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Cultural Artifacts and Humanities

Within the field of humanities, cultural artifacts exist as a vehicle that showcases the transformative and reflective power conveyed by people through their creative activities. By deliberately making these objects to represent their feelings and thoughts on various subjects, including extremely fundamental ones, people attach meaning to the artifacts in question. One might argue that all of these creations are meaningless by themselves but are never expected to be analyzed by themselves in real life. On the contrary, an art piece is to be discussed within the context that is defined both by the individual artistic features and the sphere of arts and humanities in general.

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The first selected cultural artifact is the poem The Colonel by Carolyn Forché. It was written in El Salvador in 1978 during a civil war between the US-backed military and the Foarabundo Martí National Liberation Front. The second chosen artwork is the painting entitled The 3rd of May 1808 by Francisco Goya. It was created in 1814, commissioned by the provisional government, and designed to commemorate the Spanish resistance to the occupation by Napoleon’s army. The painting is now located in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, serving as one of the most notorious and illustrative examples of the art of the corresponding era. The artifacts are thematically united by their portrayal of various horrors of war and its brutality. The topic is explored using strong, disturbing images, written or visual, depending on the media the piece utilizes.

The topic of this project’s artifacts has been summarized earlier as the brutality of war, which is universally acknowledged to be horrifying on multiple levels. Yet it is largely due to cultural artifacts and pieces that provide an insight into the context of the past that individuals can imagine these horrors without experiencing them personally. Both The Colonel and The 3rd of May 1808 demonstrate grotesque and horrifying scenes that, fortunately, do not resonate with my personal experience by themselves (Forche, 2019). On the other hand, the mentions of human ears and the images of soldiers on the verge of being shot are emotionally charged and overall powerful, conveying the themes behind them.

Multiple professions can at least indirectly be impacted by the theme in question, with some of the most obvious ones being the teacher, the writer, or the historian. Interestingly, all of these occupations lie in the realm of humanities, which is perhaps not surprising as major emotionally charged subjects are generally the main discussion point for liberal arts. However, within the grander scheme of things, one may argue that the impact of said topic covers a far greater range of professions (Carroll, 2021). In a hypothetical war scenario, every member of society and every sphere of daily life would be affected by disruptions, casualties, and other horrifying consequences of it.

The existing research on these artifacts comments on their initially political nature, with Carolyn Forche acting as a human rights advocate and Goya having experienced persecution throughout the Napoleonic invasion. The poem’s journalistic quality invites readers to bear witness to the crimes committed by the Salvadoran regime. Instead of romanticizing or sanitizing the bag of human ears, Forche reports its presence in a professional, objective manner, allowing the horrible sight to speak for itself. The painting is similarly ruthless, portraying a hopeless scene of a group execution (San Roque, 2020). Both artifacts utilize graphic imagery that borders body horror to encapsulate the unimaginable horrors and fears of war, involving torture, executions, and other atrocities.

Despite their similarities in tone, subject matter, and to some degree personal experiences of the authors, the differences between these artifacts are just as apparent, and further evident through the body of research. Firstly, the poem is significantly less known, by comparison, considering the worldwide fame of the painting and the frequency with which its importance and themes are analyzed. Consecutively, the painting has had a greater impact on society and its contribution to the overall cultural canon on the topics of war and brutality is larger. Secondly, the differences lie in the ways literature and visual art portray their themes and creative decisions. Finally, the two artifacts depict two fundamentally different wars, with The Colonel portraying a civil war and The 3rd of May 1808 focusing on the international one. This particular difference may lead to a different contradiction where a civil war is arguably by definition more horrifying and unnatural. Yet its focus on one country’s cultural and historical context is also likely to mean that a civil war is less known outside of the country it has affected.

Because of the all-encompassing nature of the topic, one might assume that the artifacts could find a very wide and diverse audience. I believe the audience would relatively easily understand the topic conveyed within the artifacts and their implications. An average experience of engaging with art and other humanities to discuss major themes would be sufficient to participate in the conversation in question. If the need arises for further research resources on both of these artifacts are openly available, thus facilitating any potential debate around them.

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Carroll, N. (2021). Of war and madness. Figuring Out Figurative Art. In D. Freeman, D. Matravers (eds) pp. 149-154, Routledge.

Forche, C. (2019). What have you heard is true. The Yale Review, 107(1), 24-31. doi: 10.1353/tyr.2019.0077

San Roque, C. (2020). Cultural complexes and the soul of America, In T. Singer (ed.), pp. 98-109. Routledge.

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