I recently became the coordinator of the Humanities Learning Center at Delta College. My predecessor left big shoes to fill; consequently, I’ve been in overdrive trying to continue her work of educating our community about the humanities and why they are relevant to our lives. I take comfort in knowing that nationally others are engaged in the same effort. As I sat with our student worker this semester trying to design a poster that would describe the humanities, I was confronted again by where the arts fit into this discussion. Humanities and arts are both separate and combined. If the humanities are best described as the subjects that study the human experience, then the arts definitely contribute to that knowledge. Often have I encouraged my history students to look at images or study lyrics in their exploration of our past–Dorothea Lange’s photos of migrant workers, Billie Holiday’s lyrics on lynching, Diego Rivera’s mural on industry–the list goes on and on. It made sense then that I would choose a work of art to illustrate the humanities.
My choices for an image to embody the humanities were robust. Raphael’s School of Athens? Rodin’s Thinker? A work by da Vinci? The more that I explored the recesses of my brain and my travels, the greater the list expanded. I ultimately chose a painting by Samuel Jennings–Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences aka The Genius of America Encouraging the Emancipation of the Blacks (1792). Jennings was the first American to address the issue of slavery in a painting. As I do whenever I view a work of art, I like to think about the circumstances surrounding the time of its creation. In this instance, our nation had just ratified a constitution that would keep the institution of slavery alive. Jennings was creating the piece for the opening of a new facility by the Library Company of Philadelphia–many of the directors were abolitionist-minded Quakers. http://www.librarycompany.org/artifacts/painters_jennings.htm
The symbols that Jennings chose exemplify the humanities. We see evidence of literature, history, religion, government, law, and philosophy. To me, this painting brings alive human experiences with liberty–its denial and its affirmation; the broken chains at the feet of Liberty inspire hope for universal freedom. The work highlights some of the greatest innovations of mankind and cautions us that chaining ourselves inhibits greatness. I believe that this piece of art illustrates the humanities perfectly. It encourages us to learn from our past, to be learned, to read, to inspire, to think about the consequences of our choices, to form laws and a government for, by, and of the people, and to communicate our beliefs in ways that others can understand. In this painting, the humanities and the arts blend beautifully.