Jacko: a Very English Death Scene

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One of the striking things about popular representations of public executions in the eighteenth century is the contrast between the French and the English approach. French artists typically ignored the gathered crowd and focused in detail on the face of the one about to be executed (there is, indeed, one picture I remember of a woman about to be hung where her face has one of the most haunting expressions I have ever seen).  By contrast, English artists focused on the crowd, whether jubilant, mocking, or distraught, and left the victim a somewhat shadowy figure.   Public execution was, after all, public entertainment; and one of the reasons it was ultimately banned was that it was proving too popular at a time when the intelligentsia were finding it increasingly distasteful.   And English artists had the courage (or lack of good taste) to represent it as precisely the kind of popular entertainment that it was.

I was reminded of this today, when I switched on the news and could find no channel where anything but the death of Michael Jackson was being discussed.  His death is very sad -- whatever his problems or faults or sins, three children have lost their father, siblings a brother and, if his parents are still alive, mum and dad have lost a son.  What is interesting (though hardly unpredictable) is the way in which the media have focused on the grief of all these people who never knew him and served it up as entertainment.

I never liked Jackson's music but he was clearly a hugely popular and talented entertainer.  And he continues to entertain in death -- not just because his records can be played but, at least for a week or two, because the media are able to play his death as one more big showbiz event, burying the tragedy of real death, real bereavement,  and really shattered and terminated relationships under the schmaltz of the faux-bereavement of his fans through the sanitizing and distancing medium of television and video.  Of course, the response to his death by the people on the street says a lot about the importance of entertainment in our age, indeed, about the idolatries of the modern world. But is also tells us something about the entertainment media.  Like casinos in Las Vegas, come rain or shine, the House always wins. 
Posted June 26, 2009 @ 9:07 AM by Carl Trueman

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