From Knackered Downunder

Dana Gioia, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in the US, is bemoaning the lack of connection that many Americans now have with culture. It may be a familiar argument, but Gioia’s point is that it wasn’t always so.

What’s also interesting is that Gioia — in a commencement speech at Stanford last week — claims that one of the side-effects has been the bifurcation of America into passive and active citizens; in other words, those who spend time as passive consumers of electronic entertainment, and another group which uses and enjoys the new technology.

They go out — to exercise, play sports, volunteer and do 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.

More exactly, he’s not blaming technology, rather how people use it.

What is the defining difference between passive and active citizens? Curiously, it isn’t income, geography or even education. It depends on 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,” he says.

And he also says: “I worry about a culture that 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 lays some of the blame with the education system, which is focused on producing minimally competent entry-level workers,and some with America’s artists and intellectuals who “have lost their ability to converse with the rest of society.”

He also notes how mass media in America — and this is something of a contrarian thought — actually did use to promote the arts rather than disdain them — in the 1960s, for example. Programs like The Ed Sullivan Show featured both classical and popular musicians; Gioia himself first encountered Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, Lillian Hellman and James Baldwin on general TV shows.

Today no working-class kid would encounter that range of arts and ideas in the popular culture. Almost everything in our national culture, even the news, has been reduced to entertainment, or altogether eliminated.”

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.”

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.”

The solution, he argues, is greater emphasis on arts education.

We need to create a new national consensus. 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.”

It’s a good question. Would a piece of comedy like this Monty Python sketch be made today? Here’s where you can buy yourself a copy.

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