How Art Can Change Society, with Sarah Lewis

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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