STANFORD, CALIFORNIA, 18 JUNE 2007 This 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 dont 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?)
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.
Antonio Romero, Nouveau editor of Culturekiosque.com
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
And thatin a more general and less personal senseis 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 sawalong with comedians,
popular singers, and movie starsclassical 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 Americanbecause 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
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.