When I first read Constance Pierce’s academic paper “Ruach Hakodesh: The Epiphanic and Cosmic Nature of Imagination in the Art of Michael Jackson and His Influence on My Image-Making” (1) I had never heard of the Hebrew term Ruach Hakodesh.  But I certainly understood the concept that it represents as explained by Pierce, i.e. that which the Biblical book of Genesis describes as a “rushing spirit of God over the face of the waters.”  She further elaborates in the abstract to her piece that a “brooding and hovering wind, the animating breath of the cosmos, a Divinely disruptive force of inspiration and imagination are but a few possible flavors of poetic exegesis.”

My first thoughts on reading this was that, with respect to Michael Jackson’s art, “Ruach Hakodesh” encapsulates the connection with the divine (i.e. God) as expressed not just in Jackson’s music and dance moves but also his poetry, especially as illustrated by his piece “Heaven Is Here”, from his book of lyrics and essays “Dancing the Dream” (1992).  This particular poem is one of my favourite pieces from that book.  As Pierce notes, in “Dancing the Dream”, “he revealed significant spiritual dynamics inherent in his creative process.” (2)

paper coverBut why choose pop icon Michael Jackson to discuss “the epiphanic and cosmic nature of imagination” some may ask?  In fact, Pierce is one of many academics now casting a learned eye on the life, work and social impact of the King of Pop.  Pierce lists some of the academic books, essays, articles and courses that have emerged since the artist’s death in 2009.  As to whether being known by a title such as the “King of Pop” means Jackson can be considered “a serious artist of profound and abiding cultural import” Pierce concludes that the answer is definitely “yes”.

In death, as in life, she argues, Jackson remains a polarizing figure.  “An immense amount of shadow-material was projected upon him by a myopic and racist culture,” she writes.  “Throughout his life, Jackson became highly skilled at bearing this shadow-material, aesthetically processing it, and thrusting it back at us (as maligned artists often do) transformed into art.”

Indeed, in the decade of the 1990s, Jackson turned out some truly challenging and abrasive material which remains as relevant today as when he wrote it.  His angry plea for disadvantaged minorities, “They Don’t Care About Us”, is the best known; but there are many others, even dating back to his “Bad” album on which appeared “Leave Me Alone”, his reaction to being tabloid fodder.  In his 1988 autobiography “Moonwalk” Jackson explained “The song is about a relationship between a guy and a girl.  But what I’m really saying to people who are bothering me is: ‘Leave me alone.’” (3)

In a world of regional wars, environmental degradation and apathy towards our own kind and other creatures, Jackson’s art could be a howl of protest (“Earth Song”) or a soothing balm (“Heal the World”).  Pierce perceives Jackson as “a ritual healer, a modern-day shaman”.  Certainly, if one listens to his recordings of “Earth Song” and “Cry”, he is “petitioning the Cosmos”.  The same can also be said of the seldom-heard but equally compelling track “We’ve Had Enough”. (4)

In support of her view of Jackson as a healer/shaman she explains that he “inspired global multitudes to compassion and endurance by lifting their hearts through his art.”  Of course, his compassionate actions also involved donating massive amounts of money to charities, including the proceeds for entire concert tours.  Pierce contends that “Jackson evidenced a lived theology.”

She also uses photographs of Jackson displaying certain body gestures in his performances, and compares them to works by William Blake.  “Though Jackson was likely inspired by a number of figurative painters, William Blake persists in my mind’s eye,” Pierce writes.  She explains that both artists lived in “a world of rich inner myth and revered the state of innocence as personified by the realm of ‘Childhood’”.

Blake viewed childhood as “a state or phase of imaginative existence, the phase in which the world of imagination is still a brave new world and yet reassuring and intelligible” according to Northrope Frye, whom Pierce quotes on the subject.  Michael Jackson, as most fans – and some critics – are aware, had a somewhat idealized view of childhood and rued the “loss” of his own, having worked as the lead singer of the Jackson 5 from a very young age.  Pierce contends that the contrary states of “innocence and experience” are reflected in the words and visual imagery of both artists, and proceeds to examine some of Jackson’s famous poses, such as the cruciform/resurrection pose and the crouched/crying gesture, for which we are given examples by Blake depicting similar attitudes/emotions.

Pierce is a visual artist by nature, and her own allegorical drawings that accompany her essay give form to the emotions discussed therein.  Her watercolors and pencil sketches are not meant to represent Jackson, or any specific individual, but rather show human forms in “archetypal images [that] bear witness to the afflictions of the world, to the turmoil of interior anxieties, and to the ubiquitous consequences of conflict and greed.”

The allegorical images are also intended to bear witness to the presence of ministering emissaries upon the earth, and an “angel” or spiritual intercessor is featured in each of the travails she depicts.  This series of images is titled “Will You Be There” after Jackson’s prayerful song of the same name from his Dangerous album and world tour.

Pierce explains that, as an artist, she harbors “a core consciousness embedded within that is not dominated by the rational, where mystical poetics such as Ruach Hakodesh can flourish, and where my imagination routinely looks toward the cosmos for its creative source.”  It is from this place that her image-making emanates.

Following the death of Jackson, Pierce began to seriously contemplate “the vast emotional scope evident in Jackson’s art.”  She found a cache of startling imagery embedded within his work.

Many of us who are fans of Jackson have responded to that imagery, and to the other aspects of his private and performance persona that endear him to us as, above all, someone who cared deeply and acted on his compassion, even though in pain (whether physical or metaphorical).  Studying Pierce’s essay explains some of the emotions we, his fans, have experienced, why we have experienced them, and feel impelled to respond to his shamanic call to heal the world.

Pierce concludes that “Michael Jackson left behind a vast reservoir of treasure in his wide-ranging oeuvre as a serious artist.  We are the beneficiaries of a legacy of art that is startlingly innovative and revelatory.  In addition, one may characterize Jackson’s art as being spiritually empowered, for his work awakens in us a truer consciousness of our own joy and suffering.”

For serious scholars of Michael Jackson and his art, and its continuing influence on other artists, Pierce’s essay is essential reading.  It is a reminder that true artists, such as Jackson, invariably inspire others to explore and express their own creativity.

Kerry Hennigan
September 2017

Sources:

(1) Constance Pierce: “RUACH HAKODESH: The Epiphanic and Cosmic Nature of Imagination in the Art of Michael Jackson …” The Cosmos and the Creative Imagination, Springer International Publishing © 2016 | constance pierce – Academia.edu
(See “Files 1 of 5” under title to select download)

and “Will You Be There” drawing series exhibitions: The Fourth Art on Paper, Museum of Art, Aichi, Japan ~ Notre Dame College (OH) ~ Seton Hill University (PA) ~ Regina Quick Center for the Arts (NY) ~ Yale University Divinity Library (CT)

(2) Kerry Hennigan “Michael Jackson, Shiva and the Cosmic Dance” https://kerryhennigan.wordpress.com/2016/09/12/michael-jackson-shiva-and-the-cosmic-dance/

(3) Michael Jackson “Moonwalk” Random House 1988, Arrow paperback edition 2010. https://www.amazon.com/Moonwalk-Michael-Jackson/dp/0307716988/

(4) Michael Jackson, Rodney Jerkins, LaShawn Daniels and Carole Bayer Sager, “We’ve Had Enough” from “Michael Jackson. The Ultimate Collection” http://www.mjtunes.com/modules/mydownloads/singlefile.php?lid=242

Additional viewing:

Constance Pierce: Honoring Dancing the Dream (Watercolor series: Epiphany and Loss) video: https://youtu.be/5oe7TALaTxg

Acknowledgement:

“petitioning the cosmos” photo montage compiled and edited by Kerry Hennigan using professional photographs for which copyright remains vested in the respective copyright owners/photographers.  No infringement of copyright is intended in this not-for-profit exercise.