I happened across Dana Gioia's commencement address to Stanford University's graduating class of 2007 courtesy of A1GirlRevolution. It's pretty stirring stuff if you are of a creative bent. And it should be pretty stirring stuff even if you aren't.
I've always been drawn to art (ha!). As a kid, I was all about the visual arts -- drawing, painting, photography, etc. The letters, well, they've always been there as well. But I was a pretty shy kid, and with visual arts, the rest of my class saw and complimented me on my wunderkind-ish abilities. With writing, I would have had to foist my scribblings upon them so that they could recognize my genius. And, well, I wasn't that bold. I am now, though (wink).
Where was I? Oh, right. When the opportunity arose in my ninth grade social studies class to write a research paper on a current event, I chose to write about Jesse Helms' zealotry in limiting the NEA's freedom to grant...well, grants. This was in the time of Robert Mapplethorpe and various other artists that Congress deemed too racy to subsidize. To be honest, I don't know that I'd fork over $500,000 for one of Mapplethorpe's photographs, but here's what my fourteen-year-old self and my thirty-one year-old self believe: his right to create it was incontrovertible, and it's up to the NEA, not Congress, to determine who should and shouldn't receive artistic grants.
And the reason I have this opinion? Because art was exciting, and controversial, and was making people think. At the time, there was a LOT of conversation about first amendment rights to express one's self through art. The debate took center stage on many a news broadcast, and many a news magazine.
And what do we debate today?
Whether or not Paris Hilton was treated fairly when she was tossed in the clink for violating the terms of her DUI probation. Britney Spears' parenting skills. Is Nicole Richie sporting a baby bump or does she have a distended belly since she's malnourished? Lindsay Lohan's substance abuse problems. Is Angelina Jolie a savior of disadvantaged children or does she have some kind of weird hording complex?
So, here's the thing. I don't think I was more engaged with the current events when I was fourteen. At my house, we received US News & World Report and US Weekly, and I read both of them cover to cover. What's weird, though, is that I know much, much more about celebrities now than I do about, say, the United Nations. But I'm reading the same amount of news, and I'm watching more of it courtesy of 24 hour news television. So what gives?
Clearly, celebrity news isn't a recent cultural phenomenon. The society pages were the precursors to the tabloids. The hoi polloi have often lived vicariously through the elite, so it's natural that we'd want all the bulletins about them. But celebrity journalism...well, it's supplanting actual news. It's not relegated to a column, or a page, or a section, or a publication. It's inextricably entwined with all news.
Dana Gioia's point is that artists could possibly generate enough of a buzz to make us stop the madness and talk about current events in a productive way. It's not like art is the answer to the world's ills, but if Guernica could still cause a bit of a scandal in 2003, well, wouldn't something from the 21st century generate some pretty interesting conversation?
Even if we don't use art to highlight tragic conflict and force the movers and shakers in world politics to have a chat about resolving them, we should still be more aware of art and literature. I'll leave you with this: Robert Frost was the US Poet Laureate from 1958-1959. Name one of the thirty-three poets who held the position after him. One. You can check your answers here.