Art Historian Sarah Lewis Explains How Art Can Change Society

Sarah Lewis author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery argues that creative work can be just as important to bringing about social change as any other form of activism.

Watch her words below:

Lewis explains:

Writing about the arts, curating work--it's 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 Douglass 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. Pictures, he said, and the thought pictures they create in the mind are the ways that we can slip in the back door of our rational thought and see the world differently. I love that. His speech was called "Pictures in Progress" and then he retitled it "Life Pictures." As I came across this 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 8, and we saw that our world was 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 had not 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 that man's horn, and if there's genius in that black man then segregation must be wrong." And to know in that moment that he was walking toward justice, as he put it when he describes what got him to be on the Brown versus Board case. There's so many examples where really aesthetic force more than rational argument alone has been what shifted and turned the tide in the face of massive in justice. So I think of the arts as far more than a just a respite from life and 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.

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or


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