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.


Collin said...

First, thanks for the shout out Tania. I do what I can for those willing to jump into the fire with me.

I had lunch today with the marketing director of a university press and we bemoaned the writers -- poets specifically -- who are loathe to get off their asses and do anything to promote their own work. They expect the publisher, the PR hacks, and Oprah to lift them up to glory and fame.

Dana Gioia is a Republican tool and blows hot and cold on a variety of issues dealing with arts and poetry. His poetry does nothing for me and the one he used to close his address made my eyes roll back into my head. Someone get Dana a laprobe, some warm milk and ease him gently into his old white man chair.

What's worse is that Gioia is a Bush supporter, and George and Co. could give a shit about the arts, scientists and thinkers. This administration wants less of all three because they rock the boat, are probably pro separation of church and state and love the gay. If anyone had their soul stirred by this commencement address, then they need to raise their standards. The speech was cliched, a variation on his his usual "woe is the state of the arts" and worst of all -- SAFE.

Gioia is so upset about the loss of arts education in public schools and that America's education system ranks at the bottom of the civlized world, but he speaks in generalizations. He doesn't dare attack Dubya's under-funded, corrupt, and "faith-based" No Child Left Behind policy that also moves education toward standardized testing and away from more hands-on education. You can't teach poetry, music or theatre by filling in the bubbles.

Here's my favorite bit from Gioia's speech:

The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a by-product. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society.

Yeah, we don't want anymore artists. There's too many now sucking up all the teaching gigs and vying for the awards. It's more useless rhetoric from a member of a useless administration.

Howard said...

I'm with you, Tania. I'm gonna write something about it too. Ironically, I used to talk like Gioia back during the boy band days but then realized "what do I care if EVERYONE likes good music or whatever. Some of my favorite artists, writers, musicians, etc. are the ones I can kind of keep to myself.

Collin said...

I know I went a bit off topic in my first post, but I'm feeling very political these days and that commencement address was...as Col. Potter would have called it...a load of horse-hockey.

You are absolutely right, T, that the arts alive and vibrant if you go out and get involved. There is plenty to do in Atlanta and bigger cities like NYC are a couple hundred bucks roundtrip on AirTran.

And I was also thinking, when have writers and other artists been the most celebrated figures? Kids back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s didn't have Robert Frost and Albert Einstein posters on their wall...they had Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and the Beatles. Nothing has changed really except the delivery.

Wait...is Snoop's show still on? I should start my own. How about "Fo Shizzle on the Poetryizzle Hour"?

ads. said...

You guys have said alot and been right on with every word, sidetracked or not.

It's also funny you put up a pic of Henry8 next to Snoopdogg....back in the day, the "arts: poetry, plays, music, art, was the "entertainment" and was only reserved for the rich snobs.
today, now that we have mass media, we have "dynamic artistry". Many talented people creating lots of new and wonderful and changing stuff( even grafitti is artistic). Stuff taking different forms to appeal to a wider range of people....including us low-life blue-collar types. I guess these whiners don't like the competition.
I like that you guys are open to all these and encourage people to just ENJOY. It's all good.

Jennifer said...

Gioia is an asshole. When he came to UGA as an artist-in-residence, he was such an arrogant prick that the poor graduate students who ate lunch with him are still trying to recover from the experience.

biggy said...

Jennifer, he told me he turned down your advances.

debbie millman said...

yikes, i didn't realize he was such a jerk.

soooo sorry to offend you!!!!!!!

Tania Rochelle said...

Who was offended?

I just didn't like his speech.

Jennifer said...

Biggy, I am sure that he definitely wanted a piece of this!

KATE EVANS said...

Great post (I found my way to it via Collin's blog).

I'm with you--a "more than" mentality vs. a "less than" one.

I love your point that Gioia should have SHOWED them who he is.

Boo hoo for him that not everyone knows who he is. Makes me feel his rant was fueled by his ego.

Robin Kemp said...

I really think y'all are selectively misreading the speech itself. Take what he said about non-fame with a grain of salt--especially given that it was probably a self-deprecating joke--and look at the rest of what he said. T, I think his point was about video games (passive) as opposed to actually creating something (active), not at all that anything electronic is inherently non-creative. In fact, he goes out of his way to say the opposite.

His larger point, that the arts as a whole have been under assault in recent years, is completely correct. What you must consider is that Gioia has done everything in his power to restore arts funding, and then some. He's gotten more money for the arts (and out of this particularly hideous administration!) than his predecessors have under both Poppy Bush and Clinton. He's put money in *our* pockets here in ATL via Poetry Out Loud. He's doing an incredibly difficult job that requires enormous amounts of tact and negotiating skills. In short, I think you're being unfair to firebomb him without cheking your facts.

Tania Rochelle said...

Robin, I stand by everything I said. Your points are, frankly, beside the point. He doesn't get immunity just because he's worked hard for a cause. His address sucked, and it was a missed opportunity to motivate and excite some young people about their futures. Instead, he pushed his own agenda.

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