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Good Hunger for the Good Arts

The humanities--the “good arts,” the Romans called them--are not only alive in the United States but are flourishing at the popular level. So concludes a report from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which finds a “remarkable blossoming” of public interest in theater and museums, in serious books and in participation in local historical associations. In 1970 Americans spent twice as much on spectator sports as they did on cultural events. By 1985 spending on culture, about $3.4 billion a year, had edged ahead of spending on sports. Sports haven’t declined in popularity, but the humanities have clearly grown in appeal.

To be sure, the higher dollar outlay for culture in part reflects nothing more than higher ticket costs. But while admission prices for such things as opera, ballet and the theater have soared, so have prices for many sporting events. A truer indication of public interest in the arts and humanities can be found in the considerable growth in the number of people viewing cultural events. Between 1957 and 1987, for example, attendance at Washington’s National Gallery of Art grew by 660%. Between 1972 and 1987, tickets sold for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival increased more than fiftyfold, to 150,000 in the season. Many similar examples of growth, the report says, can be found throughout the nation.

Curiously, perhaps suggestively, the remarkable increase in popular support for the humanities has come during a period of significant decline in the study of the humanities on the nation’s campuses. Two decades ago one out of six college students was a humanities major; now only one in sixteen is. The National Endowment report suggests that the blossoming of popular interest in the humanities may represent a kind of “parallel school,” filling a void in formal college training. Maybe. Whatever the explanation, it seems clear that the popular appetite for intellectual stimulation has been growing steadily, and that is one example of hunger that does credit to American society.


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