The Work of Art in the World: A Review of Doris Sommer’s Visit to Lehigh

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Literature & Social Justice / Uncategorized

On November third Doris Sommer visited Lehigh, speaking to a crowd of educators: librarians, teachers, professors, administrators, and students. Harvard professor and founder of Cultural Agents, Sommer believes in the power of public humanities to make change in the world. At a time when funding for the humanities is being cut across Universities and secondary education systems, Doris promotes beauty, pleasure and art as solutions to public problems. She speaks to me, a masters student who believes in the ability of literature to change the world. None of us would be drawn to Lehigh if we didn’t share the impulse to direct beauty and pleasure into social justice.


As in The Work of Art in the World, Sommer began her talk with the success story of Antanas Mockus and the revival of Bogota, Colombia under his mayorship. Mockus utilized creative methods that encouraged citizens to change their behavior. Mockus began by firing corrupt traffic cops and replacing them with mimes. While the mimes had no legal authority, they used stop lights and crosswalks as props for performance, playfully mocking those who ignored the rules. I watched a video clip in awe of the human response, amazed by the ability of joy to unite a community. In a 2015 article for the New Yorker Mockus wrote, “People respond to humor and playfulness from politicians. It’s the most powerful tool for change we have.”

Sommer focuses largely on beauty as a mode of encouraging change. I believe that literature in the hands of community members has the power to generate empathy, and in turn, change. To emphasize this point Sommer draws on Edi Rama, current prime minister of Albania who utilized color to encourage pride in place and thus promoting citizenship. In a 2012 TedTalk Rama declared, “admiration is the basis of citizenship.” In a beautiful and colorful city people drop less litter and demonstrate more patriotism.

While Sommer spoke about the beautification of cities, I branched toward the power of literature to inspire a different kind of admiration. When people appreciate the beauty of the city, they want to maintain that beauty. When people understand and empathize with others, they want to see them live in a better world. In a world of readers, people from across diverse backgrounds matter. How, after reading Langston Hughes “Kids Who Die” can anyone continue to ignore the plight that Black Lives Matter has brought to public attention. Or, how after reading Wiesel’s Night could people continue to deny immigrant groups at our borders.

Both Edi Rama and Antanas Mockus are artists and politicians. It is through unifying these two identities that they were able to make change in their respective governments. Sommer demonstrates that the way artists see conflict as opportunity is a useful method for change that is not presently being tapped into as frequently as it could be. Art allows for imagining change, for visualizing new spaces. Personally, literature has provided an entry to these spaces in my life.

“Civic participation depends on creativity, an (aesthetic) knack for reframing experience, and on a corollary freedom to adjust laws and practices in light of ever-new challenges. Without art, citizenship would shrink to compliance, as if society were a closed text. Reading lessons would stop at the factual “what is,” rather than continue to the speculative “what if” (Sommer, The Work of Art in the World).

Sommer encourages artists and critics (like what many of us are training to be) to imagine the possibilities of change, spaces of opportunity; to ask, what would an artist do? 


The answer for each group of people, location, or situation is different, but from success stories like those in Albania and Bogota, change makers can begin to push the boundaries of typical political thought and find what works for their community. That is where the interpretation of the critic comes in. We can take the art and help to elucidate it’s meaning.

“Art, of course, has no obligation to be constructive, or to be good or bad, ethically speaking. And politically, artists can be progressive, regressive, or in between. Not necessarily useful or useless, art is instead provocative, a bit ungovernable, with a loose cannon kind of energy. It excites many and varied interpretive approaches, which leaves critics free to choose among them” (Sommer, The Work of Art in the World).

Art provides the opportunity for civic agency and such agency is essential for true democracy. Thus, Sommer reminds the crowd that her vision of change via art, beauty and pleasure comes from the community members. It is the education of children that encourages them to identify as artists, and to recognize that through art they can make a difference. Like Mockus realized, governments need to facilitate actions that turn all citizens into critically engaged artists.

To continue the process of change humanists must develop a language about what the humanities can do and use it to promote the arts within communities. Currently, the rhetoric surrounding a promotion of the humanities is about the jobs available to English majors, for example. But, the humanities are about so much more than the jobs they allow for. According to Sommer, “Training free thought is an extension of teaching appreciation for art, along with care for the world that art constructs and enhances. Therefore, interpreting art, appreciating its power to shape the world, can spur and support urgently needed change” (Sommer 3). This, rather than the neoliberal emphasis on jobs, is for me, the true value of the humanities, of the work that we do in the Literature and Social Justice program here at Lehigh.

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