What is the humanities?

The arts which are so often separated from one another in the academy are not created in isolation within the city. The New York poets worked along side Jackson Pollock and performed their poetry in venues with Billy Holiday. During the early twentieth century, in Paris, ballets, operas and other theatrical works were created by artists from different mediums working closely together –Cocteau, Picasso and Erik Satie, for example, in their famous city ballet Parade. Meanwhile intellectuals and artists of all sorts were inspiring one another at the Sitwell’s in London and Gertrude Stein’s in Paris. The rubric of the humanities is useful because it puts the arts back together and, in doing so, replicates the natural process of their making. The city is a place of unlikely encounters -- between people of different classes, vocations and races—and such encounters allow for cross-influences that generate new currents in established genres and new art forms in themselves. Jazz is perhaps the most striking example of a city art that could not have emerged without a city space where people of different races could co-mingle. New Orleans was, in fact, the only city in the south at the time where such co-mingling was possible; it is no surprise that it was the birthplace of the form. With students, we examined the history of jazz alongside Harlem literature. Poetry and music were perhaps never in such perfect alignment as they were during the Harlem Renaissance. Together the two became a personal and collective means to counteract the “degenerating sense of nobodiness,” experienced within and encouraged from outside, and to fight ones way out of the ghetto, that “airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society,” as Martin Luther King called it.

Politics and the humanities have always been connected since Aristophanes performed The Frogs in ancient Athens and redirected the course of political action in the city. Later on, of course, the impact of poets became more attenuated although they perhaps continue as the “unacknowledged legislatures of the world,” as Shelley said. The connection between the arts and the city was politically powerful on the left in the Harlem Renaissance, and on the right in early twentieth century Italy where the Futurists aligned their city-centered art with fascism and went on to create an aesthetics of war. To understand the impact of urban planning and politics on the hearts and minds of its people, it is necessary to examine personal responses to the environment that are best revealed within the arts, and through the interactions among them.