In 1993 Life magazine published an exclusive tour of Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch, with color photos of the monstrous kitsch that the singer collected. Coincidentally, the first child molestation scandal involving Jackson broke a month later. One of Jackson’s vanity paintings depicted him surrounded by ecstatic children, reading from a giant black book of fairy tales. The book was propped between his legs in such a way that the spine of the book protuded like a giant phallus pointing straight back to the devilish grin on Jackson’s face.
No number of Ferris wheels, giraffes, trips to Disneyland and surrogately conceived white children could conceal the essential grimness of Jackson’s preoccupation with childhood. Indeed, it is the argument of tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm that childhood is filled with peril and horrors abetted by the false promises of adults. Jeff Koons has manufactured what has presciently turned out to be the sarcophagus of Michael Jackson, his immortal sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles. Jackson’s own taste in art was far too vain and vulgar to appreciate Koons’ masterpiece, which entraps MJ in gold leaf like a metrosexual Midas and offers the chimp Bubbles as a witty child substitute. The total effect is one of transcendent impotence, a brutal contradiction constantly underscored by the futility of Jackson’s crotch grabbing in performance and facial procedures under the surgeon’s knife.
Nevertheless, should we be surprised that a child of 10 wailing a number one hit of frustrated love called I Want You Back should become so preoccupied with the fatal exchanges of childhood identity? Graham Greene, who was a renowned film critic before he became a celebrated novelist, penned a notorious piece in World War II England, in which he speculated that half the gents in Britain were masturbating under raincoats in theaters to Shirley Temple movies, infatuated by "the turn of her leg." What Mr. Jackson was doing was merely projecting back what was beamed on to him by mass culture and consumer society.
I’ve always been disturbed by the title of Jeff Koons’ series of works based on toys: "Celebration." Was there ever a body of work less celebratory and more inert? For Koons, childhood, as shown in his art, is a lifeless signifier of death, everything from his brilliant reflecting balloon dogs to dull paintings of blow-up toys and colored clay advertising that life itself is fundamentally irrelevant, it’s the product that endures. So now Michael Jackson is now just a product and that giant sucking sound you hear is all of us consuming it. In the eyes of the culture and in his own painful eyes, he never really lived.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).