‘The Right viewed us as purveyors of smut and filth, while the Left saw us as the inept, but loveable, purveyors of smut and filth.” That is the humorous way in which Dana Gioia — who recently announced his intention to step down at year’s end from his position as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts — describes the attitudes toward the NEA when he began his tenure just after 9/11. Embroiled in controversy during the Clinton administration over its support of works of dubious artistic quality — whose merit was chiefly to offend the views of taxpayers — the agency was under increasing fire from conservatives.
Gioia — an award-winning poet and author of the influential article “Can Poetry Matter?
” — has been a trenchant critic of the increasing professionalization and isolation of the arts, and of poetry’s smug and self-congratulatory retreat to the confines of academia in particular. After many years as a successful poet, Gioia still thinks of himself primarily as a reader. One of his early shifts at the NEA was away from a focus on the producers of art to a greater emphasis on the consumers of art. “Controversy,” he reflects, “is not an intrinsic artistic concept; it’s a byproduct. I can’t defend things that are wild and crazy for the sake of being wild and crazy.”
Whatever one thinks about the NEA — whose history up to and including the Gioia era has been marvelously told in David Smith’s new book Money for Art: The Tangled Web of Art and Politics in American Democracy — Gioia’s own work offers something for which conservatives should be justifiably proud and grateful. They might even look to his life, thought, and art for ways to overcome the current divide in their own ranks between elitism and populism, between high and popular culture.
Gioia himself is an unusual man, one difficult to reduce to a narrow ideological category. Remarkably successful in the business world — as a VP for General Foods — Gioia has also found time to write numerous volumes of critically acclaimed poetry. An opponent of postmodernism, he also writes winsomely about San Francisco beat culture. Appointed by a Republican administration at a time when conservatives were calling for the elimination of the agency, he managed to have the agency’s budget increased and to enliven its mission by focusing on President Bush’s interest in “artistic excellence in education.” Not wanting to be a “curator of a moribund institution,” Gioia initiated programs for the performance of Shakespeare and for jazz appreciation. He secured Boeing funding for a tour of opera companies to 41 military bases — a project that met with surprising success. He also initiated “Operation Homecoming,” which recruited some three dozen writers to lead workshops with soldiers rotating out of Afghanistan and Iraq in order to help them articulate their experiences.
Whether reciting his own poetry or Shakespeare’s, Gioia exhibits a dramatic flair typically absent from the ascetic public forums in which poetry is so often read. At the same time, he remains a master at philosophical distinctions. In a recent speech as Baylor University, he offered a helpful distinction between entertainment and art. Conservatives endlessly and properly bemoan toxic features of our popular culture, yet the proper distinction between entertainment and art is hardly a commonplace. Noting that there is no strict separation between the two — indeed, they largely overlap — Gioia suggests that the difference consists in the degree to which the viewer or listener is put into question by the experience. Entertainment is predictable and commodified. In the experience of art, the audience encounters the unexpected — an invitation to self-transformation. Losing its connection to art, entertainment has a dulling effect on the souls of its consumers.
Gioia also shows how populism and intellectual cultivation — accessibility and refinement — need not be at odds with one another. In graduate school at Harvard, he realized that he was being trained to write in such a way that the people who raised him would not understand him. His love of poetry dates from his youth: His mother recited poetry to him from memory. Gioia maintains that preserving a connection to one’s roots and writing poetry that reaches an audience beyond academia are not matters of condescension but of the craft of language — of finding words to invite the “intelligent, non-educated reader” to become a lover of poetry, to be transformed and elevated by the experience of beauty.
While not given to apocalyptic pronouncements, Gioia expresses deep concern about the state of our public language. He embraces Orwell’s observation that political chaos is in some measure traceable to the “decay of language.” Gioia characterizes our public discourse in the immediate aftermath of the ghastly 9/11 terrorist attacks as an “avalanche of platitudes and slogans.” Wary of politicized conceptions of art that would reduce it to propaganda, Gioia nonetheless insists on the irreplaceable role of art in public life. He writes,
Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning. A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it — be they politicians, preachers, copywriters, or newscasters. The public responsibility of poetry has been pointed out repeatedly by modern writers. Even the arch-symbolist Stephane Mallarme praised the poet’s central mission to “purify the words of the tribe.”
The refinement of language and the cultivation of the habits of soul — for the sake of both citizenship and that which transcends citizenship — are decidedly conservative ideals. Whatever the future of the NEA holds — and it is a serious question whether the incoming Democratic regime will encourage the agency to rebuild its reputation for smut and filth — Gioia’s leadership has been much more than a welcome reprieve from the assault on common sensibilities. It has set an example as to how to think about, and respond to, some of the internecine divisions that currently plague conservatism.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.