Art is the greatest: exploring the power of the arts

Earlier this summer, I visited the Muhammad Ali: I am the Greatest Exhibition, at the O2 Arena. I entered the exhibition knowing nothing about Ali, and though I was looking forward to it, I was sceptical as to whether I would know much more when I left. I’m not really into boxing. I’ve seen a few matches but that’s because the Las Vegas time difference means the match doesn’t usually start until in the morning, providing the perfect excuse to get drunk. But this exhibition started at 2pm. When sober, would I be interested in boxing? Would I get anything out of the experience?

The exhibition was opened by Ali himself, before he died. His unexpected death, following shortly after, certainly gave it poignancy. Walking through the collection of artefacts, video clips, sound bites, and images, was both nostalgic and moving. Most impressive of all was the way in which the exhibition managed to be all this, and exceptionally informative.

I read about a young and headstrong Cassius Clay growing up in Louisville Kentucky, and his determination to be the best. I viewed his bicycle that was stolen, and heard about his family and the racial prejudice they, and others, faced in 1950s America. Photographs of Ali winning Olympic gold contrasted with harrowing videos of the Vietnam War, to which Ali was a conscientious objector. Mounted on a wall was the notorious photograph of the Napalm Girl captioned with Ali’s words: ‘Man, I ain’t got no trouble with them Vietcong’.

My favourite section of the exhibition was a video clip of Ali delivering eleven punches in three seconds to boxer George Foreman in the ring: a stark juxtaposition to the Ali I experienced at the end of the exhibition, now engaged in a less glamourous fight against Parkinson’s disease. At the centre of the exhibition was a huge gold sculpture of Ali with adorned with grandiose text declaring ‘I am the Greatest’: Ali had believed it, the exhibition curators were obviously convinced of it, and by the end of the exhibition, so was I.

For me, this is a testimony to the power of the arts. Through various mediums, the exhibition had gifted me with new understanding and appreciation for the extraordinary life Ali led. It was a mixed media piece that immersed me in a way no medium acting in isolation could have done. In the same way that a collage or mixed media sculpture creates texture and depth, the exhibition used every medium available to communicate its message. Indisputably, Ali’s story is a fascinating one, but it was only through the retelling of the story through art that I realised this. If I lost interest in an audio clip, a photograph would catch my eye. If I didn’t understand the significance of an artefact, a video would provide context. It was almost impossible not to become immersed in the story.

On the train home from the exhibition, I began to consider what I had experienced a little more carefully. I was away from the bright lights of the exhibition, the audio clips of the cheering crowds, and the fashionably vintage video clips of a grainy, black and white Ali declaring ‘I’m so mean I make medicine sick!’, and things didn’t seem quite so clear. Was Ali the greatest? Well, no. Probably not. No one is. Lost amidst the arts, however, I had gone from literally not knowing who Cassius Clay was, to believing that he was the greatest, in one afternoon. I’d got wrapped up in paintings, photographs, music and posters. Clearly, the arts had had a powerful effect on me.

I still consider Ali a hugely fascinating and inspiring person, but a person none the less, and as people, we are both beautiful and flawed. It is the arts that has the power to represent us in certain lights, and influence us in various ways. Muhammad Ali was great, but art is the greatest.


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April 2021
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