which to entertain her morbid hero worship. This is the same worship of the Celebrity Dead that had surrounded the discussion of the Confessional Poets for so many years, the not-so-subtly disguised attitude that a poet so categorized would only be regarded as great if they met with a tragic death, preferably by their own hand. Only in that instance do they become poets worth taking seriously. Serious as in examples to avoid , I think, and what's to be avoided as well is Davis' unfortunate comment, in a subordinate clause, that " true artists", by in large, are burdened by the creativity God or may not have blessed them with and lack the stamina to survive a life in any of the metaphorical food chains the celebrity culture creates. Davis handily enfeebles artists in general, poses no counter argument that art is more likely to make the artist more resilient in their daily struggles, and she seems willing to let the issue rest in a bed of sighing fatalism. This won't do.

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