Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Joy and Rapture of Dana Gioia

I'm a little late in writing about this, but I read this Wall Street Journal interview with NEA head Dana Gioia. Here's a salient quote or two:

"My objective has been to insist that there are things in our society that are neither right nor left," Mr. Gioia says. "What I sought to do was to take arts and arts education out of the divisive and destructive rhetoric of the culture wars."
"We set a simple goal at the NEA," he says, "which is to serve all Americans." That necessitated an activist stance, he says, because "if you only wait for the applications to come in to you, they come overwhelmingly from established arts organizations."

"See, I'm an artist," he says, "and so my primary goal is really bringing the transformative power of great art to the broadest audience possible. And I'm a business person, and I had a day job for two decades, and it taught me that there are ways to take a good idea and make it more effective and more affordable."

But his strongest influence, he says, is his childhood in Hawthorne, Calif., "a working-class neighborhood populated mostly by immigrant families." There he saw lives -- including his own -- changed by art, but also how elusive access to the arts could be.

Mr. Gioia says he wanted to tackle the problem in a systemic way. "We're thinking in terms of the whole society," he says. "Most artists in the United States are underemployed. They can't get work all year round. Most arts organizations run a deficit. Most presenting arts organizations in the United States don't own their own facility. That's the supply side.

"On the demand side, most smaller and midsize communities have very limited cultural offerings. And most students have never been to the symphony, a play, an opera. The idea is to help make it possible for people to present good works to communities and groups which would never have access to them. It's not simply to help the supply of art, but it's to match the supply and the demand."
I certainly respect Gioia for everything he has done, but I take issue that the NEA is serving all Americans. it isn't, that much we know. Indeed, when Gioia talks about supply and demand, he acknowledges as much. I think, though, that when he says "there are things in our society that are neither right nor left," that's a little, well, unfortunate. He's had to navigate difficult waters and to do so in a way that offends neither left nor right, but that's because of everything that's wrong with the right. To me.

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