Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Debate

Muhammed Ali. Miami, 1970. Photograph by Danny Lyon. Copyright Magnum Photos.

Michael Jackson and Bubbles. 1988. Jeff Koons.

I was walking back to the gallery last night when I ran into Roy Lebenthal (the owner of the Pop Burger restaurants and a savvy collector) and Adam Cohen (a director at the Gagosian Gallery) having a drink outdoors at Cookshop. Being one of those beautiful summer evenings that makes you want to dilly dally, I stood around schmoozing with them for a while and eventually our talk came round to the question of whether Michael Jackson or Muhammed Ali was more important in the grand scheme of things. Adam was convinced it was indisputably Jackson. I felt equally strongly it was Ali. Roy seemed to be somewhat on the fence.

I know that photographically speaking, there's no question that from a visual art point of view, the wealth of great images of Ali blows Michael Jackson away.

Your feelings please.


Unknown said...

The pictures you posted tell the story by themselves. Ali was, and is, The Greatest.

Becky said...

That picture of Ali is stunning.

I think that so many of the enduring images of Michael Jackson are actually videos -- particularly the video for "Thriller". I'm not sure there's a single image that captures his great performing talent. You had to see MJ in motion for him to really leap out at you, I think. Whereas Muhammad Ali had (still has?) such a presence about him that it can be captured in a single image.

I'm not sure who was more important in the grand scheme of things -- I think I'm far too young to truly appreciate Muhammad Ali -- but I agree with you that Ali takes it photographically.

The Year in Pictures said...

To Becky -

Thank you for a thoughtful response.


Unknown said...

I'm not sure what you mean by "the grand scheme of things". Jackson's music has probably affected more people than Ali's boxing accomplishments, but if you're talking about role models or taking into account someone's character as well as their accomplishments I don't see how Jackson can even be considered alongside Ali.

Patrick said...

I'm sure you're aware of the NYTimes Lens Blog, which the last 2 links are from, but I think from an images standpoint, the gap between the two is not as large, even though the reason those images might be "great" may differ. They seem to show the opposite ends of a stardom spectrum. Almost all images of Ali seem to show his greatness, while images of MJ only show greatness while he's on stage or on the red carpet. On top of that, we shouldn't underestimate the documentation of MJ's transformation over the years.

Though I am too young to fully realize Ali's importance (and probably MJ's also), I find from a cultural standpoint that Ali seems to be so universally admired, especially considering his stance on Vietnam and such.

Zander said...

They are different. Too different to compare that way. The locus of their affect is on different generations. Jackson was an entertainer, Ali was an activist. The weight is different.

Suzanne Graff said...

Along with many in my demographic (aged), I felt the hubbub surrounding Jackson's death was driven by the celebrity industry. Luckily for me, World Have Your Say, an international call-in show from the BBC, spent an hour on the subject. What was particularly revelatory were the comments from men from places like Sri Lanka and Guam, who felt they had been given access to their very souls through Jackson; one having pursued education, another mastery of the guitar, and so forth.
Jackson appears to be, like Ali, a force beyond himself. Both allowed the culture(s) in which they operated to see the world in a wholly new way.

indigo16 said...

As an aspirational role model, Ali
As a photographic model, Ali
As a global model, Ali
As a life less lived, Jackson

Anonymous said...

"In the grand scheme of things"
I like that,it makes you stand back and try to be objective.
"Culturally" which of them was more important?

"Who will stand the passage of time better?"

There is only one answer!

Muhammed Ali.

Micheal Jackson was my generation and I was greatly inspired by his talent and how he used it particularly in video.

Ali was my fathers generation and my first introduction was hearing my father imitate Ali, I then explored the interviews on Micheal Parkinson (you tube, if you haven't), the fights, the iconic images(so many over 50 yrs),his faith,his politics, the books Norman Mailer The Fight, Leon Gast When we were Kings, GQ man of the Century, The Olympic Games,Parkinsons illness....
Ali gave us more (more of what we wanted)and this is why in the grand scheme of things he will be more important.

Hugh Gannon.

Great posts James your really capturing the zeitgeist of our time, I don't respond as often as I should so this is for quite a few greats in the last few months.

Letterpress said...

What? You didn't buy Al Sharpton's assertions that because of Michael Jackson, we have world peace, Barack Obama as president and happiness all around? His hyperbole was matched by the congresswoman from Texas. Brooke Shields, Paris Jackson and Jennifer Hudson were the standouts, if we're rating something.

Yep, I streamed the celebrity fest memorial service while I worked in my study--I couldn't explain why except to say it seemed a bit of American kitsch that was too good to pass up.

As far as your question--hmmm. I certainly don't believe MJackson was all "that," esp. given his complete and total pandering to the media (I don't believe for a second he wanted us all to go away) and in this, perhaps Ali has the edge, although he, too, liked the attention. I also put Ali ahead in the character category. Not character as in Wizard of Weird (as my husband calls MJackson), but character as in has some depth, relates to humanity, has a body of work that is to be admired.

But how can the two be compared, really? Jackson's music was riveting (initially) and to watch him dance is to see a true performer working in the zone. It's like comparing fireworks to the steady glow of a crackling fire in the fireplace. Metaphor is weak (I know), but two different men, two different experiences, two different lifetimes.

Elizabeth said...

For me it's a question of character.

MJ is all media hype while Ali actually stood for something.

Ali wins hands down.

Anonymous said...

Not to be macabre about it, but wait until Ali's death. The global outpouring will make Jackson's memorial event seem not only quaint, but contrived.


PS I just bought a signed Harry Benson photo of Cassius Clay in 1964, training in Miami with one of his handlers wearing a shirt embroidered "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" in the foreground". Classic.

alan said...

omg...i just heard that michael jackson passed away!! when did this happen?

Paul Pincus said...

i can't compare the two men. i kinda sorta think it's generational. that said, i love them both.

re: MJ is all media hype while Ali actually stood for something.

that's absurd.

Kathryn Lovell said...

Ali hands down. It wasn't a Vietnam draft evading, Muslim American on his 4th marriage that carried the Olympic Torch, visited Afghanistan on behalf of the UN and so on. It was Muhammad Ali, "The Greatest" indeed.

QBParis said...

Ali has kept his character intact despite his age, his illness, his beliefs, his life and the blows he has taken... and he makes no apologies.

MJ morphed, hid, covered up and cowered. As much as he gave, he also hid behind the mask.

No contest.

robert said...

In my 30 years as a photojournalist I've had the opportunity to shake hands with heads of state, entertainers and all manner of celebrities.

I've never been more proud than when I met and shook hands with The Champ--although Jorge Luis Borges was definitely a close second.

Michael's contribution is significant only in the realm of entertainment. Ali's reach went well beyond boxing and sports. And the Ali images: Outstanding.

If you've not seen Al Satterwhite's Ali photos, they're priceless.

Michelle said...

I had to come back to this post after seeing 'This Is It' in theatres. Becky's comment is very astute--MJ didn't have any photographic presence, but when in motion...few if any of today's pop stars approach music with the same perfectionism, professionalism and innovation that he did.

I was left cold by all the magazine tributes, but the movie really made me feel the loss--and not in a manipulative or entirely sentimental way, either.

And I agree, it does seem to be a generational thing. I don't feel any great connection to Ali at all.