How artists change the world

As usual, there were a ton of artists and musicians at the Republican and Democratic Party political conventions this year. And that raises some questions. How much should artists get involved in politics? How can artists best promote social change?

One person who serves as a model here was not an artist but understood how to use a new art form. Frederick Douglass made himself the most photographed American of the 19th century, which is kind of amazing. He sat for 160 separate photographs (George Custer sat for 155 and Abraham Lincoln for 126). He also wrote four lectures on photography.

Douglass used his portraits to change the way viewers saw black people. Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr of Harvard points out that one of Douglass' favourite rhetorical tropes was the chiasmus: The use of two clauses in a sentence in reversed order to create an inverse parallel.

For example, Douglass wrote, "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man." And that's what Douglass did with his portraits. He took contemporary stereotypes of African-Americans - that they are inferior, unlettered, comic and dependent - and turned them upside down.

Douglass posed for his portraits very carefully and in ways that evolved over the years. You can see the progression of Douglass portraits in a new book called "Picturing Frederick Douglass," curated by Professors John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier.

Douglass was combating a set of generalised stereotypes by showing the specific humanity of one black man. (The early cameras produced photographs with great depth of field, revealing each pore, hair and blemish.) Most of all, he was using art to reteach people how to see.

In almost all the photographs, Douglass is formally dressed, in a black coat, vest, stiff formal collar and bow tie. He is a dignified and highly cultured member of respectable society. But within that bourgeois frame there is immense personal force. Douglass once wrote: "A man without force is without the essential dignity of humanity." Douglass' strong features project relentless determination and lion-like pride. In some early portraits, starting when he was around age 23, his fists are clenched.

In some of the pre-Civil War photos, he stares directly into the camera lens, unusual for the time. And then there was his majestic wrath. In 1847, he told a British audience that when he was a slave, he had "been punished and beaten more for (my) looks than for anything else - for looking dissatisfied because (I) felt dissatisfied." Douglass brought that look of radical dissatisfaction to the studio. When he was a young man, his stares were at once piercing, suspicious and solemn. As he got older, his face took on a deeper wisdom and sadness while losing none of his mountainous solemnity. He was combining moral depth and great learning.

Douglass was combating a set of generalised stereotypes by showing the specific humanity of one black man. (The early cameras produced photographs with great depth of field, revealing each pore, hair and blemish.) Most of all, he was using art to reteach people how to see.

We are often under the illusion that seeing is a very simple thing. You see something, which is taking information in, and then you evaluate, which is the hard part. But in fact, perception and evaluation are the same thing. We carry around unconscious mental maps, built by nature and experience, that organise how we scan the world and how we instantly interpret and order what we see.

With these portraits, Douglass was redrawing people's unconscious mental maps. He was erasing old associations about blackness and replacing them with new ones. As Prof Gates writes, he was taking an institution like slavery, which had seemed to many so inevitable, and leading people to perceive it as arbitrary. He was creating a new ideal of a just society and a fully alive black citizen, and therefore making his current reality look different in the light of that ideal.

"Poets, prophets and reformers are all picture makers - and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements," Douglass wrote. This is where artists make their mark, by implanting pictures in the underwater processing that is upstream from conscious cognition. Those pictures assign weights and values to what the eyes take in.

I never understand why artists want to get involved in partisanship and legislation. The real power lies in the ability to recode the mental maps people project onto the world.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 21, 2016, with the headline 'How artists change the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe