How Art Can Change Society, with Sarah Lewis
Sarah Lewis is a bestselling author and art historian. She has served on President Barack Obama’s Arts Policy Committee, been selected for Oprah’s “Power List,” and is a faculty member at Yale University, School of Art in the MFA program. In the fall of 2014, she will be at Harvard University as a Du Bois Fellow.
Her book, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (2014) is a layered, story-driven investigation of how innovation, discovery, and the creative progress are all spurred on by advantages gleaned from the improbable, the unlikely, even failure. Her second book focused on on Frederick Douglass, photography, and the American Civil War, will be released by Harvard University Press in 2016.
She has held positions at both the Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art. Her essays on contemporary art have been published widely in magazines such as the New Yorker, Artforum and Art in America, and in publications including Rizzoli, the Smithsonian, The Museum of Modern Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem.
She is currently a board member of The Andy Warhol for the Visual Arts, the CUNY Graduate Center, the Harvard Alumni Association, and The Brearley School.
She received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, an M. Phil from Oxford University, and her Ph.D. from Yale University. She lives in New York City.
Sarah Lewis: One of the reasons that I love writing about the arts, curating work is not even so much that you’re able to honor one person’s expression and pay tribute to that. But because of how much it can shift things in us. Frederick Douglas during the Civil War surprised his audience when he spoke about this idea. His idea was that it wouldn’t be combat that would get America to have a new vision of itself but pictures, right. Pictures, he said. And the thought pictures that they create in the mind are the way that we can kind of slip in the back door by rational thought and see the world differently. I love that. His speech was called "Pictures and Progress" and then he retitled it "Life Pictures."
And as I came across his speech I thought this is why I do what I do. How many movements have begun in the world when one person’s work, one song, one impactful aesthetic experience shifted things entirely for a leader, for a group of people. The environmental movement really catalyzed and began when we saw that earth rise image taken from the Apollo VIII. And we saw that our world was in an environment that we needed to honor. Or 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.
And to know in that moment that he was walking towards justice as he put it when he describes what got him to be on the Brown versus Board of Education case. 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. 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.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton
Sarah Lewis, curator and the author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, on art as a galvanic force.
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