What are the Humanities?


Wave, photo by Joanne Carrubba

Again, we are posing a big, complicated question here. What are the Humanities? Why are they important? As Humanities classes are taught in most colleges and universities, the focus is on the visual, literary, and performing arts. But, if one were to look at the definition of the term, history, philosophy, and language could be added to that list. So, why the disparity? I suppose one answer to this is that it is easier to focus in a semester or quarter-long course on a narrower definition. Another may be that the visual, literary, and performing arts inform and explain the rest of the Humanities.

Within our study of these arts, we can learn about process, technique, and the cultures that produced them. The arts, not matter what type, are a means by which to study about ourselves, our past, and our culture. Within this study, we critique the arts. We become critics, stating what we like and do not like; what we think is pleasing to our eyes, ears, etc; and how we want to interact with art in all of its forms. Why then, do we often choose to call certain “experts” critics? In truth, we are all critics of the arts, and, with some knowledge of them, our critique can become sharper.

Contemporary art is also rife with questions about what makes something art, with the proliferation of installation art and street art. Many artists use these types of art making to highlight political issues, bring attention to the needs of minority communities, or poke fun at something. Contemporary artists often also use materials not previously associated with art making, creating work from food or recycled materials. The divisions that had long been held as solid between what was “fine art” and what was “popular culture” are blurring more and more with the rise of social media, and sites like Instagram and Flickr.

Art is, and can be, many things to many people. One of the things to remember is the importance of keeping an open mind as you learn about and explore art and the Humanities.

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