Art and/or Humanities: What’s the difference?

For many of us, the arts and the humanities go hand-in-hand. Our experiences in both life and in our work illustrate how the things we call The Arts (like theater, dance, music, and visual art forms) are influenced by, and intertwined with, the the things we call The Humanities (like history, philosophy, literature and folklore). And vice versa. 
Is it sometimes helpful to tease apart the differences? Is it meaningful to articulate the differing methods each employs, in order to better appreciate what each brings to the human experience? 
For example, over many years consulting with people interested in applying for grant money from the WHC, I found myself building fences around The Arts and The Humanities, then explaining where the openings could be found and best accessed. When I keep it simple, I say that The Arts are the doing part; The Humanities are the talking about it.
This feels particularly useful when the goal is to make the mission of the Wisconsin Humanities Council’s grant program understood. However, all of us on staff concede that, happily, nothing in the real world is so black-and-white. The strongest community driven projects are generally those that do not try to build fences of any kind.
For us, this topic is extremely relevant because of our unique mission and a unique role in the state.  So relevant that our current issue of ON is dedicated to Art, with a focus on some WHC-funded projects that demonstrate how The Arts and The Humanities support each other, walk the fence line together, and intermingle naturally.
How relevant is it in the work that you do? We have opened up the conversation by asking some people whose work in the state often lives in the grey area between The Arts and The Humanities. We hope that by hearing the complexity of the responses from these cultural professionals, we all learn a bit more about how The Arts and The Humanities engage us in meaningful ways, and how they are essential to our existence.
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In your work, how do you see the connection, or overlap, between the arts and the humanities? When or why do you ever find it useful to make distinctions between them?

“Art and the humanities go hand in hand. Art illustrates the humanities, while the humanities translate and interpret the illustration.” -Walter Sava
Walter Sava has led a number of community service organizations, including La Casa de Esperanza, Centro de la Comunidad Unida, and Latino Arts, Inc. and is a Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters Fellow, as well as a member of the WHC board.
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“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

Kimberly Blaeser is the 2015-2016 Wisconsin Poet Laureate. She is the author of three acclaimed poetry collections and works as Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where she teaches Creative Writing, Native American Literature, and American Nature Writing.

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“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
Portia Cobb is Associate Professor, Film, Video, Animation and New Genres at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is also a former member of the WHC Board and recently worked with Arts@Large to produce a documentary film called “Milwaukee Freedom Summer Pilgrimage, 2014.” 
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“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                                            
Carol Amour is the Community Outreach and Special Projects Coordinator for the Lac du Flambeau Tribe and she works to bring generations together to share and celebrate traditional arts.
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“In my work, the arts and humanities are deeply connected because Wisconsin Life seeks to not only show what our state’s residents create but also to ask why they do it and what it means to them in the stories we tell. It’s that association – between the doing and the talking – where we discover what it means to be human, and particularly for me, a human in Wisconsin.” -Erika Janik 
Erika Janik is an historian, freelance writer, and radio producer for Wisconsin Life, which celebrates the rich stories of Wisconsin on both Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television.
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“The arts and humanities are complementary practices that exist in a shared space and that do the work of making sense of human experiences.  In my work programming public education in music and dance, I want to offer participants as rich an experience as possible, and I think of arts techniques and humanistic inquiry as two mutually informing tools to do that. For example, one class may teach blues guitar chords while another may teach the history of the genre. Ideally a curious student gets some of both, and each one draws on and feeds into shared culture.” -Jessica Coutier
 Jessica Courtier is the Program Director in Music and Performing Arts at UW-Madison Division of Continuing Studies.
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“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
Jason Smith is the editor of Wisconsin People and Ideas Magazine and communications director for 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.
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“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

David Shih is a professor in the English department at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, holds a PhD in Creative Writing, and blogs about racism at


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“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
Ron Scot Fry has been the Artistic Director of Milwaukee’s Optimist Theater for over 20 years and produces a one-man show called “Shakespeare Here and Now” in schools and libraries around Wisconsin.

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Keep Reading…the latest issue of ON: Art here.

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One Response

  1. Thank you for tackling this tough delineation. I have been involved in conversations regarding art vs. craft, but this is a new consideration for me.

    The Wisconsin Humanities Council kindly funded “Alash Ensemble in Concert” last March. It was exceedingly well received! The reason I chose the Humanities Council rather than the Arts Board for my funding request was because the request was for a concert that was more than a concert. I knew Sean Quirk (band manager and interpreter) to give an excellent interpretation during performances- not only linguistically, but culturally as well. Attendees went away from the event not only with beautiful music having aroused their spirit (Art), but also with a deeper understanding of Tuvan culture and language – and the connection between a sense of place – Siberia- giving form and meaning to musical expression. Likewise, on the following day, when the band visited Mt. Horeb schools, the music students had a full understanding of the connections between three very modern Tuvan men, their heritage, their land, and their culture (Humanities).

    To me, these are the richest types of performance. Concerts are lovely, indeed, but they stand as an object on their own. A concert combined in a multi-conceptual way, where a deeper and fuller understanding is achieved, and where conversations can occur, represent the Humanities succinctly. And I would encourage the Council to consider projects like this on a regular basis. Attendees have a great chance of coming away truly transformed!

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