Michael Jackson's Gesamtkunstwerk: Artistic Interrelation, Immersion, and Interactivity from the Studio to the Stadium

By Martin, Sylvia J. | Liminalities, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Michael Jackson's Gesamtkunstwerk: Artistic Interrelation, Immersion, and Interactivity from the Studio to the Stadium


Martin, Sylvia J., Liminalities


Michael Jackson produced art in its most total sense. Throughout his forty-year career Jackson merged art forms, melded genres and styles, and promoted an ethos of unity in his work. Jackson's mastery of combined song and dance is generally acknowledged as the hallmark of his performance. Scholars have noted Jackson's place in the lengthy soul tradition of enmeshed movement and music (Mercer 39; Neal 2012) with musicologist Jacqueline Warwick describing Jackson as "embodied musicality" (Warwick 249). Jackson's colleagues have also attested that even when off-stage and off-camera, singing and dancing were frequently inseparable for Jackson. James Ingram, co-songwriter of the Thriller album hit "PYT," was astonished when he observed Jackson burst into dance moves while recording that song, since in Ingram's studio experience singers typically conserve their breath for recording (Smiley). Similarly, Bruce Swedien, Jackson's longtime studio recording engineer, told National Public Radio, "Recording [with Jackson] was never a static event. We used to record with the lights out in the studio, and I had him on my drum platform. Michael would dance on that as he did the vocals" (Swedien ix-x).

Surveying his life-long body of work, Jackson's creative capacities, in fact, encompassed acting, directing, producing, staging, and design as well as lyricism, music composition, dance, and choreography-and many of these across genres (Brackett 2012). It should be noted that Jackson's writings weren't restricted to song lyrics; in 1992 he authored a book of poetry and reflections called Dancing the Dream, a companion piece of sorts to his 1991 Dangerous album. In it, Jackson wrote poems, short essays, and reflections on the themes of nature, love, community, and spirituality. Jackson's creative direction also extended to his stagecraft for live performances, from designing the lighting to planning his costumes. As his costume designer and dresser Michael Bush recounted to Rolling Stone, Jackson "would be very involved in what he wore [for live shows], starting by sketching out his vision." As Susan Fast confirmed with Jackson's lead guitar player, Jennifer Batten, Jackson also designed Batten's costume and hairstyle on his solo tours (285). Surprisingly, two years after his death another facet of Jackson's corpus of work was revealed. In 2011, the LA Weekly reported that over one hundred paintings and drawings that Jackson had skillfully produced over the years were stored in a Santa Monica airport hangar (quoted in Duvernoy). Although Jackson had shared numerous sketches with fans since he was a boy (a few of which were featured in his album art), the volume of this collection, apparently once intended for exhibition and sale, was unexpected by fans and public alike.

Given his mastery of multiple art mediums, claims that Jackson was a consummate "entertainer" and "song and dance man" (quoted in Price) are certainly accurate, yet they do not capture the scope of his artistic expression over his lifetime. The question thus arises of how Jackson's framework should be contextualized and conceptualized. I contend that through the entirety of his lifelong artistic endeavors Michael Jackson epitomizes the Gesamtkunstwerk. Translated as "the total work of art," the Gesamtkunstwerk in art theory and aesthetics refers to the synthesis of the different art forms such as singing, dancing, poetry, painting, sculpture, and architecture, as well as the multi-sensory and deeply immersive experience that a "total" performance provides. Jackson harnessed and blended what are often artificially separated art forms to communicate a consistent and coherent message (of love for the planet and the unity of its diverse peoples), demonstrating the holism of his framework. To understand the artistic integration and total performance that Jackson provided I call attention to various integrative and immersive aspects of the Gesamtkunstwerk in his work.

Although Jackson did not state in his interviews or his publicly available writings an intentional engagement with the concept of the total work of art, I propose that it offers a very fruitful and fitting way to read his work. …

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