keynote review | January 23, 2011

Jeff Chang Speaks at Sundance: "Cultural Change Always Precedes Political Change."

At the Sundance Festival last week, Jeff Chang (Cant’ Stop Won’t Stop) led a rousing panel on social and political change that included, among others, Harry Belafonte and filmmaker Michael Moore. By way of an intro, Jeff said, “As artists, we ask ourselves, what can art do? What can film do? What can culture do to change the country and change the world?” At this point, he flashed a picture of an enormous Tahitian wave onto the screen. He asked the audience to think of change as being like this wave — continually moving and shaped by unseen forces. “When people talk about change,” he said, “they often only focus on politics, on events,” such as an election or the signing of legislation. But change is not about discrete political events. It’s an ongoing cultural process.

Jeff then returned to the analogy of the wave: think of culture as water. It may be soft, but it covers 70% of the earth. Culture is where people express values. It’s where they form identities and disseminate new ideas. Politics may be where some of the people are some of the time, but culture is where most of the people are most of the time. Culture is all around us. It’s the Ocean — and we need to go deep. Yet we too often overlook it.

The panel that Jeff segued into went some way in righting this situation — in highlighting the value of cultural modes as a means of change. Jeff concluded, in full-on provocation mode, with this thought:  “Cultural change always precedes political change.”

Jeff Chang is a radical social historian, an influential arts advocate, a bestselling author, and a Lavin speaker. He is presently writing an eagerly-anticipated book, Who We Be, a history of multiculturalism in America.

(You can view Jeff Chang’s Sundance panel here. You have to scroll over the main video, and then choose the video featuring Harry Belafonte’s head. Really.)

Read more about keynote speaker Jeff Chang