As can be expected of such predictable speeches, NEA Chairman Dana Gioia outlines the kind of death knell against cultural conversation that one would expect of an embittered elder priding himself on walking uphill to school and back (both ways, meh!) in the snow.
Without citing any specific studies and relying only on his suspicions, Gioia claims that today’s Americans “live in a culture that barely acknowledges and rarely celebrates the arts or artists.” He condemns the mass media for not placing as great an emphasis on “presenting a broad range of human achievement” and, like an old fogey in the truest French sense of the term, fails to observe the Internet as a medium that might very well rectify the wrongs currently committed by the old guard. With an egregious prejudice evincing his clear displacement from his roots, Gioia declares that “no working-class or immigrant kid would encounter the range of arts and ideas in the popular culture,” failing to consider that any kid hungry or motivated enough to go to the library or get his hands on culture will, in fact, do this, regardless of what his teachers tell him what to do. He presumes that the mass media dictates precisely how such a hypothetical kid will respond to the world around him. To exist in the Gioia universe is to live without hope, without the possibility of infectious enthusiasm for the arts passed down from old to young, or from the popular to the more cultivated. It is to live without the possibility of cultural redemption, and without any expansion or evolution of the current terms that, presumably Gioia and the NEA, now believe contemporary culture up to be. Which is to say, inexorably fixed.
I think the key to understanding Gioia’s disreputable cynicism resides in his declaration of entertainment as a corrupt force. What then is the alternative? Culture that is crammed down your throat like prescriptive castor oil? Artistic achievements that are dictated, rather than presented in an invitational manner?
He declares art “an expendable luxury.” Ah, but this assumes that those who lack the funding or the emolument to create will stop creating. This also assumes that art is based upon a marketplace, an environment which Gioia champions, rather than the burning desire of the individual to put paint upon a canvas or write words upon a paper, no matter how cruel or dismissive the artist’s naysayers are.
There is no better place to observe the old guard’s resolute hysteria than a speech from an establishment goon like Gioia. Gioia champions words like “consensus” over “community.” He is a man who would prefer to not see more artists, but “complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society.” But who determines what is complete? Who determines “successful and productive lives?” The marketplace? The NEA?
Gioia cannot accept the possibility that arts and culture might exist in a fantastic anarchy completely outside the marketplace, capable of having its terms overwritten by an underclass or a figure who falls outside of the establishment. He cannot accept an amateur like Heinrich Schliemann discovering the true location of Troy. Or James Joyce, that feckless upstart, self-publishing Ulysses. (Likewise, Walt Whitman.)
This is the man who purports to lead our august body for the arts. But what Gioia outlines in this preposterous speech is not an artistic world that I’m acquainted with. And if Gioia believes that the ridiculous “Praise to the Rituals That Celebrate Change” is the kind of thing that will awaken the young from their apparent Wii-immersed haze, then we’re in an altogether different sort of trouble.