Arts education needs to be revitalized, Gioia asserts

L.A. Cicero Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts

Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, gave the Commencement address Sunday.

L.A. Cicero Thib Guicherd-Callin and Pascal-Louis Perez

Thib Guicherd-Callin and Pascal-Louis Perez, master's degree students from the School of Engineering, rose for the rendition of Stanford's alma mater at Commencement on Sunday.

L.A. Cicero Graduating senior Linda Serrato

Graduating senior Linda Serrato joined classmates Saturday at the Baccalaureate Celebration in the Main Quadrangle.

In a society dominated by celebrity, almost everything, even the news, has been reduced to entertainment, said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, during Stanford University's 116th Commencement in Stanford Stadium on Sunday.

Citing Marcus Aurelius, Gioia urged graduates to "trade easy pleasures for more complex and challenging ones."

"I worry about a culture that bit by bit trades off the challenging pleasures of art for the easy comforts of entertainment. And that is exactly what is happening—not just in the media, but in our schools and civic life."

Gioia, who has described himself as perhaps the only person ever to get an MBA to become a poet, earned a bachelor's degree with high honors in 1973 and an MBA in 1977, both from Stanford, as well as a master's degree from Harvard in 1975. He went on to become a vice president of General Foods, resigning in 1992 to become a full-time essayist, critic, librettist, translator and poet.

"Everything is now entertainment," he said. "And the purpose of this omnipresent commercial entertainment is to sell us something. American culture has mostly become one vast infomercial. …

"When was the last time you have seen a featured guest on David Letterman or Jay Leno who isn't trying to sell you something?" he continued. "A new movie, a new TV show, a new book or a new vote?"

He noted that even the political process has become more akin to the entertainment industry, and that Hollywood considers politics "show business for ugly people."

The dominance of celebrities and entertainment has had significant cultural fallout, most notably "how few possible role models we offer the young," he said to applause.

"There are so many other ways to lead a successful and meaningful life that are not denominated by money or fame. Adult life begins in a child's imagination, and we've relinquished that imagination to the marketplace."

Stanford President John Hennessy introduced Gioia, noting that BusinessWeek had hailed him as "The Man Who Saved the NEA." Hennessy's remarks were preceded by Stanford's traditional "Wacky Walk," with graduates dressed as palm trees; carrying palm fronds, fake flamingoes and parrots; and throwing beach balls. Many wore swim trunks or suits under their gowns, and a handful wore a unisex white sarong. Others wore inflatable lifesavers in candied, day-glow colors, or waltzed at the edge of the stadium in cap and gown.

According to numbers provided June 15 by the Registrar's Office, the undergraduate Class of 2007 included 1,597 students (782 women and 815 men). The university expected to grant 1,644 bachelor's degrees, 2,085 master's degrees and 968 doctoral degrees at Commencement, which was attended by an estimated 27,000.

Gioia acknowledged some students' disappointment that he had been selected as Commencement speaker: "A few students were especially concerned that I lacked celebrity status. It seemed I wasn't famous enough. I couldn't agree more. As I have often told my wife and children, 'I'm simply not famous enough.'"

Gioia used this as an example of how little recognition "living American poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, classical musicians, conductors and composers" receive relative to "NBA players, Major League Baseball players and American Idol finalists."

It was not always the case, he said. "At heart I'm still a working-class kid—half Italian, half Mexican—from LA, or more precisely from Hawthorne, a city that most of this audience knows only as the setting of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown—two films that capture the ineffable charm of my hometown," Gioia said.

"I grew up mostly among immigrants, many of whom never learned to speak English," he continued. "But at night watching TV variety programs like the Ed Sullivan Show or the Perry Como Music Hall, I saw—along with comedians, popular singers and movie stars—classical musicians like Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Rubinstein, opera singers like Robert Merrill and Anna Moffo, and jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong captivate an audience of millions with their art."

Gioia said he "first encountered Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, Lillian Hellman and James Baldwin on general interest TV shows. All of these people were famous to the average American—because the culture considered them important."

Gioia urged us to "remember that the marketplace does only one thing—it puts a price on everything." Nevertheless, "culture should tell us what is beyond price, including what does not belong in the marketplace," he said. "In this respect, our culture is failing us."

He decried the failure of public education to serve as a counterbalance to the "profit-driven commercialization of cultural values."

"This once visionary and democratic system has been almost entirely dismantled by well-meaning but myopic school boards, county commissioners and state officials, with the federal government largely indifferent to the issue," he said. "Art became an expendable luxury, and 50 million students have paid the price. Today a child's access to arts education is largely a function of his or her parents' income."

Gioia noted that statistical studies show that the nation is splitting into two groups. The first "spends most of its free time sitting at home as passive consumers of electronic entertainment," with family communication disintegrating as its members are increasingly isolated, "staring at their individual screens."

The second group also enjoys the new technology, but exercises, plays sports, volunteers and does charity work at about three times the level of the first group. "By every measure they are vastly more active and socially engaged than the first group," he said.

The defining difference between the groups is not income or education, but "whether or not they read for pleasure and participate in the arts. These cultural activities seem to awaken a heightened sense of individual awareness and social responsibility."

"Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world—equal to but distinct from scientific and conceptual methods. Art addresses us in the fullness of our being—simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, intuition, imagination, memory and physical senses. There are some truths about life that can be expressed only as stories, or songs, or images.

"Art delights, instructs, consoles," Gioia continued. "It educates our emotions. And it remembers. As Robert Frost once said about poetry, 'It is a way of remembering that which it would impoverish us to forget.' Art awakens, enlarges, refines and restores our humanity.

"You don't outgrow art. The same work can mean something different at each stage of your life. A good book changes as you change."

In closing, Gioia read the third section of his 2000 poem "Autumn Inaugural." The poem was originally written to commemorate the new campus of the Sonoma Country Day School, where Gioia founded the Teaching Poetry Institute, which offers summer conferences for teachers near the poet's Santa Rosa home.

The poem, included in his collection Interrogations at Noon, which won the 2002 American Book Award, is becoming one of Gioia's most frequently cited and reprinted poems. It concludes by asking us to "dream of a future so fitting and so just / that our desire will bring it into being."

Snapshot of graduating seniors

  • Undergraduate Class of 2007: 1,597 (782 women, 815 men)
  • Graduating with departmental honors: 333
  • Graduating with university distinction: 262
  • Graduating with dual bachelor's degrees: 58
  • Earning a bachelor's and a master's degree: 150
  • Completing minors: 377
Total undergraduate and graduate degrees granted
  • Bachelor's degrees: 1,644
  • Master's degrees: 2,085
  • Doctoral degrees: 968