How Art Can Change Society, with Sarah Lewis

How Art Can Change Society, with Sarah Lewis


One of the reasons that I love writing about
the arts, you know, 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, you
know. Frederick Douglas during the Civil War surprised his audience when he spoke about
this idea, you know. 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, you know. 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, you know. The environmental movement really catalyzed
and began when we saw that earth rise image, you know, 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, you know. There’s so many examples where really aesthetic force more
than rational argument alone has been what has shifted and turned the tide, you know,
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.

45 thoughts on “How Art Can Change Society, with Sarah Lewis

  1. This is what I've been saying for a long time. Art is very important to humans and all our different societies.

  2. As an artist and philosopher, I very much agree with Sarah.

    Also, this woman is so beautiful that I had some serious difficulty concentrating.

  3. You can't forget though that art has both a positive and negative influence in changing the world. If you take the documentary "The Act of Killing" , creators of this documentary had former Indonesian death-squad leaders reenact their killings in their OWN movies. As you watch this doc you learn that these death-squad leaders looooved big Hollywood films that really influenced them to be just like the guys they see in the movies. And it was only in his old age, reenacting the fear of the people he killed, did one of the death squad leaders start vomiting and coming to the realization of what he had done. This situation is something that seems to have come full circle, from art giving these leaders the inspiration to go kill to art giving them the inspiration to learn what atrocities they committed.

  4. I completely understand and agree with what she's saying. Apart from when she said 'Lewis' Armstrong.

  5. Lovely, interesting sentiment very well conveyed. However, I can't help but get a bit distracted by people with those kind of verbal pseudo-ticks like "you know"

  6. It's not the first time this thought has come to me. In our country, the conservative government want to cut the arts, to keep the arts minimised, and I always considered this to be an effort to destroy societies will, to prevent them from having power. It is far too important to be marginalised.

  7. Think about it, we are humans, a family. A huge, fucking family capable of being conscious. And with that, comes a crazy idea of art. Comprehending pretty much things irrelevant to us. And yet, it creates so fucking many ideas and thoughts…
    Life IS fucking astounding. I mean, holy shit, suddenly words feel so childish and incomplete…

  8. When she first said "..you know.." with her calm voice that tranquilizes me in a way that I don't know why I am hearing this for the third time while eating my meal and my plate is clean already.

  9. Interesting. She says art can start movements that effect change. So it seems it helps to have both, the art, and the movement. I think that is because the message, or theme, in most art is subtle, so it goes over the head of most people. Also, one of the most effective components of healthy, or bottom up change, is the feedback loop which could be like a movement in that it is persistent. It is difficult to effect change with an isolated message.

    For example, the most successful films seem to have a subtle message, a protagonist who grows, and lots of conflict. These elements work together to evoke emotion which makes people enjoy the film. People can enjoy the film and miss the theme; however, the emotion may make them more open to a more direct approach later.

    For example, I recently saw a series where an actress did a parody of an utterly self absorbed creepy sex object. The character was possessed, and linked to the devil. Some people enjoyed the entertainment, but a lot of the comments objected to the skit. Why?
    I don't know if my interpretation is correct, but the art seems to be confronting people with the two main steps for personal and societal self destruction, or our dark side. The first step is self absorption. The second step is turning a living being into an object — such as objectifying someone sexually in this skit. Other examples would be cruelty to animals or any kind of abuse, environmental destruction etc. So the skit confronts the audience, but many people miss the point at least in my opinion. So is there another way to confront something bad in society with art that can be understood by more people?

    Well one way might be to get attention with entertainment that touches on a sensitive area but is somewhat light hearted. Then confront the issue in another piece of art that is known to be more effective in getting people to change their opinion because people who watch those media expect to be confronted and they are ready for it. That could include a mini documentary or political commentary. The effect could be like a "one two punch" in that the jab (entertaining story) gets the attention, and the hard hitting argument comes next (the cross or power punch).
    If it works then just keep "fighting" and you have a movement.

    That is my personal interest although if no one else is interested in that I will do what I can on my own.

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