In this discussion you will discuss the humanities and contemporary culture and answer the following questions:
How do you think aspects of contemporary culture have influenced the humanities and creative expression?
What do you see as the main value of the human creative expression for contemporary culture?
Is there a connection between human expression and ethical values? Provide examples from artifacts presented in this module.
The Humanities Today
As we have seen in previous modules, the humanities have been a means of expressing contemporary concerns and exploring timeless human questions since the earliest recorded history. It is therefore particularly disturbing to see the humanities under threat in recent years as governments and educational institutions worldwide have cut funding for the arts and have reduced the study of art, music, and other humanities in schools from the elementary to university levels. Politicians and school administrators who have targeted the humanities emphasize the need for fields of study that directly feed economic growth, such as science, technology, and business.
This, in turn, has led to an outcry defending the value of the humanities for our contemporary world. Proponents point out the importance to democracy of having a population exposed to the great ideas of literature and philosophy along with the resulting ability to think critically and interpret information. They promote the value of humanistic artifacts in opening minds to different cultures and perspectives, which is highly important in our increasingly global age. The work of creators in the humanities has also long been a voice for dissent and critique of the status quo, raising objections and opposing social ills, injustice, and tyranny, as we will see further on in this module. And, of course, the appreciation of beauty and enjoyment of artifacts in the humanities are essential in their own right for the well-being of humanity.
Yet, all is not doom and gloom for the humanities today. New artifacts are always being created, and even if the general public may not be aware of the latest developments in the art world or who won the most recent PEN prizes for literature, there is enough widespread evidence that the humanities are still going strong through popular films, television shows, fiction, and music that are critically acclaimed and award winning.
The humanities have further adapted to the contemporary world in order to survive and thrive, particularly by embracing technology. Traditional artifacts like oil painting and marble sculpture are still being produced in the visual arts, but we are also seeing a variety of new media in use, such as 3D-printed sculpture, and digital art and design using software. Computing has impacted the study of disciplines like art, literature, and philosophy; a multitude of projects in the “digital humanities” include putting the collections of art museums online, digitizing old manuscripts and books, and providing virtual tours of historic buildings, which you experienced in Module Five.
Yet, attendance at physical art museums has grown in recent years, and museums are using more personalized, interactive exhibits to draw in visitors. Thus, although science and the humanities are often considered to be opposites, the humanities have embraced the latest trends in technology in a way that shows how creative expression reflects the developments of the culture in which it is created.
Humanities and Ethics
As humans developed complex systems of speech and writing, among the first documents to emerge were codes of ethics, often associated with religious teachings or legal protocols. Ethical principles arose from the creation of artifacts in earliest times. The cave paintings of Lascaux not only expressed people’s yearning for success in the hunt and tribute to a higher power, but also led to the establishment of ethical precepts, such as the treatment of hunters toward each other, their tribe, and their prey.
In recent times, the news media have reported great ethical lapses in the world of commerce. These have included the Enron business scandal in the United States, a case in China in which bad milk was sold and poisoned infants, and recent shortcuts by the auto industry around the world that resulted in accidents and death (Toyota, General Motors, Takata airbags). Many scholars think that these tragedies could have been avoided if business leaders had studied practical ethics, a foundation discipline within the humanities, as part of their business education.
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, new issues have emerged demanding close ethical understanding and review. For example, ethicists are now debating whether or not surrogacy pregnancy, the process whereby a woman will bring a couple’s child to full term for pay or as a volunteer, is an ethical practice. Others discuss whether a whistleblower who leaks government secrets is helping society (ethical) or exposing millions of people to danger (unethical).
The arts continue to play a significant role in underscoring the importance of ethical review and practice. Woody Guthrie helped change working conditions for agricultural workers through his work songs in the 1940s and 1950s. Frederick Douglass advanced the ethics of racial equality in his autobiography published in 1845. The ethical implications of the oppression of women was a theme in works such as The Awakening by the nineteenth-century American writer Kate Chopin. These and other artifacts sought to stimulate debate about ethical issues and led to reform.
The humanities discipline known as ethics gains in power and efficacy when it is embodied in artifacts such as literature, art, and music.
Humanities and Gender
Since the earliest days of recorded history, gender and sexual orientation have determined people’s destiny. Most cultures evolved under the values and leadership of heterosexual males. While many of these societies have thrived, all of them did so at the expense of those who were different from the ruling class.
Women and people with different sexual orientations or gender identities turned to the humanities for self-expression, to better understand themselves and others like them, and to create a world that is more inclusive and accepting.
Women have made their presence known as thinkers, creators, and leaders even in ancient civilizations. While they were treated like property by the governing males of ancient Greece, their strong personalities emerged even in literature written exclusively by men. Some 200 years after the female poet Sappho wrote legendary lyrics from the Isle of Lesbos, the great Greek tragedians were writing and staging works about powerful women, including Antigone, Medea, and the Trojan women. The art of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome is filled with images of women in a variety of roles that they may or may not have actually held in sexist societies. From those days through the present, women continue to use art, literature, philosophy, and music to establish their identity and seek pathways to justice and equality.
LGBT members of society also needed to find alternative means to assert their identity and follow their own truth. LGBT individuals sometimes were (and in some societies still are) subjected to persecution and even death for simply declaring their own self-identity.
Persecution has followed people who are homosexual or bisexual, those who transition from the gender assigned to them at birth, and those of other sex and gender-related experiences (intersex individuals and those who reject conforming to gender binary systems). The humanities have provided tools for these individuals to establish who they are, bond with others, share their stories with the majority culture, and gain positions of strength and influence. The Stonewall riots of 1969 in Greenwich Village in New York City led to more confidence and openness in New York’s gay community, while the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s triggered an explosion of art and drama, such as Angels in America.
Today, news media cover marriage equality and other gender-related issues, and women and LGBT members have excelled in the political arena and even religious leadership. While some think societies worldwide still have far to go with gender issues, most would agree that the humanities have both encouraged progress and given the world more thought-provoking works of art and philosophy to ponder and enjoy.
Humanities and Race
Until the last few decades, the humanities in the West have been biased in favor of studying artifacts made by white males at the expense of considering the contributions of creators from other races or ethnicities. This usually meant excluding from study the creative expression of individuals from ethnic minority groups within Europe and North America, such as those of African, Asian, Latino, or Native American descent. The ultimate result was that works by non-white creators in the humanities remained largely unknown or were considered inferior to those created by whites. This behavior reflected racist attitudes in the cultures of the time.
Today, there is a strong movement to recover the humanistic artifacts of ethnic minorities within Western cultures and give them equal attention. Examples might include Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in high school English curriculums, a television series on the history of the blues, or an exhibition of Renaissance paintings that depicted the African presence in Europe. Part of the power of the humanities is their ability to expose us to a range of other perspectives and cultures. These can include the artifacts of other times or places, like the sculptures of ancient Rome or haiku poetry of Japan, but they should also include the creative expression of the different minority races and ethnicities that make up a given culture. This approach most fully captures the diversity of the human experience in the true spirit of the humanities. Some examples might be the novel The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, which documents the experience of growing up as a Mexican American woman, or Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, which relates the lives of first-generation Chinese American daughters. On one hand, a more inclusive vision of the humanities enables us to learn about the unique concerns of individual ethnic groups. On the other hand, creators in the humanities are never limited to presenting only their ethnic experience; seeing the “big questions” and timeless themes like love, justice, and heroism in artifacts produced by all ethnicities allows us to understand that we have a shared human experience that transcends racial distinction.
From the perspective of those who make artifacts rather than those who experience them, creative expression can be a powerful tool to voice the need for social change, which you saw in Module Three as one of the motives that can inspire creators in the humanities. This includes battling racial stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination through art and literature created not just by members of oppressed minority groups themselves but by advocates of fairness, justice, and equality regardless of race. Thus, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a white Southern novelist, and the works of black poet Langston Hughes both had a powerful impact in promoting the civil rights movement in America. Now, in the twenty-first century, as the United States becomes increasingly multicultural and still wrestles with matters of race, the humanities will certainly continue to play an integral part in the discussion.
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