From a January 7, 2008 interview with Dana Gioia on Bigthink.com. To watch Gioia discuss poetry, young artists, and how culture develops in America, see the full interview at Big Think.
What is the biggest challenge facing the arts?
Dana Gioia: There are so many problems facing the arts today that it's hard to give just one. Let me pick two.
The first is the fact that we live in a world of non-stop, commercial, mass, electronic entertainment; hundreds of TV stations; millions of internet sites; hundreds of thousands of films and video games. And you can actually be connected to an electronic device from the moment you get up, until the moment you fall asleep.
And I think it has the tendency—I'm saying this as somebody who likes to watch television, likes to go to the movies, likes all of these things—that if left unchecked, unbalanced in life, it breeds a kind of semi-comatose relationship to reality. You're always being lulled into a vague sense of comfort. Even if you sit at one side and make cynical comments at your television, you're still watching it.
It's hard, in a world like that, for someone to achieve the interiority of existence, to develop an inner-life—of sufficient depth, of sufficient strength—and to understand your destiny.
The second thing is that the only force in our society that's strong enough to compete with the mass of electronic media is the educational system. I see the American educational system in rather dire straits. Talking about the arts, the arts have been systematically removed from most of our schools. Unless you grow up in an affluent community, you're not likely to have the arts in your education. Not only are we not developing an audience for the arts—that's one thing—but more importantly: the new generation of Americans are not receiving those spurs to personal growth that the arts create.
The purpose of arts education is not to create more artists. It's not to create more audiences. The purpose of arts education is to create a complete human being who can lead a productive life in a free society. You can't do that just through academics and athletics. There are certain things that you can only learn in stories, in songs, that you can only see in images.
When you take this out of a kid's education, you impoverish their possibilities, both individually and socially. It's as important to educate a child's, or an adolescent's, emotions as it is their mind. And when you take this out of the education of 60 million American kids, and you focus on developing low-level work skills, I think you have, in the offing, a cultural, educational, economic, and political disaster.
How can the arts survive?
If the arts are going to thrive, if the arts are going to survive, it's going to be because people recognize why they're important. We need people in our society who can articulate a better case for their importance. One of the problems right now is that the artists and the intellectuals of today are more comfortable talking to each other than they are to a mixed audience. In fact, in many of these areas, they look down on people who can actually address an audience. I think it's actually more difficult to talk to a mixed audience than it is to a specialized audience, because, suddenly, you have all these competing value systems, competing claims, and you have to make a larger and more inclusive case for the importance of what you're doing. But if artists and intellectuals do not get better at conversing with our society, I do believe that we're going to see our society, our culture, becoming dumber and dumber.
There's also something else that's part of this that nobody mentions. One of the biggest problems about living in this kind of electronic culture is that we live almost entirely in the present moment. We've lost almost all of our connections with the past. And then we take the present moment and narrow it down into that part of the present moment which is capable of being turned into entertainment. I worry about our society that, first of all, sees so little of the current world, and sees virtually nothing of the past. This is not healthy for society.
How can we cultivate more respect for the arts?
The way one gets greater respect for the arts is not through intellectual argumentation. It's through experience. To have sat in a concert hall and have been moved to the deepest center of your humanity; to go to a museum and be simply ravished by what you see; to go walk down a street in a city with great architecture and see how powerfully design and architecture mold human behavior for the better. Those are the kinds of experiences that I think are transformational.
The trouble is: if kids don't get them growing up, it's increasingly unlikely that they'll look for them as adults. If we create kids who are essentially lulled into a kind of comfortable, stress-free existence by being mildly entertained all the time, I don't think that we're going to have the heroes, the saints, the reformers that our society needs. Nor will we have the decent, everyday people our society needs.