Most American artists, intellectuals, and academics have lost their ability to converse with the rest of society. We have become wonderfully expert in talking to one another, but we have become almost invisible and inaudible in the general culture.
Last month, Dana Gioia – a cool dude who is a poet, an MBA, and the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts – delivered quite an interesting speech to address graduating Stanford students (and the parents who largely paid for their undergraduate education), claiming that the decline in artists’ engagement with the world around them is a prime factor in the collective dumbing down of America.
The speech has been criticized for painting the past in rosy-colored hues (what about the McCarthy years?) and not recognizing today’s highlights of popular culture (from the baroque complexity of Lost to Oprah’s tireless efforts to get people to read books). I leave it to you to form your own opinion. In the meantime, it never hurts to go back to the classics, so I leave you with another excerpt from Gioia’s speech, this time quoting the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius:
Marcus Aurelius believed that the course of wisdom consisted of learning 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.