“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”

 1974 was a good year, or so I’m told. Gas was 55 cents a gallon (imagine that!), Linda Blair graced the big screen in The Exorcist, and the sweet sounds of David Bowie and Stevie Wonder filled radio airways. This was also the year that of one of the most historic boxing matches of all time took place. On October 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali (aka Cassius  Clay) knocked George Foreman out in the eighth round of “The Rumble in the Jungle”. Now, my generation probably remembers the fight as recounted by the 2001 movie, Ali starting Will Smith, but here’s how it really went down:

The Ali vs. Liston fight (right) took place right here in Maine, less than a mile away from where I am sitting right now!)

Ali vs. Foreman October 30, 1974 – Democratic Republic of the Congo

Watch the clip below of  Muhammad Ali regaining the world heavyweight title, announced by legendary boxing commentator, Harry Carpenter.

Suddenly Ali looks very tired indeed, in fact Ali, at times now, looks as though he can barely lift his arms up… Oh he’s got him with a right hand! He’s got him! Oh you can’t believe it. And I don’t think Foreman’s going to get up. He’s trying to beat the count. And he’s out! OH MY GOD he’s won the title back at 32! Muhammad Ali!

– Harry Carpenter (via)

Sports announcers need to be fully engaged in the event. They use their senses to take in the action from all angles to help all of us who are at home on the other side of the radio, television, or computer, have the experience of being in the middle of it. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and if they’re excited…so are we! (maybe, if our team is winning! 🙂 ) As Harry Carpenter  announced this fight, he was able to make observations because he was actively looking, listening, thinking about, and engaging with what was in front of him. Use your imagination and pretend that you’re Harry Carpenter. Do you think he was close enough to see the sweat roll down Ali’s forehead as he struggled through the 8th round? 


Sooo.. what does a boxing match from the 70’s have to do with the experience of looking at art? Read on, Here’s a little overview:

Many people approach the experience of looking at art from a passive,”past-tense” state of mind, which is absolutely wrong. People wonder why they don’t “GET” art when they don’t even take the time to look. You gotta get into it! You gotta pull a Harry Carpenter and make some observations. Just because a work of art is 75, 100, 200, 1000 years old, doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. It doesn’t mean that you should view that object as an old out-of-date thing that some person who’s probably dead made forever ago. If you look at things this way, you’re cheating your brain. It might not be a live exciting event in front of you, but you can treat it as such in how you view it.

What I do for a living is help students understand how to do just this, actively engage in the process of viewing artwork, so this is something I’m extremely passionate about. I realize that not everyone has had someone explain to them why it’s important to look at things closely and critically, so I’m writing this with a catchy sports analogy to get my point across. So let me break it down:

Let’s give Ali a rest (we’ll come back to him) and talk a bit about Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling in Rome, Italy. Almost everyone has seen the iconic images the Chapel’s interior. The artwork that covers the interior of this Chapel has stood the test of time. To this day it’s still experienced in all it’s glory by tourists all over the world.


Here’s a quick rundown:

The Sistine Chapel is “the official residence of the Pope in the Vatican City”. Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Chapel between 1508 and 1512. Click here to watch an intetresing youtube video about the artist’s process, if you  want to know more.

The Chapel

Paintings throughout the chapel represent various biblical scenes including nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, which are most central. Here’s a map of the ceiling’s layout:

Over the years, the ceiling’s most notorious image, The Creation of Adam, have been referenced and used in soooo many capacities. Some people say that this ceiling’s fame is matched by only the Mona Lisa. I bet you’ve seen it.

Hand of God giving life to Adam

Can you find “The Creation of Adam” on the ceiling’s map posted above?

A lot of people don’t really know what they’re looking  or why when they view a work of art. More often than not, there’s more to every work of art than just meets the eye.  Art transcends time. There are plenty of works of art in history that have outlived the entire civilization of the people that create them. You can explore some 500 year old paintings today without even actually be in their presence (you’ll see what I mean later) . I didn’t take it as far back as Woman of Willendorf (made between 24,000 and 22,000 BCE.)  here, but I could, and it would still be relevant. Even when art “dies” breaks, is lost, is ruined, etc… there are archeologists, art historians, and conservationists whose jobs are to rebuild and restore historic art, architecture, and objects.

There’s a history behind every work of art, even if it was just made yesterday. Some old guy might have painted that painting 200 years ago, but that painting is actively preserved, stored, and having an impact on people for centuries to come.

Professor Gianluigi Colalucci is in charge of the restoration
work of Rome’s Sistine Chapel.

Here, a professor works on restoring works in the Sistine Chapel.

There’s no reason that art can’t have that same impact, there’s no reason that it can’t be moving, captivating, that it can’t be active. It all depends on how you choose to look at it. After all, it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. What I’m trying to say that an artwork has a “life” and it often outlives its’ creator. People who work hand-on with art, make sure that art stands the test of time, just like that favorite book you crack open and read over and over and over, just like that favorite movie that captures you, just like that favorite meal that wins your heart over every time you eat it. Even in your local museum, things like lighting, temperature, and how each painting is handled, are all taken into consideration.

Here’s a  link to a virtual tour of the chapel. AMAZING. you gotta check it out. Here’s what it looks like, and you can control the screen to get a 360 view.

Pop Quiz, When was the Sistine Chapel painted? Remember? …Around 1508. Yet today, in 2012 it’s still around for us to view. to influence other artists, and to influence pop culture. See:

Exhibit A:

The Homer of Seville parody of Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling painting of the creation of Adam. 2007

Exhibit B:

Michael Cera – Arrested Development

There are a lot of other examples, but I’ll leave it at that. You catch my drift. Okay, activity time. Put your “thinking cap” on. Ready? We’ll look a little more closely at the Michelangelo’s ceiling and then we’ll go back and visit our friend Ali.

Open up the Sistine Chapel virtual tour website that I posted earlier. Copy and paste this link: http://www.vatican.va/various/cappelle/sistina_vr/index.html (the music is kind of annoying, but you can turn it off, just click on the music note in the bottom left corner) Take a seconds to figure out how to maneuver around using your mouse and then just look at it. Use the + and  – buttons in the bottom left corner to zoom in and out. If you really want to get serious, scroll up so you can look at the map that I posted for a guide to the ceiling. Now think about these things:

How do you think Michelangelo must have felt after spending years painting the ceiling? What are some health issues that he may have had? (do a quick goold search if you really want to know 🙂 ) If you had gotten to be one of his assistants, which part would you have wanted to paint??

Look at this one, I love it because it’s kind of awkward looking: check it out. What looks “different” to you in this picture? Does anything stand out?

I don’t know what scene this is at all or what is going on, but I can’t help but notice this person’s feet. Does that NOT look uncomfortable to you?!  This person is very androgynous looking (meaning male-like and female-like, you can make your own observations about that) and their feet look like they are standing but they also kind of look like they are sitting on a step. Look to the left of their knee. It sort of looks like they are sitting on the front step and the little cherub angels are sitting on the top step having a side conversation about what’s going on.What do you think they’re talking about? See how one of them is pointing? What do you think that cherub is holding? I just looked up the title of this particular scene and it’s “Libyan Sibyl” You can do more research if you want to know what’s up.

Switch gears to something completely different:

Duane Michals, Automobile Interior, 1964

When do you think this photo was taken, and why? What do you think this person was doing in the car? Is it their own car? Their grandpa’s car? Are they stealing it but decided to stop and take a picture first? Do you notice any features in the interior of the car that are similar or different than your own car?

I know my car still has windows that actually ROLL up just like this one. But this car is a bit cleaner.  Check out the steering wheel, the door handles, and the way the rear-view mirror is mounted.

Now let’s take it back to Ali. This time we’re going to look at a photograph of his life outside of the ring. Those of you who know a bit about his life might already understand the context. But you don’t really need to know that to figure it out.

Let your eyes look at the picture in take in all the details. Remember,the photographer could easily shift the camera right or left or take a few steps closer or back to include more in the frame of the picture. With that in mind, think about how the photography framed this shot and why.

What’s on the left side of the picture? We can’t see it completely but can you make out what it could possibly be?

Note the cords and what looks like the top of a camera. Hint.

Now look to the right and to the bottom of the photograph. What did the photographer include  to let us know the location where this photo was taken?

Note that Ali is not inside of this building, he’s outside.

This photo was taken in the middle of a controversial time in Ali’s life. What do you think that controversy might have to deal with?

Do a little google search on April 28, 1967, the day this photo , compliments of Sports Illustrated, was taken.

Overall, the arts have a unique way of preserving history and placing it in front of you. Through images and artifacts you can engage with any moment or an era as it’s recorded or represented through a particular art form. To sit back and think of different work of art as old and irrelevant robs you of an infinite amount of opportunities for you to experience parts of history through an artist’s lens, today.

All you gotta do is change your attitude when it comes to looking at art and “Crank dat Harry Carpenter”

Look at it, Think about it, Engage with it. 

”I would like to say that you are not as dumb as you look, Harry” – Muhammad Ali

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