With Great Respect for Debbie, I Have to Disagree.
I just read Dana Gioia’s Stanford Commencement address that Debbie Millman posted on her blog. In it, Gioia bemoans the lack of appreciation for anything that’s not entertainment. He says, “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.”
I’m fortunate to be immersed in an atmosphere where his reality is not a part of my daily life. No, I’m sheltered at Portfolio Center, where discussion about schools of art, artists, philosophers, scientists, and writers happens continuously, from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. during classes, and then into the night via email, blogs, and telephone.
I’m always surrounded by great Thinkers, the well known, who visit often, and the not-yet-known, who are still learning. I go from this environment back home, where, along with PlayStation, Xbox, and WebKinz, my kids play drums or guitar, read Ayn Rand (Well, Georgia does), listen to Otis Redding, and watch the History Channel. So what if they watch Cops too?
Whether you appreciate Cribs or not, behind such vehicles that glorify conspicuous consumption, there are artists at work. Someone thought up that program (I wish I had. I’d have bought that cabin in the mountains by now), and someone designed and crafted the gold-plated spiral staircases too. I don’t personally like Rap, but I’m all for a great variety of music and poetry and such, even if it results in lavish rewards.
I love that Youtube and Howard’s blog constantly turn me on to “artists” I’ve never heard. I mean Musicians. I believe stand-up comedy is art, and live theatre, and films, and magic. Oh, right—they’re entertainment. I believe the writers who write for Vanity Fair and Esquire are every bit the writers as those whose novels end up in the overstock bin at Border’s.
I participate in conferences where it seems everyone on Earth is writing great poetry and fiction and where those things are celebrated. I tag along to design conferences where it appears each attendee is changing the world one poster or one speech at a time. Most of the poets are teaching or working at insurance companies, and the designers run the gamut from sharing a cramped Brooklyn apartment with roomies to owning a Manhattan apartment and a house on Martha’s Vineyard. The fact that no one’s following them around with a camera doesn’t diminish them or their work.
I’m especially tired of poets crying about not getting the recognition they deserve. The truth is, when a poet does get national recognition--Billy Collins comes to mind--the rest of the almost-famous decry his work as “pop” poetry and denigrate him for being so “popular.” Though his craft is excellent, Collins writes for the masses, not to impress other poets. That sends The Academy a-twitter.
Reading the Gioia piece makes me more proud of our local Collin Kelley, who won’t settle for obscurity but doesn’t cry about Snoop having his own show. Collin gets out and hoofs it and drags all the other writers he knows along with him. He promotes himself and his work and promotes his friends and poetry in general, through reading series(es), his radio show, his position with Poetry Atlanta, his blogs, his on-and-on.
If I’ve learned nothing else in my 44 years, I’ve learned this (with people like Collin reminding me): If you want something, go and get it. If you want to be famous, no one’s stopping you but you. You have to want it badly, though, and be willing to put your ALL into it. You can’t sit back in your cozy breakfast nook, penning poems about the “clinging thistle” and expect the fame to come to you. (Gioia is pretty damned famous, incidentally, in the Portry Wurld.)
By the same token, if you want to be exposed to beauty, art, smart dialogue, and big ideas, there are more venues than ever for these. Even in Atlanta, Georgia. No doubt the trizash entertainment media are more prolific, relatively speaking, just as the fluffy, weedy Mimosa trees I adore outnumber the mighty oaks (I imagine). But the others have NOT gone away. They’re all around us. Listen to NPR, watch the Discovery Channel and PBS. I could go to a reading every night if I wanted. Or a concert. Or a museum or gallery. From where I stand, there’s still as much “art appreciation” as my little heart can hold.
So yes, I was put off by Gioia’s address. He took a defensive stance because some twenty-one-year-olds didn’t know who he was. Boo hoo. He should have wowed them and SHOWN them who he was. He should have excited them and made them rush back to their keyboards to order all his books off Amazon before they downloaded Sex and the City.
Instead, he sounded whiney and sour-grapey. Chastising. If I’d been in that audience I might have thrown my morterboard at him. On the day those kids should have been recognized for their own achievements and inspired about their joyful futures, he chose to push his own agenda. What a shame. He punished them. That’s what it sounded like to me. And the poem (rhetoric, didactic) he ended with? He sure didn't win any converts among the young'uns with that one. A missed opportunity all around.