Preach it, Gioia!

The commencement address that Dana Gioia, poet and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, delivered to Stanford University graduates on June 17 is a lament on the position of the arts in today’s culture. Fortunately, it is also a persuasive and passionate argument for why the arts are important and why his audience of new graduates should make a conscious decision to live lives that are arts-engaged.

Gioia’s main point is 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,” he says. “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.”

Gioia asserts that today’s culture is all about entertainment, the purpose of which is to market things to buy. “American culture,” he says, “has mostly become one vast infomercial.” While he admits to enjoying film and his big-screen TV, Gioia cautions that there is a price. “The role of culture must go beyond economics,” he says. “It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value. And, above all, culture should tell us what is beyond price, including what does not belong in the marketplace. A culture should also provide some cogent view of the good life beyond mass accumulation. In this respect, our culture is failing us.”

I felt eager to share his message, because there may be a time when you must make the argument to a friend or to a son or daughter about why art is important, or to a school board about why a curriculum rich in arts is essential, or to your local newspaper about why coverage of the arts is vital, and Gioia’s parting words may be of some service (you can see the entire transcript here):

“Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world–equal to but distinct from scientific and conceptual methods. Art addresses us in the fullness of our being–simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, intuition, imagination, memory, and physical senses. There are some truths about life that can be expressed only as stories, or songs, or images.

“Art delights, instructs, consoles. It educates our emotions. And it remembers. As Robert Frost once said about poetry, ‘It is a way of remembering that which it would impoverish us to forget.’ Art awakens, enlarges, refines, and restores our humanity.”

Well put.

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