Processes of study in the arts and humanities
Processes of study in the arts and humanities

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Processes of study in the arts and humanities

1.2 Different arts and humanities subjects

If studying the arts and humanities helps us understand our culture so that we can live together more meaningfully, then why do we study particular subjects or ‘disciplines’ in our universities? You may be studying a single discipline: a language (ancient or modern), history, art, music, literature, film, law, religion, philosophy – and so forth; or some subjects combined, in multi- or inter-disciplinary studies. Why not the arts and humanities in general?

It is partly because our cultural experience is very broad. If we want to study a culture, rather than just experience it, we have to make it manageable. We have to analyse it, or break it down into parts: making distinctions between the different kinds of experience we have – such as reading an account of the Roman Empire, watching a play, listening to the charts. By ‘isolating’ these things, and naming them (History, Literature, Music), we can see more clearly just what it is we are looking at and come to understand it better. We also make these distinctions because cultural experiences such as these are different. At bottom, if you can't tell the difference between a song, a painting and a poem then there is nothing much you can say about any of them. However, such discrimination depends on recognising similarities as well as differences between things – for instance, recognising that a great variety of visual images are all examples of what we call ‘paintings’. But once you have learned the concept ‘painting’, and can distinguish between a painting and a song – which we all learn to do as children – then in a sense you ‘know’ what art and music are. (Incidentally, that means you already know a lot about arts and humanities subjects even if you have not studied them as subjects before. None of us is a true beginner in them.) This kind of analysis enables us to divide up our very wide experience of the world and organise it in our minds.

A main difference between the subjects that make up the arts and humanities, then, is that they have different objects of study – plays, poems and novels in Literature; documents, records and diaries in History; paintings, sculptures and buildings in Art History; and so on. Having identified such similarities and differences between the objects of our study, we can go on to to look at each of them more closely. And so, over time, we have been able to make even finer distinctions. Within poetry, for example, we come to recognise different types of poem (narrative, epic, lyric, satirical). That is the way we impose some meaningful order on our very broad cultural experience and ‘discipline’ our thinking about it.

‘Living’ disciplines

The subjects we study in the arts and humanities are not set in concrete. We make changes to them over time which reflect significant changes in our culture and the way we view it. For obvious reasons, new subjects such as Communications, Film and Media Studies have come into being quite recently. This has involved some shifting of boundaries in existing subjects such as Literature, Art History and Philosophy. And even within these older disciplines the focus of attention tends to shift over time. For instance, in recent decades feminist writers have drawn our attention to the roles of women as writers and artists, as characters in novels and as depicted in paintings, and as readers and viewers. Also, what was always called English Literature is now often referred to as Literatures in English. That extends the scope of our studies to include English language writing from Africa, the Americas, Australia, India and the West Indies.

These changes are sometimes dismissed as simply ‘fashionable’ or ‘politically correct’. But that is a mistake. The rise of interest in Gender Studies since the 1960s is partly a result of an increase in the number of women working in universities – which itself reflects women's changing place in our society. And study of Literatures in English has arisen out of a deeper understanding of Britain's past role as an imperial power and the profound cultural effects this has had on its former colonies. As academics become aware that aspects of our cultural experience remain to be explored, their curiosity draws them towards those fresh pastures. For a while ‘gender’ or ‘post-colonial’ issues seem to be on everyone's lips. Eventually, they may become established as fields of inquiry and be drawn into the mainstream of a range of existing subjects – which are themselves changed in the process. Then other issues come to our attention, and so on. This process is what makes even ‘traditional’ academic disciplines living traditions of thought and practice.

It is by imposing order on our experience in this way that, together, we are able to examine the substance of our culture in great detail – not only the different ways in which we communicate with each other, but also the very ‘stuff’ of our ideas, history, literature, art, music, and religious and other practices.

Key points

  • We distinguish between different subjects, or disciplines, in the arts and humanities.

  • The distinctions we make impose order on our very wide cultural experience, enabling us to study it closely and understand it better.

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