Thursday, November 27, 2008

What We're Thankful For

HERE AT TWR, WE'RE thankful for the newest addition to the staff (see left). But, for those of you less taken with the ability of a newborn to twirl a basketball on his umbilical cord, you might be wondering how thankful you should be for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and its soon-to-be-departing chair, poet and corporate vice-president, Dana Gioia.

In a recent piece in The National Review Online, Baylor University professor Thomas S. Hibbs claims that we (at least conservatives) should be surprisingly thankful for Gioia's tenure. Hibbs points to Gioia's life as a barometer of how Gioia (himself a text) should be read. According to Hibbs, Gioia is a model of the marriage of "populism and intellectual cultivation" and a beacon for conservatives who are worried that contemporary American culture is a cesspool of "smut and filth"--Gioia's description of how the conservative Right has long viewed the NEA--a perspective he sought to remedy.

Hibbs himself sees the NEA through such a lens. To him, Gioia stands as a conservative bulwark against the tide of what he sees as the NEA's moral relativism, shoddy aesthetics, and disdain for ameliorative art. Though he doesn't mention Andres Serrano or Robert Mapplethorpe by name, there is no doubt that these projects are, for Hibbs, symbols of the NEA's moral ambiguity.

Uncomfortable with such projects, Gioia moved away from funding edginess. Instead, he championed opera and Shakespeare--icons of Anglo high culture and for some, that culture's elitism. "Gioia's own work," notes Hibbs, "offers something for which conservatives should be justifiably proud and grateful." What appeals to conservatives about Gioia is his inflexibility in regard to entertainment versus art. For Gioia, for Hibbs, and for most conservatives, there is a sharp distinction between the two. Art lifts and transcends; entertainment deadens and stupefies.

I have written about this issue in a couple of different venues, most notably in the magazine Conversations in which I address Gioia's and the NEA's alarmist report Reading at Risk. The argument I lay out is too tedious to unpack here, but simply referring to the photo above brings the pointlessness of generic distinctions into focus.

My son holds both a basketball and a copy of Wallace Stevens' Collected Poems (two things for which I'm incredibly grateful). For those who have read early Stevens and watched Michael Jordan play basketball, is it really that obvious how I would respond to baby Gavin if he asked me which was entertainment and which was art?


  1. Witty and intelligent final paragraph! Art indeed. (By the way, if Jordan was art, what are the Warriors these days?)

    Hibbs has spoken at USF a few times, most interestingly on film noir. He has some decent reads on some movies, though his conclusions tend to be all backwards (imho) about cultural relativism and Nietzsche and other such terrible things.

  2. this is a very smart essay, but i think you may oversimplify the distinction between art and entertainment. isn't one supposed to make you better and the other supposed to keep you occupied?

  3. Thanks for the comments, Anon (and Jeff). The distinctions are Gioia's and Hibbs's. Not mine. To me, the distinctions are false distinctions. They suggest that entertainment cannot educate or enliven and that art cannot entertain. I don't buy either claim.