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Summer 2004 | Volume 26, Number 7 | Features

A Conversation With Dana Gioia

Editor's Note: This is the unabridged version of the Response conversation with Dana Gioia that was printed in the Summer 2004 issue.

Q: In 1992’s Can Poetry Matter?, you challenged us to bring poetry back out of seclusion in academia. Have you noticed any progress in this?
A: I’m both encouraged and discouraged by the trends in American art. What I find most encouraging in poetry, and in some of the other arts, is the growing awareness that the vitality of culture depends on engaging a broad, mixed audience.

Most of the innovation in American poetry that’s happened over the past 10 years has happened outside the university. We have a renewal of interest in poetry and the other arts by non-professionals. We are also seeing a groundswell of community-based activities in the arts. This trend takes many forms. It ranges from bookstore readings to neighborhood book clubs to grassroots performance groups in theatre and music. People understand, at a deep, instinctive level, the power of art to build and refine community identity. This seems, to me, a wonderful and important trend.

The university has an extremely important part to play in all of the arts, but it is not a part that can be done alone. There needs to be a broader dialogue in society between artists, academics, bohemians and the general audience.

What I find discouraging is the continuing encroachment of the commercial, electronic media on American culture. Reading and other sorts of cultural activities are in decline as people spend more time with television, the Internet, iPods, DVDs — all of the electronic paraphernalia. I worry that the average American is becoming more of a passive consumer and less of an active and engaged individual.

Q: It seems that religious art has become a sort of ghetto all its own, suffering from a loss of quality, integrity and relevance, and lacking the cultural prominence it once had. What needs to happen in order for that to change?
A: One of the most troubling legacies we face at the beginning of the 21st century is the separation between religion and art that occurred during the 20th century. Art became an almost entirely secular enterprise, and worship became increasingly separated from contemporary forms of art. This schism impoverished both art and worship. In art, it left us, by the end of the 20th century, with a shallow nihilism and cynical elitism that typified many artistic communities. In religion, it gave us a legacy of bad architecture, sentimental art and often-inappropriate music.

As a writer, I particularly lament the separation between the religious and the aesthetic. Many of my favorite modern novelists belong to the minority of Catholic authors — writers like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, James Joyce, Muriel Spark, Anthony Burgess and J.R.R. Tolkien. These writers all created from the highest literary standards, but with the most profound spiritual aspirations. American literature is full of enormous spiritual hungers that are yet to be well satisfied. I deeply admire modern Christian poets like T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. For writers of faith, reconciling the artistic and the spiritual is the great work of the new century.

Q: How have you endeavored to restore the NEA’s integrity after the controversies of its recent history?
A: There are two ways of answering the question. One is to say: The role of running the NEA is to avoid risk and controversy. Or you can say: The way that you rebuild the agency is not by avoiding risk, but by accomplishing positive things. My whole strategy here has been to change the reputation and to rebuild the agency by creating programs of indisputable public value. That seems to me a more positive and productive strategy than simply trying to lie low.

Q: There is a new DVD player technology that lets you edit out violence, foul language and nudity from movies, with the goal of making the movies safe for children. What are your views on this increasingly public debate over the difference between censorship and the conscientious filtering of art and entertainment?

A: It’s a complicated question. In our society, artists should have freedom, but so should the audience. Artists should be free to create how they see best. But by the same token, artists should not believe that they have an entitlement to an audience. Every member of the audience has the freedom to accept or reject a work of art, as well as to edit it for their personal use.

For example, people read books and skip over parts they don’t find interesting. There should be no compulsion that the moment you open a book, you have a legal obligation to read every word. There should be freedom to view films and to fast forward.

As a parent, I feel increasingly a responsibility to take stewardship over what my children see. I cannot trust the culture to make those decisions for me. Most parents are concerned about violence and sexuality in what their children see. But I’m equally concerned by the crass commercialism, the cheapness and the pervasive vulgarity that I see in the mass media, which in some ways are as bad on reality game shows as they are on any cop movie.

Freedom works at every level of our society. The audience’s great power is to say “yes” or “no.” And if it loses that power, or relegates that power to others, then it gives up an essential element of self-determination. The marketplace, even in the high arts, is very powerful.

Q: How does your personal faith influence your work for the NEA?
A: One’s spiritual life nourishes and informs every aspect of one’s social and private life. I do not run the National Endowment for the Arts with any religious bias. But I do deeply believe in the spiritual power of art.

We are in a culture in which people are spiritually starved, and these hungers are not satisfied by popular entertainment. The arts have an enormous responsibility to nourish the souls of people. I feel that the main thing that I’m doing at the Endowment is focusing on bringing art of indisputable quality to the broadest audiences possible. By the end of next year, we will have brought a million high school kids, among many other audiences, into their first production of Shakespeare.

Something else that we’re doing at the Endowment is this: We’re encouraging faith-based organizations to apply. In the past, many such organizations have felt either unwelcome or uninformed about possibilities of receiving federal funding. I’m very proud that among our first-time grant recipients this year are many faith-based organizations. The NEA exists to serve all Americans. Last time I heard, some of those Americans were religious.

Q: The NEA’s new study, Reading at Risk, reveals such dispiriting news about the decline of reading in our society. How about publishing “Six Steps to Save Reading”?
A: The Pacific Northwest and the Mountain States have maintained the highest levels of reading in the United States. You read more than New York City does. We look to you for leadership.

The NEA purposely issued the report without recommendations. Government agencies attach recommendations to their more troubling reports, the reports that outline crises. We deliberately did not do that with Reading at Risk, because there is a necessity to create a national debate about these issues. There is no one reason why this is happening. There will be no one solution to the issue. The way that we will arrest, or reverse, the decline in reading in America is by attacking the problem at every level of our society.

I, of course, have a great many ideas about what we should do. I don’t, however, feel that my ideas begin to exhaust the possibilities. My own instincts tell me that the three areas in which we should focus are education, public activities and media coverage.

Let me explain. First, we need at every level of education to emphasize reading, not only as a technique to master, but also as a pleasurable and engaging activity. From my own observation, I think that colleges are greatly at fault in contemporary English departments. They have taken the joy out of reading and made it dully analytical. If you look at the Reading at Risk report, you see that reading correlates with education. So, as our nation becomes ostensibly better educated, with more college graduates than ever before, it is bitterly ironic that reading would be declining with every group. Something is not happening in our educational process that turns people into lifelong readers. Reading in our culture has been separated from pleasure.

Second, there’s a social aspect of reading that intellectuals like you and me ignore. Most people want to read things that other people are reading. They want to be able to talk about them and to participate in a civic aspect of literature. That’s why things like Oprah’s Book Club, or the neighborhood book club, are so important. It provides many people with social reinforcement of this behavior, and allows them to explore their own ideas and listen to other people’s reactions. A hundred years ago, this simply happened naturally, as people read books, passed them on and talked about them. In our culture, we have to do it artificially, through book clubs. If that’s the case, then I think that we need to create thousands of reading-oriented social activities, from community book clubs; to singles’ book clubs; to seniors’ book clubs; to Catholic, Lutheran and Buddhist book clubs — in order to create reading communities.

And finally, media tells us what our society thinks is important: entertainment, sports, money, food, health, traffic, weather. We tend to see ourselves, and our society, as the media portrays it. And when you cut off reading from that media mix, you do not nourish reading and literature. You can see what media attention on Harry Potter did for the sales of that individual book. You can see what Oprah’s selection of Anna Karenina on her book club did for the new translation of that novel. If we could, in thousands of different situations, create discussion and recognition of reading literature — as well as the other arts — that would, in and of itself, arrest the problem. I don’t know if it would reverse it, but it would it would make a significant difference.

Q: Clearly, Oprah's Book Club has had a major impact on the publishing industry and what Americans read. What would you put on the short list for "Gioia's Book Club"?
A: I can tell you about a few of the books that have affected me most deeply in my life. Two that come to mind are St. Augustine’s City of God and Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. From Augustine, I learned the power of community. From Thomas à Kempis, I learned the necessity of contemplation and solitude. Another philosophical work that has deeply affected me is Miguel de Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life, which made me, an Italian-Mexican living in an Anglo-Saxon nation, understand the nature of my Latin worldview.

Q: From your perspective as an artist of faith, how does art reveal the nature of God and reflects spiritual realities?
A: If you believe in God, then you must accept that there is a meaning and coherence in the world. You must also believe there is a correspondence between the material and the spiritual realms of existence, even if you cannot easily discern it. The purpose of art, therefore, is to explore and illuminate that meaning, that coherence, and correspondence. That is the task of Christian art, even when it has no overtly religious subject. That has certainly not been the enterprise of post-modernism, which has customarily sought to deny meaning and demonstrate incoherence.

Dana Gioia shared his top reading recommendations. What are yours? Post your suggestions for other readers on Response 's Online Bulletin Board by clicking here.

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