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Arts, the NEA, Gioia at Stanford - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Arts, the NEA, Gioia at Stanford
Through various links, I came across Dana Gioia's commencement speech at Stanford. (Gioia is the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.)

Here's a bit:

In a time of social progress and economic prosperity, why have we experienced this colossal cultural and political decline? There are several reasons, but I must risk offending many friends and colleagues by saying that surely artists and intellectuals are partly to blame. Most American artists, intellectuals, and academics have lost their ability to converse with the rest of society. We have become wonderfully expert in talking to one another, but we have become almost invisible and inaudible in the general culture.

This mutual estrangement has had enormous cultural, social, and political consequences. America needs its artists and intellectuals, and they need to reestablish their rightful place in the general culture. If we could reopen the conversation between our best minds and the broader public, the results would not only transform society but also artistic and intellectual life.

There is no better place to start this rapprochement than in arts education. How do we explain to the larger society the benefits of this civic investment when they have been convinced that the purpose of arts education is mostly to produce more artists—hardly a compelling argument to either the average taxpayer or financially strapped school board?

We need to create a new national consensus. The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproduct. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society.

This is not happening now in American schools. 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?

Now, Gioia goes a little far in automatically defining entertainment out of the arts category, automatically assuming that it is "unchallenging," but he does have a lot of good points.

The most important point is the simplest: Art is not a luxury, and the school boards that treat it like it is have a lot to answer for. Oh, I know, they'll go on and on about the meanies (like me) who want to require them to teach history and math and reading and all that stuff, and how can they be expected to do all that and art, but you know what? All that tempts me to do is put art on the goddamned standardized tests, just so they don't have that option anymore.

And I think there's a good argument for doing just that. To whatever extent a general education should have requirements, then a solid grounding in the arts is one of them. Art is the language a culture uses to talk to itself, and when kids have no exposure to it, they're entering the world with a big handicap, and they don't even know it, aren't even taught that they're missing something.

This lack of education in the arts is also horrible for art itself. As Gioia points out, artists have become very good at talking among themselves, but they aren't really involved in the broader culture anymore... and that means that they're missing that vital creative tension that fuels the best art. It means they're missing genuinely new voices, because the people who might have entered the arts aren't given a window, and when they peek through some other window, they see an alien world that seems unattainable and unwelcoming.

And as to the ones who get through anyway, or try to? The lack of art education is telling there as well. I brought this up talking about (of all things) American Idol earlier this year, with an auditioner who refused to "compromise" his style (screaming into the mike), because it was authentically him. He'd never learned--because he'd never been taught--how to try something new, how to see if something about it surprised and pleased him, if some new, alien flower couldn't grow in the soil of his soul. This refusal to learn anything that's not in one's immediate experience and taste is crippling to art as a concept, because art grows from other art. Always.

I don't know how much the NEA can do about this. It used to have a great program of funding artists in residence--I had traveling writers in fifth grade, sixth grade, and tenth grade--but when I called them shortly after I finished undergraduate school thinking maybe I could make a bit of money doing that, they said the program had been discontinued. But maybe that wasn't enough anyway... kids don't need a chance at a one-semester enrichment deal now and then; they need a sustained exposure to the arts throughout their school careers. If the NEA wants to switch that money into a major advertising campaign, it might do more. Or maybe they should do a series of Schoolhouse-Rock like things for Saturday morning cartoons... tell me that animation wouldn't rock. (Think something like Mother Necessity, only with art developments instead of technological inventions, or Conjunction Junction, explaining musical phrasing and notes! Sigh.)

Okay, maybe that's a little cheesy, but honestly, if you're talking about getting little kids interested, they kind of dig the cheese.

That would just be a beginning, though. We need to get back to the idea that part of being an educated person with a high school diploma is, in fact, understanding the cultural cues of the world and knowing at least the basics of art and music history.

A really concerted effort is needed, though. When I'm showing a talented but untrained artist how to do perspective, there's something seriously and deeply wrong with the world.
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lilacsigil From: lilacsigil Date: June 20th, 2007 04:13 am (UTC) (Link)
Art is the language a culture uses to talk to itself, and when kids have no exposure to it, they're entering the world with a big handicap, and they don't even know it, aren't even taught that they're missing something.

Very true. My state's English curriculum mandates the a movie as one of the four "texts" studied in Year 12 - I was in the first year to do this system, back in 1992. The teacher showed us "Cry Freedom", and, in the first scene, pointed out that a burning structure showed up as a giant cross on the screen, and talked about this being the director's choice. We all laughed at this idea, and said that the cross was just a coincidence - until she made us count the crosses every time Steve Biko was on the screen. I never took visual (or word) choices for granted again. It was just a small thing, but it made such a huge difference to how I interact with the world.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: June 20th, 2007 01:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, people have a tendency to assume movies are dumbed down and don't use visual idiom deliberately... which is kind of weird, since they're told through the use of visual idiom. I was very glad to have read visual criticisms of the Star Wars movies, because... yeah, it makes you look at things differently and not take things for granted.
anais_ninja From: anais_ninja Date: June 20th, 2007 06:20 am (UTC) (Link)
This is something that bothers me a lot, and I was actually just thinking about it the other day. I'm an art history major, and I want to go to grad school for museum studies because I don't want to be cut off from the general population. I want to show people the things that make me want to engage with the world.

When I was thinking about how I wished the general public was more interested in visual arts, I got really frustrated because it's like there's no in-road. I thought about how to get kids into music, you get cool musicians to talk about it (ala Save the Music). Theater? Cool actors. But what about visual arts and art history? We don't have a cult of personality around artists these days, not living ones anyway. And I think that's part of the problem Gioia is talking about.

And I don't think I have a point. Unless it's "yep, what you said, I'll be trying to do that."
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: June 20th, 2007 01:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
More power to you.

Of course, getting people back into the museums is another hurdle. Part of the problem with contemporary art is that it only makes headlines when the person is doing something that's contemptuous of the general populace, so people have the idea that art is vicious and cruel, and they want no part of it. (Sometimes it has the same problem as modern poetry--it's inaccessible, couched in idioms that make no sense. I once asked how to introduce the layman to modern art and was told, "Well, you pretty much have to be completely educated in art to understand why a Jackson Pollack is different from a paint splatter." Which isn't helpful when you have a fifteen year old who says, "No, seriously... it looks neat, but why is it good? Why couldn't I sell the most expensive painting ever auctioned by throwing paint at the canvas?" If the only answer that can be given is, "Oh, if you studied for several years, you'd stop being ignorant and get it," then there's a failure of communication somewhere.)
anais_ninja From: anais_ninja Date: June 21st, 2007 03:41 am (UTC) (Link)
You know, I've been going at this art history thing pretty hardcore for about 2 years now. I'm fixing to go do it even hardercore in Rome for 6 weeks. Yet there are still (many) days that I feel just as much an outsider as anyone else. Those days often involve Jackson Pollack.
But then there are days when my professors talk about gesamtkunstwerk in Gothic cathedrals, or the development of artistic identity in the Northern Renaissance, or the really naughty and irreverent Hellenistic sculptures. And on those days I feel really connected to the whole of humanity through all of history. And I think if people just heard about enough of these things, they'd find something they connected with too.

And then from the other side, I'm really frustrated with my peers who are studio art majors because they really seem not to give a fig about the outside world, like you were saying. And I think the way we teach fine arts to fine arts students needs an overhaul as well.
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anais_ninja From: anais_ninja Date: June 21st, 2007 03:22 am (UTC) (Link)
A series of slightly ridiculous letters: OMGIKNORITE! As far as I'm concerned, Samurai Jack should be on standardized tests. And Neil Gaiman's Sandman. While I think you could get young people to take this art seriously, how do you get the adults in charge to take it seriously too? Even the art community margonalizes comics and animation to a great extent (though, to be fair, that is changing). It's like a conspiracy. It's like the Mafia! It (obviously) drives me a little crazy.
lareinenoire From: lareinenoire Date: June 20th, 2007 11:37 am (UTC) (Link)
I've had this argument with people before, going back and forth on the importance of arts education. The impression I get is that the problem people have with arts education is that you don't get an immediate effect. There's no instant gratification. Over a period of time, you'll see results, but they aren't tangible. They don't translate (necessarily) to higher test scores, etc. I think that ultimately they do, especially if you're counting humanities education, but again, it's not easily quantifiable.

We need to get back to the idea that part of being an educated person with a high school diploma is, in fact, understanding the cultural cues of the world and knowing at least the basics of art and music history.

I agree wholeheartedly. We're producing a society of drones and that depresses me to no end.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: June 20th, 2007 01:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sure it has immediate results--they immediately know about art and music.

The idea that education exists to prepare people for the workplace is the root of the problem. Like you said, it produces a society of drones. That's not what school is for.
lareinenoire From: lareinenoire Date: June 20th, 2007 02:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
True. I think it's immediate worthwhile knowledge. Unfortunately I appear to be in the minority.
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fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: June 20th, 2007 07:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
I thought Jefferson's argument for public education was to create an educated and literate electorate

Exactly. Getting jobs is nice and so on, but doesn't really require formal liberal arts education. People worked just fine on apprenticeship systems for centuries. Classical education isn't meant to produce workers; it's meant to produce citizens. Aristotle didn't become known as a great educator because he showed people how to do practical things.
aebhel From: aebhel Date: June 20th, 2007 08:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
I see this over and over again; I'm studying English at a state school with a very good liberal arts program, and every time I try to tell someone about my class in Victorian literature, or the evolution of the Arthurian legend, they ask things like "well, that's all very interesting, but what is it preparing you for?" It's preparing me to think. The practical details of whatever job I end up with I can figure out as I go along.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: June 20th, 2007 09:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
Why is education meant to be preparing you for anything in particular, other than more education? Isn't that the point of getting a materially comfortable life, so that you can enrich your mind instead of just breaking your back? Isn't work mostly there to support such enrichment, whether in science, art, or humanities? Isn't it, you know, the goal of it all? There's not much point in accumulating wealth if it isn't to buy time to create a better life for yourself!
aebhel From: aebhel Date: June 21st, 2007 10:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, you can create a better life for yourself, but only if by 'better life' you mean bigger house, more exotic vacations, fancier car. If I ever actually become financially stable, I'm going to go to graduate school and study linguistics. And I challenge anyone to make me find a practical use for it.
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