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NEA CHAIRMAN DANA GIOIA: AMERICA FACING CULTURAL, EDUCATIONAL, ECONOMIC DISASTER

 

STANFORD, CALIFORNIA, 18 JUNE 2007This year's Stanford University graduation speaker, National Endowment for the Arts chairman and Stanford alumnus Dana Gioia, was not as eagerly anticipated as, perhaps, the administration had hoped: one undergraduate responded, "The fact that a lot of us don’t know who he is... is not a good sign." "Truth from the mouths of babes," one might say, as her comment anticipated, ironically, the thrust of his comments. (Perhaps she would have preferred Dana Carvey?) 

Even if you forget the larger catastrophe that only 70 percent of American kids now graduate from high school, what are we to make of a public education system whose highest goal seems to be producing minimally competent entry-level workers?

The situation is a cultural and educational disaster, but it also has huge and alarming economic consequences.


Gioia may not be a revolutionary cultural firebrand (he was, after all, appointed to his post by George W. Bush) but in his speech he warned of a sort of meta-catastrophe brewing in American culture: the effects of ever-more-widespread ignorance and the displacement of cultural knowledge and engagement, for most Americans, by passive consumption of media and a cult of celebrity. This, in his judgement, sets us up for dire cultural, social and economic consequences.

Gioia's NEA has beaten this drum for years; indeed, a 2004 report laid out bleak stastics documenting in detail what he describes here in the abstract.

In keeping with his theme, we will resist the temptation to reduce his remarks to a few soundbites, and reprint his remarks (almost) in full, on the assumption that our readers' attention span is up to the challenge.

C. Antonio Romero, Nouveau editor of Culturekiosque.com

DANA GIOIA:

I know that there was a bit of controversy when my name was announced as the graduation speaker. A few students were especially concerned that I lacked celebrity status. It seemed I wasn't famous enough. I couldn't agree more. As I have often told my wife and children, "I'm simply not famous enough."

And that—in a more general and less personal sense—is the subject I want to address today, the fact that we live in a culture that barely acknowledges and rarely celebrates the arts or artists.

There is an experiment I'd love to conduct. I'd like to survey a cross-section of Americans and ask them how many active NBA players, Major League Baseball players, and American Idol finalists they can name.

Then I'd ask them how many living American poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, classical musicians, conductors, and composers they can name.

I'd even like to ask how many living American scientists or social thinkers they can name.

Fifty years ago, I suspect that along with Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax, most Americans could have named, at the very least, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Georgia O'Keeffe, Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Not to mention scientists and thinkers like Linus Pauling, Jonas Salk, Rachel Carson, Margaret Mead, and especially Dr. Alfred Kinsey.

I don't think that Americans were smarter then, but American culture was. Even the mass media placed a greater emphasis on presenting a broad range of human achievement.

I grew up mostly among immigrants, many of whom never learned to speak English. But at night watching TV variety programs like the Ed Sullivan Show or the Perry Como Music Hall, I saw—along with comedians, popular singers, and movie stars—classical musicians like Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Rubinstein, opera singers like Robert Merrill and Anna Moffo, and jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong captivate an audience of millions with their art.

The same was even true of literature. I first encountered Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, Lillian Hellman, and James Baldwin on general interest TV shows. All of these people were famous to the average American—because the culture considered them important.

Today no working-class or immigrant kid would encounter that range of arts and ideas in the popular culture. Almost everything in our national culture, even the news, has been reduced to entertainment, or altogether eliminated.

The loss of recognition for artists, thinkers, and scientists has impoverished our culture in innumerable ways, but let me mention one. When virtually all of a culture's celebrated figures are in sports or entertainment, how few possible role models we offer the young.

There are so many other ways to lead a successful and meaningful life that are not denominated by money or fame. Adult life begins in a child's imagination, and we've relinquished that imagination to the marketplace.

Of course, I'm not forgetting that politicians can also be famous, but it is interesting how our political process grows more like the entertainment industry each year. When a successful guest appearance on the Colbert Report becomes more important than passing legislation, democracy gets scary. No wonder Hollywood considers politics "show business for ugly people."

Everything now is entertainment. And the purpose of this omnipresent commercial entertainment is to sell us something. American culture has mostly become one vast infomercial.

I have a reccurring nightmare. I am in Rome visiting the Sistine Chapel. I look up at Michelangelo's incomparable fresco of the "Creation of Man." I see God stretching out his arm to touch the reclining Adam's finger. And then I notice in the other hand Adam is holding a Diet Pepsi.

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