The Atlantic

Chasing the Myth of Michael Jackson

A new exhibition in London, titled On the Wall, seeks to understand what the superstar—and, more importantly, what his image—meant to the world.
Source: David LaChapelle / National Portrait Gallery, London

In 1985, when the King of Pop was at the height of his fame and the beginning of his infamy, James Baldwin wrote that the “Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all.” Tabloids, fans, and critics alike wondered of the entertainer: Is he asexual? How many surgeries has he had? Does he want to be white? Who is the real Michael Jackson? Is there a real Michael Jackson? This frenzy, Baldwin argued, was really about money, race, sexual panic, and the “burning, buried American guilt.” The notion that people’s obsession with the singer isn’t really about him, but about the constellation of issues reflected by his life and work, appears to animate Michael Jackson: On the Wall, an ongoing exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The show’s curator, Nicholas Cullinan, acknowledges as much. In the catalog, he writes that the collection, which is on view until October 21, is “not about biography.” Through roughly 100 works created by 48 contemporary artists during and beyond the span of Jackson’s life (including new pieces made specifically for the show), explores the performer’s complex power as

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