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The State of the Arts

Dana Gioia’s mission is to bring the best works to the broadest audience—with no political strings attached.

Barbara Ries

BY THE BOOK: "You won’t find me compromising free speech," says the new NEA head.

When Dana Gioia was nominated to the top post at the National Endowment for the Arts last fall, many predicted the Santa Rosa, Calif., poet would be a shoo-in. They were right, but for the wrong reasons: by the time the Senate unanimously confirmed his appointment on January 29, war was on everyone’s mind, not art. Gioia, ’73, MBA ’77, has frequently provoked controversy—he’s attacked academia for making poetry the product of an inbred coterie, called today’s poetry criticism “wimpy” and accused literary San Francisco of “living off an imagined sense of greatness and centrality.”

Author of three books of poetry and several volumes of essays and translations, Gioia was born in the rough neighborhoods outside L.A., the son of a Sicilian cab driver and a Mexican/Native American telephone operator. He was vice president of marketing at General Foods before becoming a full-time man of letters in 1992. Undoubtedly both sides of Gioia—businessman and artist, urbane intellectual and working-class populist—interested the NEA.

Since taking office, he has already launched the largest-ever American theatrical tour of Shakespeare, with professional companies playing in more than 100 small and midsize cities in all 50 states. Cynthia Haven interviewed him in May.

Your last few predecessors have been fairly low-key, Washington types. You clearly are not. What issues would you like to spotlight?

My central—and indeed unavoidable—mission is to articulate a compelling case for public support of the arts and arts education. There is an urgent need to create a positive and inclusive consensus on arts funding, one that refuses to be partisan or polarizing. The chairmanship of the NEA is probably the only position from which such a case can currently be made effectively, and I plan to do it.

Yet there’s an enduring belief among conservatives that the private sector, not government, ought to fund the arts.

I resist all monolithic programs for culture. I agree that arts should be privately funded, but why does that belief require that they only be privately funded? Objections to state and federal funding rest mostly on the dangers of government control. This is not an idle worry. State control of the arts has occurred in many countries; it even exists today in nations like China. But there is no danger of government control in the United States, where the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, and—in purely practical terms—federal support of the arts represents only 1 percent of total arts funding. I think we could double or triple the current budget without much worry on this issue.

The real issue is to demonstrate the benefits of federal arts funding. That has not been done in a compelling and inclusive way. To claim that the arts are entitled to funding is not a cogent argument, especially in a time of economic downturn and increased national defense needs. A serious, mainstream argument for the irreplaceable civic and educational importance of the arts needs to be fostered.

America, like Britain, has a National Theater, yet we’ve never been willing to give it the funding to make it a vital center. As a librettist, you know that American singers must go abroad to build up their operatic resumes—to Germany, for example, where there is heavy state arts funding. Would you like to see this picture change?

I admire the American system of philanthropy, which combines private and public funding through individuals, corporations and foundations, as well as local, state and federal governments. This system provides maximum artistic freedom and local control, and it has produced a national community of museums, theaters, opera houses, ballet companies, symphony orchestras and other arts institutions that are now probably unmatched anywhere in the world except perhaps Germany.

I don’t think America would be well served to adopt a European model of state support for the arts. In that system, which was developed in aristocratic or imperial political systems, the arts not only receive most of their funding from the state, but they are also seen as an extension of the state. Many artists are even employed as civil servants. It creates a system in which artists are either insiders or excluded. That system is now hardly working even in Europe, where it faces economic and political problems.

The most visible issue the NEA has had to face in recent years has been so-called government-funded obscenity. Given the stated importance of “family values” to the current administration, where do you stand on this issue, and on potential charges of censorship?

I believe in the First Amendment. The Endowment makes its decisions on artistic excellence, not on a work’s point of view. This criterion was upheld by the Supreme Court. You won ’t find me compromising free speech.

I must introduce some caution, however, in the use of the word “censorship.” Is not getting a government grant “censorship” per se? If that is the case, then we censor thousands of organizations and individuals every year, since we receive far more applications than we can afford to fund. Under such a definition, the New Yorker would be America ’s leading literary censor.

When poets said they intended to use the White House’s “Poetry and the American Voice” event as an antiwar forum, it was canceled. Do you agree with U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins that the politicization of that event might signal the end of literary events at the White House?

Of course not. Literary events will continue at the White House. Laura Bush is a serious and passionate reader and educator. Problems with a single event will not change her commitment to celebrating literature. Many poets see themselves as political creatures and act accordingly. That is their inalienable right, just as it was Laura Bush’s right to cancel a disruptive event in her own home.

How do you see art and the NEA fitting into the nation’s awareness and priorities, given the focus on terrorism, war and homeland security? What about the popular notion that important art often emerges from troubled times?

The importance of art is never more evident than in times of war or terror. People instinctively turn to modes of expression strong enough to bear the weight of their grief, fear or anxiety. Mere entertainment is inadequate to the occasion. One saw this phenomenon so clearly after the events of September 11. Suddenly W.H. Auden’s neglected poem, “September 1, 1939,” acquired what one journalist called an “almost scriptural status.” People who hadn’t looked at a poem since high school were reading and reciting it.

How war and terror affect art is a complicated subject. There is no simple reaction to such profound events; the responses depend upon the individual writer and his or her circumstances. But I suspect that great personal and public suffering generally tends to elicit responses of commensurate magnitude in the best artists.

As our country grows more diverse, can art help interpret what is “American”?

The arts are not programmatic or analytical like science or philosophy; they are experiential and holistic. They can help us understand the complex notion of what it means to be American, but mostly in indirect ways. The arts don’t give us answers or definitions. Instead they alert us to areas of experience we might otherwise overlook or dismiss. They expand and develop our humanity—sometimes even the national qualities of our humanity.

Attendance at museums has exploded in recent years. Is this the result of more interest in art, or merely another entertainment option? Does it matter? If more people support arts institutions, is there a trickle-down effect that bolsters all artists?

The growing attendance at art museums over the past few decades has led to an enormous expansion in both new and established institutions. Artists, dealers, curators and scholars have all directly benefited. Many midsize American cities now have public museums as well as commercial galleries. It is astonishing to go to a city like Asheville, N.C., or Santa Barbara, Calif., and see the vitality and diversity of the local arts scene. I suspect that today Santa Fe, N.M., has as many commercial art galleries as Paris did 100 years ago. It’s not a trickle-down effect in many cases. It is a steady, widening stream.

There has been a lot of discussion about who “owns” culture—the so-called elite or the “masses.” How do we make art appreciation a standard feature of American life rather than a wedge between classes and ideologies?

No single group owns culture, and there is no single enterprise that constitutes culture. American arts culture is made up of thousands of institutions and millions of individual artists and patrons. A healthy culture demonstrates diversity and incorporates disagreements. Perhaps a culture is best known less by what it agrees upon than what it considers worth arguing about.

As chairman, I must remember that my agency does not serve the arts establishment. It serves the American people. The arts establishment provides our partnership in this endeavor, but they are not an end in themselves. We must work together to bring the best works of art to the broadest audiences. I refuse to believe that artistic excellence and democracy are incompatible.

Read a May 2010 update on this story.

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