Art, American culture and education

The Wall Street Journal condensed a commencement speech by Dana Gioia into this article, titled The Impoverishment of American Culture: And the need for better art education. Gioia is Chairman of the NEA and an internationally known poet.

Generally I disdain commencement ceremonies; they are long, uncomfortable and largely predictable. They are usually boring events culminated by long-winded speeches employing meaningless platitudes of encouragement. I almost didn’t follow the link to the story after reading that it was part of a graduation speech.

But I’m glad I did. The article is well worth reading in its entirety. A few excerpts follow:

    “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.”

    “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”

    “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.”

    “In a time of social progress and economic prosperity, why have we experienced this colossal cultural 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.”

She goes on to speak of the need for creativity and innovation, for education that doesn’t cater the lowest common denominator and the dangers of an entertainment driven culture. It’s curious to me that “innovation” has been a theme in three of my posts over the last week or so; this was not intentional.

With respect to the last quote from the article suggesting artists have done a poor job at communicating, I read an couple of years ago I lamented at a gallery opening that was, well, very difficult to muddle through at best. It seemed as though the artist was trying to use language that set him apart from non-artists. It came across in a somewhat condescending way.

I am all for people acquiring and utilizing a broader vocabulary. I believe that people should be able to read above an eighth grade level, which is what my wife used as a standard when editing the local newspaper (and is, from what I understand, that industry’s standard). Further, each subculture possesses its own vernacular which will seem a bit foreign to others. Clear communication can be difficult, especially when the culture at large that painters and sculptors might be trying to converse with are more interested in sports, video games and other uninvolved amusement. In fact, clear communication can be difficult with interested parties. Such intellectual pursuits are, however, innately human. And, in my opinion, they make life worth living.

I found the link to the Wall Street Journal’s article via Christians in the Arts.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

3 Responses to Art, American culture and education

  1. Tim J. says:

    I once heard (or maybe read) someone describe modern artists as a bunch of magicians living in a cave doing tricks to entertain one another.

    I forget who it was, but I could see their point.

  2. Pingback: American Culture and Art Education | The Christian Imagination

  3. Leon King says:

    Beautiful… What a nice one!!! keep it up!

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