Arts and the Humanities

As humans, our brains are wired for creativity, curiosity and contemplation. Artistic and humanistic pursuits come naturally and are part of all of our lives.


Q. Why do we make a distinction between 'the arts' and 'the humanities?'
A. In the 1960s the U.S. Congress established the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Wisconsin Humanities was founded in 1972 as an independent affiliate of the NEH. As such, we use the NEH definition of the humanities for our grant program.

In classic terms, 'the humanities' are academic disciplines that study aspects of human society and culture. A list of subjects considered 'the humanities' is varied, but what they share are critical, or speculative, methods of inquiry. They are grounded in historical perspective and seek to enlarge our understanding.

“The humanities” include archaeology, art history, cultural anthropology, ethics, ethnic studies, folklore, gender studies, history, jurisprudence, languages, law, linguistics, philosophy, and religious studies. Social sciences, such as political science and sociology, are also often part of the humanities.

It’s easiest to understand the distinction if you think of the arts as focusing on your aesthetic experience of an artwork—a painting, a dance, a text, a theatrical performance. The humanities ask us to dig in and reflect, to critique, to contextualize those artworks. The arts can be a powerful tool for a humanities program if they are used to help us understand or express a human experience, for example the Civil War or a social problem.

“The humanities” include archaeology, art history, cultural anthropology, ethics, ethnic studies, folklore, gender studies, history, jurisprudence, languages, law, linguistics, philosophy, and religious studies. Social sciences, such as political science and sociology, are also often part of the humanities.

The arts and humanities go hand-in-hand!

We can build walls around 'the arts' and 'the humanities,' however nothing in the real world is so black-and-white. When it comes to our mission, to strengthen our democracy through educational and cultural programs that build connections and understanding among people of all backgrounds and beliefs throughout the state, we are more interested in breaking down walls than building them.

The things we call 'the arts' (like theater, dance, music, and visual art forms) are intertwined with, and often influenced by, the things we call 'the humanities.'

To keep it simple, we sometimes say that 'the arts' are the doing part; 'the humanities are talking about it.' This can be particularly useful for understanding our grant program guidelines.


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In the real world, what does this all mean?

At the root of what I do as a filmmaker is education. I explore the space where a story or issue connects with the background of a viewer. In a similar way, the documentary filmmaking process flourishes at the intersection of arts and humanities. The human stories I share are personal, yet are grounded in historical and social contexts. Filmmaking can bring these elements together and when there is a point of engagement, then a story, a culture, or an issue becomes relevant to the viewer.

FINN RYAN is a director and producer who directs Ogichidaa Storytellers, a series of short films focused on Lake Superior Ojibwe treaty rights funded in part with WH grant funds. Other media works include We Are Healers, videos to inspire Native youth to become health professionals, The Ways, a multi-media project about language and culture from Native communities around the central Great Lakes, and Climate Wisconsin, multi-media stories and interactive data on climate change impacts.

Arts always speak to the human experience through the creation of a tangible, sensory output. The human experience always demands acknowledgement. To see art or the creation of it is to participate in the experience of being human. The humanities call us to bear witness to the process of questioning, and to learning how to ask better, deeper, more careful questions. By questing in this way, we try to reshape our experiences of living and being in relationship to a living world. We work on ourselves, in the end, as artworks.

In my view, the two are simply two different ways of approaching the same deep and enduring questions. What makes life meaningful? How do we appreciate our uniqueness and diversity? What makes life joyful? What makes it fair? What creates healing in the creator/questioner and in the witness to the creation/question?

RACHEL MONACO-WILCOX is an artist, lawyer, teacher, and consultant. Much of her work has served marginalized and exploited people (elders, those with special needs, and victims of labor trafficking, sexual exploitation or assault). Merging the power of humanities, including art and poetry, with legal and social justice has been her unique professional niche. She founded LOTUS Legal Clinic

In my life, cross-pollination defines the relationship between the arts and humanities. They work in tandem, one feeds the other. The harder question is the chicken and egg dilemma. As we engage in the making or appreciation of art, we employ the reflection, the ideas and understanding we think of as the humanities. Does contemplation of experiential culture(s) lead to the expression of vision in the arts? Or does the intuitive creation of beauty through art lead to thoughtful or “studied” exploration of human experience?

In my own practice as artist and humanities scholar, the two are mutually supportive and invariably intersect. I consciously pry them apart sometimes when I ask students to first study and analyze the work of a writer and then try their own hand at the creative act. But even then, they do neither in a void. Maybe the arts and humanities are like Donne’s compass legs, always creating the circle together.

KIMBERLY BLAESER was the 2015–2016 Wisconsin Poet Laureate. She is the author of acclaimed poetry collections and Professor Emerita of English at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. An Indigenous activist and environmentalist who grew up on White Earth Reservation, Blaeser is an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

In making documentary films, my work by practice must overlap with the humanities. My work begins with research of social histories and involves elements of oral history. It is informed by or understood via the lens of the humanities. And like most who work across genres, I am always learning through dialogue with humanists how to show connection, belonging-ness, and credibility so that the subject attracts the support and respect it deserves. I find that if I describe my work as conceptual or experimental, it seems to imply that it is too revisionist to be believed. I see the separation [between the arts and the humanities] only when my work becomes less conventional, more literary.

PORTIA COBB is a former member of the WH Board and worked with Arts@Large to produce a documentary film called "Milwaukee Freedom Summer Pilgrimage, 2014.” She is an Associate Professor of film at Peck School of the Arts at UW-Milwaukee and is a video artist and producer. Her videos and installations have been exhibited nationally and internationally. Although trained as a filmmaker, she began using video because of its accessibility and immediacy in the field. Her work often investigates the politics of place and identity.

The beautiful wigwassi jiiman (birchbark canoe) that Ojibwe artist Wayne Valliere created with ENVISION students from Lac du Flambeau represents art. The lessons we learn from looking at and talking about the through-line of centuries of Ojibwe culture that the canoe represents and how tradition can carry culture, represents the humanities.

CAROL AMOUR is a former teacher at the Lac du Flambeau School and former Curriculum Director at the Indian Community School in Milwaukee. As Community Outreach and Special Projects Coordinator for the Lac du Flambeau Tribe, she was instrumental is starting the ENVISION program, which brings generations together to share and celebrate traditional arts, language and culture. She has HELPED TO PRODUCE STORIES FROM PEOPLE LIVING ON AND NEAR THE LAC DU FLAMBEAU RESERVATION as a freelanceR with Love Wisconsin.

As an editor, I tend to think of the humanities in literal terms; that is, humanities as the intellectual and physical pursuit of the essential elements that make us human. Visual and performing arts reflect these essential elements, as do literature, history, and the applied and theoretical sciences.

Where I work, at the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters, we explore the intersections between the disciplines, those “hot spots” in between them where friction leads to the conflagration of ideas. But these ideas are only useful if applied to the betterment and understanding of life. It is in this application that the humanities are found.

JASON SMITH is Administrative Project Manager at PBS Wisconsin. He is the former editor of Wisconsin People and Ideas Magazine, a quarterly print/online magazine of contemporary Wisconsin thought and culture from the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to exploring the issues, ideas, and people that shape Wisconsin thought and culture.

Years ago, I was reviewing a job application for a position in our English department, and I was struck by how the applicant described why teaching in the humanities was important to him. He wrote that humanities education is important because we must understand how forces in the world seek to dehumanize us.

As an English professor, I focus on how language has developed to define and confine our humanity in a fashion that often escapes our awareness. The arts expand the possibilities for our humanity, expand our consciousness in so many directions, but for me their deep value is in how they inspire new ways of perceiving relationships. These are the connections that are unimagined or impossible or undesirable because of how meanings become dominant in society, a kind of mental shorthand for making sense of the world. The arts raise us from the grooves of those facile meanings and believe in our potential as human beings for more and for better.

DAVID SHIH is a professor in the English department at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he serves on its Hmong Studies Steering Committee and was appointed Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity Fellow. He blogs on race and racism at his personal website as well as at Stanford University's digital humanities salon, "Arcade."

The arts are part of the humanities. The humanities are part of the arts. They are mixed, mingled, and gloriously interdependent. The historian who creates a turn of phrase that perfectly captures our relationship to our past is an artist. The actor who sits in a bar after a show and dissects the audience’s reaction to the performance is a humanist. I don’t know how useful it is to draw a distinction between the two, but I do know that it is essential to celebrate both.

RON SCOT FRY is the founding Artistic Director of Milwaukee's Optimist Theater, where he directed "The Tempest" for Milwaukee’s first free Shakespeare in the Park. He produces a one-man show called "Shakespeare Here and Now" in schools and libraries around Wisconsin, for which he has received WHC grants. He is also a college professor, a writer, artist and performer.