Everything now is entertainment. And the purpose of this omnipresent
commercial entertainment is to sell us something. American culture
has mostly become one vast infomercial.
I have a reccurring nightmare. I am in Rome visiting the Sistine
Chapel. I look up at Michelangelo's incomparable fresco of the
"Creation of Man." I see God stretching out his arm
to touch the reclining Adam's finger. And then I notice in the
other hand Adam is holding a Diet Pepsi.
When was the last time you have seen a featured guest on David
Letterman or Jay Leno who isn't trying to sell you something?
A new movie, a new TV show, a new book, or a new vote?
Don't get me wrong. I love entertainment, and I love the free
market. I have a Stanford MBA and spent 15 years in the food
industry. I adore my big-screen TV. The productivity and efficiency
of the free market is beyond dispute. It has created a society
of unprecedented prosperity.
But we must remember that the marketplace does only one thing—it
puts a price on everything.
The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics. It is
not focused on the price of things, but on their value. And,
above all, culture should tell us what is beyond price, including
what does not belong in the marketplace. A culture should also
provide some cogent view of the good life beyond mass accumulation.
In this respect, our culture is failing us.
There is only one social force in America potentially large
and strong enough to counterbalance this profit-driven commercialization
of cultural values, our educational system, especially public
education. Traditionally, education has been one thing that
our nation has agreed cannot be left entirely to the marketplace—but
made mandatory and freely available to everyone.
At 56, I am just old enough to remember a time when every public
high school in this country had a music program with choir and
band, usually a jazz band, too, sometimes even orchestra. And
every high school offered a drama program, sometimes with dance
instruction. And there were writing opportunities in the school
paper and literary magazine, as well as studio art training.
I am sorry to say that these programs are no longer widely available
to the new generation of Americans. This once visionary and
democratic system has been almost entirely dismantled by well-meaning
but myopic school boards, county commissioners, and state officials,
with the federal government largely indifferent to the issue.
Art became an expendable luxury, and 50 million students have
paid the price. Today a child's access to arts education is
largely a function of his or her parents' income.
In a time of social progress and economic prosperity, why have
we experienced this colossal cultural and political decline?
There are several reasons, but I must risk offending many friends
and colleagues by saying that surely artists and intellectuals
are partly to blame. 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.
This mutual estrangement has had enormous cultural, social,
and political consequences. America needs its artists and intellectuals,
and they need to reestablish their rightful place in the general
culture. If we could reopen the conversation between our best
minds and the broader public, the results would not only transform
society but also artistic and intellectual life.
There is no better place to start this rapprochement than in
arts education. How do we explain to the larger society the
benefits of this civic investment when they have been convinced
that the purpose of arts education is mostly to produce more
artists—hardly a compelling argument to either the average
taxpayer or financially strapped school board?
We need to create a new national consensus. The purpose of arts
education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproduct.
The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human
beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in
a free society.
This is not happening now in American schools. Even if you forget
the larger catastrophe that only 70 percent of American kids
now graduate from high school, what are we to make of a public
education system whose highest goal seems to be producing minimally
competent entry-level workers?
The situation is a cultural and educational disaster, but it
also has huge and alarming economic consequences. If the United
States is to compete effectively with the rest of the world
in the new global marketplace, it is not going to succeed through
cheap labor or cheap raw materials, nor even the free flow of
capital or a streamlined industrial base. To compete successfully,
this country needs continued creativity, ingenuity, and innovation.
It is hard to see those qualities thriving in a nation whose
educational system ranks at the bottom of the developed world
and has mostly eliminated the arts from the curriculum.
from the June 17. 2007
given at Stanford University,
Palo Alto, California
by National Endowment for the Arts Chairman ,Dana Gioia