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31 days of ideas
Titus Kaphar

Can art amend history?

Recommended by Kate Marvel

I'm a scientist, and this makes me a storyteller. It's a big universe out there, and it's not enough to just describe it. We need stories, too: narrative threads to tie together the different parts of the world. A story that seems to fit well enough becomes a theory, and scientific theories are powerful enough to explain the past and tell the future. That's as close to magic as we’ll ever get.

But stories can be dangerous, especially when they aren’t true. Science has told so many stupid and harmful stories in its history: flat Earth, black and yellow bile, eugenics. And scientists disproportionately come from the smallest, luckiest section of society. How can we understand the world if there's so much of it we can't or won't see?

That's why I love Titus Kaphar's TED Talk, "Can art amend history?" Nine minutes in, he tells us something shameful about the 17th-century Frans Hals painting at the center of his talk: we know more about the lace on the white woman's dress than the life of the person next to her. I think -- and you probably do, too -- that people make better characters than fabrics. And yet we've missed out on this story until now. Titus reminds me that we need to look harder, listen better and seek out the forgotten characters. Science, history, art: these are all built on a heap of old stories. We can't forget them, but we can learn from them, and together we can move toward something more true.

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