When Congress established the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities as sister agencies over twenty years ago, the legislation raised questions whose answers remain confusing to this day. Most people are pretty sure they could define “arts,” but they feel less certain about the “humanities.” And if they don’t know the humanities, do they need them or want to support them with public dollars?
The recent Ken Bums documentary on the Civil War is probably the best known, recent project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. History, by clear consensus, is a basic humanities discipline. However, the boundaries between the humanities and the arts become less distinct when we consider history as more than dates for the Magna Carta or the Norman Conquest, and think in terms of the history of art or the history of ideas.
The humanities focus on the analysis and the interpretation of ideas and art — a rich blend that forms the basis for cultural education. Teaching about the history of art and ideas requires more than finding out objective facts or speculating about an artist’s intention. Though assembling dates or reading letters and diaries about an artist’s intention can be interesting to scholars, such views are always conjectural and ultimately not very interesting to many museum visitors.
My initial reaction to works of art is speechlessness, because for a time my heart and mind are out of synch. Art forces a recognition of some new organizing principle that takes time to comprehend. Like a computer reorganizing data, I need an opportunity to recalculate my own experience in view of the new artistic vision. Then, I try to comprehend the experience rationally: for me, this links the arts and the humanities.
Often issues bound to art are political —not in the sense of attitudes toward a single ephemeral event, but in the sense of the macro-nature of our world.
Shakespeare, for example, presents as many dysfunctional families as one would ever want to meet. Think of Lear, the aging parent who wants reassurances that his daughters love him and discovers the folly of counting on those who praise him. Romeo and Juliet, written about 400 years ago, examines gang violence, family feuds, and teenage sex and suicide in the context of an urban government that fails to protect its citizens. These are problems that continue to trouble us.
J.M.W. Turner’s painting. The European Vision ofAmerica, is more than an aesthetic re-creation of a dramatic storm and the action of a ship’s captain and crew, who throw African slaves overboard to lighten the load and save their own lives. Turner makes us feel the terror of the storm at sea and the horror of the crew’s actions. In the presence of the storm, the captain and crew treat the Africans as cargo, rather than as people, and reveal themselves as less than human, even as they deny the humanity of the slaves.
The humanities exclude the creation or performance of art or the sponsorship of art exhibitions. The ability to express creatively through art is exclusively the purview of the arts. Through the humanities, however, we analyze and interpret how art comments upon and affects our lives. Sometimes that means that organizations like the National Endowment for the Humanities or the state humanities councils sponsor exhibitions, like Seeds of Change . This sesquicentennial project, developed in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution, was about the cultural encounter between Columbus and the indigenous people he and his crew encountered.
The conversations resulting from the debate in 1992 over the benefits and losses from this meeting vary greatly from the celebration in 1892 at Chicago’s Colombian Exposition. Last year’s debate showed how Europe benefited from the New World’s gifts of foods, like potatoes, com, and tomatoes. The debate also forced people to consider the negative results, such as the introduction of new diseases to native people without immunities. The discussions about responsibility, even for unintended actions, matter in how we define ethical action. This type of philosophical question reflects the essence of the humanities.
While museums (art, natural history, gardens) do not always find common ground with the humanities, we share a common mandate for public cultural education. We want people to know more about the world. Finding ways to talk — to analyze and to interpret experience — elevates the level of public discourse and helps us build communities.
Every state has a state humanities council. For the telephone number and address of an individual council, the best resource is the Federation of State Humanities Councils at (703) 908-9700. Each state council has its own guidelines, deadlines, and initiatives.
Though NEH or state councils may not be able to fund the entirety of a project for a museum or other cultural organization, they may fund lectures by art historians or educational publications with essays on aesthetic principles or the theoretical development of art, natural history, or science. Such funds free other money to support an art exhibition or workshop on creating art, designing gardens, or the physics of soap bubbles. Given the current budget problems of local, regional, and national organizations, increased cooperation lies in all of our best interests. What we may not be able to do separately, we may be able to do together.
Kathryn Mettelka currently serves as the Associate Director of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. She did her undergraduate work at Duke University. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in English from the University of Michigan. Later, she returned to school to study administration and became a C.P.A.
Mettelka, Kathryn. “Cultural Education,” The Docent Educator 3.1(Autumn 1993): 13.
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