Art Changes Us

Ai Weiwei. Kara Walker. Pussy Riot. Guerrilla Girls. Orwell. Art has long been an empowering outlet for speaking out against injustices. Politics aside, just the simple act of enjoying another human being’s artistic powers can make us experience our shared humanity, and change us. Art is a transcendent force.


During the Civil War, the great statesman Frederick Douglass championed the power of art in his speech “Pictures and Progress,” presenting the groundbreaking idea that pictures, not combat, would inspire Americans onto a path of justice.

Sarah Lewis, bestselling author and art historian, came into Big Think’s studio to discuss her book The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery. In it, she discusses the many ways creativity brings us closer to ourselves, and why failure is an important and beneficial part of this process. Lewis told Big Think that she gets inspiration for her work from how art impacts us and can change the world.

“There’s so many examples where really aesthetic force, more than rational argument alone, has been what has shifted and turned the tide in the face of massive injustice,” she says. “So I think of the arts as far more than just a respite from life, a kind of a luxury. I see it as a galvanic force really that undergirds some of our most impactful changes and movements in this country and in this world.”

As examples, Lewis points to how the earth rise image taken by Apollo VIII helped launch the environmental movement, and how lawyer Charles Black joined the case Brown versus the Board of Education after listening to Louis Armstrong perform.

Lewis explains: “Think about the way that Brown versus the Board of Education would not have had Charles Black there, that constitutional lawyer, if he hadn’t seen Louis Armstrong perform that night in 1931 in Austin, Texas.  And in that moment say to himself, well there is genius coming out of this man’s horn.  And if there’s genius in this black man then segregation must be wrong.”

For more on Lewis’s insights into why art matters, watch this clip from Big Think’s interview:

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