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Dana Gioia says, "I don't think that Americans were smarter then, but American culture was."
June 26, 2007 10:38 AM   Subscribe

Fifty years ago, I suspect that along with Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax, most Americans could have named, at the very least, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Georgia O'Keeffe, Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Not to mention scientists and thinkers like Linus Pauling, Jonas Salk, Rachel Carson, Margaret Mead, and especially Dr. Alfred Kinsey.
The prepared text of the speech delivered by Dana Gioia at Stanford University Commencement on June 17, 2007.
posted by cgc373 (153 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
The prepared text of the speech delivered by Dana Gioia.

Who?
posted by three blind mice at 10:43 AM on June 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


Old Man Thinks Things Ain't What They Used to Be, Ignored By American Culture.
posted by muddgirl at 10:45 AM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Gioia is a poet, evangelist for the public virtues of poetry, and Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
posted by MattD at 10:46 AM on June 26, 2007


The irony is that by this metric, the American people are "smarter" today than 50 years ago - in that they can name even more entertainment figures than ever before.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:49 AM on June 26, 2007


But how many websites could they name? Oho!
posted by DU at 10:51 AM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Is a better speech than that, muddgirl, and a necessary one for graduates at elite schools, where enlightened self-improvement is a distant third behind behind making money and causing social change in terms of public goals. I do think that he's too alarmist by half in terms of the alleged death of arts programs in high schools. Even in 2007, most high schools have bands and drama programs, and those that lack them do so because of lack of size or prevalence of gross social pathologies, not because of lack of priorities.
posted by MattD at 10:51 AM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Dead link, or is it just me?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:52 AM on June 26, 2007


I'm pretty certain that fifty years ago those people were still alive, thus popular culture icons of their time.

On the other hand, I suspect that the guy baiting lobster traps or working the production line at GM did not know who most of those people were.
posted by SteveInMaine at 10:52 AM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


We had stadards back then but did not (alas) have Michael Jackson. And that makes all the difference
posted by Postroad at 10:52 AM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ah, now it's loading. Carry on.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 10:53 AM on June 26, 2007


There is an experiment I'd love to conduct. I'd like to survey a cross-section of Americans and ask them how many active NBA players, Major League Baseball players, and American Idol finalists they can name.

Then I'd ask them how many living American poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, classical musicians, conductors, and composers they can name.


So what do NBA players, Major League Baseball players, American Idol finalists, poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, classical musicians, conductors and composers have in common? They're all entertainers.

So I don't exactly get why it's taken as a given that one group is somehow more 'cultured' then another. I mean really the only difference is that the second group is carrying on old traditions while the first group is doing newer things. But how can you say one form of entertainment is intrinsically better then another.

I think the major difference is that before the "the masses" didn't have the income to create their own entertainment markets, and the media to distribute it. Now they do.

And anyway, what is rap music if not poetry set to music. You may not like the subject matter but that's pretty much what it is. In which case most Americans can probably name several "poets"
posted by delmoi at 10:54 AM on June 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


There is an experiment I'd love to conduct. I'd like to survey a cross-section of Americans and ask them...

Fifty years ago, I suspect that along with Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax, most Americans could have named...


In other words, he has no idea whether, on average, people were familiar with a broader range of people fifty years ago, but since several of the teenagers around him can't name as many classical musicians as he can he's gonna just assume some facts and make an argument from there.
posted by straight at 11:02 AM on June 26, 2007 [4 favorites]


I agree with delmoi - Also is it not sad that the (current) NEA chairman falls into the far too common trap of looking back wistfully to a past that never was, rather than extolling the virtue of today’s “art” and its unbelievable omnipresence and variety?
posted by 2bucksplus at 11:04 AM on June 26, 2007


On the other hand, I suspect that the guy baiting lobster traps or working the production line at GM did not know who most of those people were.

Well, since he says that he encountered those people by watching Ed Sullivan, I'd say that there's actually a pretty good chance that the guy baiting lobster traps happened to hear of those people on the most watched show in America at the time. I think that's his point: the non-commercial arts have been pulled out of popular culture entirely, and he's not wrong.

They're all entertainers.

This is simplistic to the point of absurdity. Art doesn't necessarily entertain, and no the definition of entertaining is not "whatever a person happens to like." I like steak, but it's not entertaining. There is a marked difference between poets who, among people who read poetry, are massively successful but still hope for a teaching job at a nice university that they can actually feed a family on and rappers who are massively successful for a year or two and then retire early to live a life of leisure on their bajillions of dollars (note, this is not an indictment of hip hop or all hip hop artists.) The fact is that there are people who create art for the sake of art regardless of whether or not it will make them rich. Those people are non-commercial artists, and they've been marginalized practically out of existence.
posted by shmegegge at 11:04 AM on June 26, 2007 [6 favorites]


50 years ago I wouldn't have wanted all the kids 'OFF MY LAWN!"
posted by sfts2 at 11:09 AM on June 26, 2007 [3 favorites]


Mr. Goia, please name as many people as you can from each of the following categories:

- Popular Japanese musicians from the 1960s to 1990s
- Web cartoonists
- Actors who have played Count Dracula
- Comic book writers from the United Kingdom
- Pirates, circa 1680 to 1740

If you cannot name as many people from these categories as I can, I must assume you are not as intelligent and cultured as I am. QED.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:11 AM on June 26, 2007 [5 favorites]


Goia Gioia. Damn.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:15 AM on June 26, 2007


This smacks a bit of "get off my damn lawn kids," but the man's got a point. Ever see Groucho Marx's old game show "You Bet Your Life?" The contestants on the show were usually just regular working-class Americans, but seemed much more engaged in intellectualism, whether in the higher quality of the banter with Groucho, their general knowledge in the game, or in introducing themselves and explaining their interests and hobbies. The audience too seemed to appreciate a drier and wittier humor than you can find on TV these days. It's pretty striking to watch (apart from being wildly entertaining in its own right).
posted by SBMike at 11:16 AM on June 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


delmoi, there is a difference between rap music and poetry, and there is a difference between slam poetry (which in my opinion is often significantly better seen performed than read) and poetry written for paper, for lack of a better term (which in my opinion is often better on paper than seen performed). They may all fall into similar categories, but the differences are vast. This might not be the best analogy, but I think I can make a decent comparison with film; I doubt that you would argue that "American Pie" or "Scary Movie" are the same as "Citizen Kane" or "Life is Beautiful." Sure, they're all movies, but very different ends of the spectrum.

Anyway. I don't know any children who have imaginary friends anymore. I know a large number who will only read a book if their parents make them, and even when they do, they can't visualize the characters. They don't know what Harry Potter or Hermione look like until they see the movies. I do think that's sad, and I do think that at least a part of that comes from the fact that electronic forms of entertainment have become such a prevalent part of our lives. Perhaps that's just me and my wistful nostalgia toward childhood, but I am intrigued to see what sort of paths these children raised on electronics will take once they've grown. I think that we'll probably see more advances in technology and entertainment, which certainly isn't bad, as long as the traditional art forms don't fade with it.

I don't think that art is disappearing, and I don't think that it will. But I do think that it's prominence in the general culture has faded quite a bit, and I hope that it's importance is not underestimated in the future.
posted by plaingurl at 11:18 AM on June 26, 2007


Sure, its true. Thats not the point, the point is to spend an entire commencement address at one of the most prestigious universities in the country whining about something so obvious. No wonder he works for the Government.
posted by sfts2 at 11:20 AM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Apropos of SBMike's comment, I wonder how many of today's Americans could tell you who's buried in Grant's Tomb.
posted by Rangeboy at 11:21 AM on June 26, 2007


and no the definition of entertaining is not "whatever a person happens to like."

Well what is it then?

There is a marked difference between poets who, among people who read poetry, are massively successful but still hope for a teaching job at a nice university that they can actually feed a family on and rappers who are massively successful for a year or two and then retire early to live a life of leisure on their bajillions of dollars

First of all most rappers don't make that much money. A lot of the "cash money" stuff is just artifice designed to project an image of wealth.

But really, the "marked difference" between the two is popularity. If poetry books were as popular as mass-market pop novels then you'd see lots of rich poets like you see rich authors like J.K Rowling, Steven King, Micheal Creighton. Now if that were the case then would that make poetry any less poetic? Obviously not. The difference in lifestyles is not due to a difference in art. Of course rap is set to background music, but still it's primarily the same.

The fact is that there are people who create art for the sake of art regardless of whether or not it will make them rich.

Are you saying people like Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Georgia O'Keeffe, Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price, and Frank Lloyd Wright didn't make any money? I'm sure there are plenty of pop media artists who create things because they love doing it rather then for the money, they're just obscure. Look at all the original content on youtube.
posted by delmoi at 11:22 AM on June 26, 2007


Gioia was a favorite of George W. Bush to lead the NEA, which tells you a lot about him. He would do better to direct his pensées on the state of education, childrearing, and the imagination to his Republican buddies in Congress and the White House, who granted him his title and are apparently much enamored with the corporate good sense he's brought to the agency.

A former VP Marketing (Marketing!) at General Foods Corp. delivering a Jeremiad on education and imagination! What gall! He should have been egged off the stage by the good students of Stanford.
posted by ori at 11:24 AM on June 26, 2007


Number of Americans who believe Saddam-9/11 tie rises to 41 percent
posted by homunculus at 11:25 AM on June 26, 2007


I also have to wonder at the appropriateness of this venue for this speech, as Stanford hardly seems to be a haven for anti-intellectualism and mediocrity.
posted by SBMike at 11:28 AM on June 26, 2007


I doubt that you would argue that "American Pie" or "Scary Movie" are the same as "Citizen Kane" or "Life is Beautiful." Sure, they're all movies, but very different ends of the spectrum.

Well you're comparing the relationship between types of poetry with the relationship between specific movies. A more proper comparison would between hip-hop and literary poetry and the relationship between, say, dramas and romantic comedies. There is plenty of crap in both sets. And there is plenty of bad poetry out there, just look at myspace and livejournal.
posted by delmoi at 11:28 AM on June 26, 2007


Good speech. Sad comments, mostly.

I really liked the line from his poem, "lovers swear loyalty in a careless world."
posted by blacklite at 11:29 AM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well Mr. Gioia, why don't you walk into your bosses office and tell him to take back the airwaves from the corporations who are abusing them for profit. Those wistful days you remember so fondly were brought to you because the government mandated that each and every show on the air have some sort of redeeming and enriching segment. That's the reason variety shows used to have at least one music act (as many still do today) so they wouldn't get yanked off the air the people who granted them the privilege.

His beef is with Disney, GE and Viacom. The people will just consume what they are fed. Corporations will always find it more lucrative to appeal to base instincts instead of our more noble (less consumer-driven) nature so they must be forced into providing more cultural programs.
posted by any major dude at 11:35 AM on June 26, 2007 [3 favorites]


straight: In other words, he has no idea whether, on average, people were familiar with a broader range of people fifty years ago, but since several of the teenagers around him can't name as many classical musicians as he can he's gonna just assume some facts and make an argument from there.

I present you:

The Method of Cautious Inquiry
as understood by Dana Gioia
  1. Come up with an experiment you'd like to try.
  2. Guess the results of this experiment.
  3. Worry a great deal about these results.
  4. Ponder aloud various vague solutions to mitigate these results.
posted by ori at 11:36 AM on June 26, 2007 [3 favorites]


Well what is it then?

For the willfully obtuse.

affording entertainment; amusing; diverting

Can art be amusing? yes. can it be diverting? yes. can it entertain? yes. must it? no on all counts. I wouldn't call Paradise Lost or the paintings of Rothko amusing, but ymmv.

no, i never said that all rappers make a lot of money, and I'd be interested in seeing where you believe I said that. additionally, I never said that robert frost et al. did not make money, and I'd be interested in seeing where you believe I said that. I would also be interested in hearing your response to what I did say.

If you want to talk non-commercial hip hop, I can shoot the shit with you all day about the likes of Aesop Rock, El-P, Acey Alone, doesone, odd nosdam Atmosphere, Edan, clouddead and a host of other brilliant underground and independent hip hop artists. If you want I'll sit with you and we can talk about biggy and pac and the Game and Akon, too. This is because neither I, nor anyone else, has to hate rap to recognize the simple truth that as I said above non-commercial artists are far more marginalized than they used to be.
posted by shmegegge at 11:38 AM on June 26, 2007


A more proper comparison would between hip-hop and literary poetry and the relationship between, say, dramas and romantic comedies.

You're right, that's a significantly better comparison. My brain couldn't grab on to it after staring at spreadsheets at work all day, but it's what I was after.

Anyway, my point is still that I think that they're at opposite ends of the spectrum, and are difficult to lump into one broader category because of that. I don't think that I would necessarily connect/compare hip-hop and slam poetry, either. I think that the usage of music makes a big difference.

To me, and I have an admittedly limited knowledge of hip-hop, the difference always seemed to be that in hip-hop the words are manipulated to fit the music, and because of the necessity for the proper fit with the music, sometimes the quality of what's said is sacrificed. Granted, the same thing will happen if a poet is struggling with his or her meter. It seems like in hip-hop the focus is on the music, and in poetry the focus is on the language. I'm not saying that one is better than the other, as I think they're vastly different, but rather that I think their differences make it difficult to make such a broad statement of comparison. Certainly not all hip-hop artists could be poets, and certainly not all poets could be hip-hop artists.

...I think I'm ranting and I think I've lost my point. And really, even if I haven't, it's off the topic of the original post so I think I'll stop now.
posted by plaingurl at 11:38 AM on June 26, 2007


A more proper comparison would between hip-hop and literary poetry and the relationship between, say, dramas and romantic comedies.

delmoi, rap isn't poetry, it's popular song, just as Stephen Foster wrote popular song and Barry Manilow writes popular song. Now, slam poetry is poetry, and not rap, so perhaps you want to talk about that instead.
posted by OmieWise at 11:40 AM on June 26, 2007


Paris Hilton is a sculptor . . . of my heart.
Lindsay Lohan is a scientist . . . of cocktails.
Tom Cruise is...........................still fucking crazy.
You win again Gioia.
posted by mattbucher at 11:42 AM on June 26, 2007


You're right, that's a significantly better comparison.

No it's not. delmoi is trying to claim that popular entertainers are the same as artists, and that isn't true. It wasn't at the time Gioia was talking about, either, it's just that artists were more respected in the mainstream.

delmoi's argument is profoundly anti-intellectual, and as much as I hate the inherent conservatism in Gioia's speech, delmoi's responses here serve to justify it.
posted by OmieWise at 11:43 AM on June 26, 2007 [5 favorites]


The people will just consume what they are fed. Corporations will always find it more lucrative to appeal to base instincts instead of our more noble (less consumer-driven) nature so they must be forced into providing more cultural programs.

This argument is way scarier than any perceived cultural deficit. Keep the government away from "forcing" the media to provide "noble" content, please.
posted by brain_drain at 11:44 AM on June 26, 2007


on non-preview:

A more proper comparison would between hip-hop and literary poetry and the relationship between, say, dramas and romantic comedies.

I disagree. I think a more proper comparison would be between, say, Atmosphere and Fabolous and between, for example, Accepted and Little Miss Sunhine. There are certainly people and organizations against hip hop, for instance, but there is no overarching trend in american culture toward its removal from common society. there is one for poetry.
posted by shmegegge at 11:45 AM on June 26, 2007


Excellent speech, I find the criticism of it in this thread strange.
posted by ageispolis at 11:47 AM on June 26, 2007


delmoi is trying to claim that popular entertainers are the same as artists, and that isn't true.

i disagree completely.

not all popular entertainers are artists, and not all artists are popular entertainers. that doesn't mean that the two categories are mutually exclusive.

i'd be willing to be that there are some hip-hop artists out there who write what could easily be considered poetry. just because someone is a popular entertainer does not somehow "disqualify" them from artist status.
posted by plaingurl at 11:48 AM on June 26, 2007


No it's not. delmoi is trying to claim that popular entertainers are the same as artists, and that isn't true. It wasn't at the time Gioia was talking about, either, it's just that artists were more respected in the mainstream.

delmoi's argument is profoundly anti-intellectual, and as much as I hate the inherent conservatism in Gioia's speech, delmoi's responses here serve to justify it.


Oh, please. Why aren't popular entertainers artists? Some of them are fairly bad artists, but really, what's the difference besides quality?
posted by SBMike at 11:48 AM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


What an idiotic speach. The opportunities for access to art, culture and science have increased exponentially over a period far less than 50 years. Perhaps his complaint is that the average person no longer looks to organizations and public figures to decide for them what constitutes artists worthy of merit. Gotta love the NEA getting pissy about being ignored or, even worse, circumvented.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:51 AM on June 26, 2007


Can we add a "getoffmylawn" tag?
posted by mrnutty at 11:54 AM on June 26, 2007


there is no overarching trend in american culture toward its removal from common society. there is one for poetry.

people have been saying this for years. years and years. poetry has always been in a better state than it is now.

Donald Hall wrote a great essay on it:

"Worship is not love. People who at the age of fifty deplore the death of poetry are the same people who in their twenties were "taught to exalt it." The middle-aged poetry detractor is the student who hyperventilated at poetry readings thirty years earlier--during Wilson's "Pound-Sandburg era" or Epstein's aura-era of "T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams." After college many English majors stop reading contemporary poetry. Why not? They become involved in journalism or scholarship, essay writing or editing, brokerage or social work; they backslide from the undergraduate Church of Poetry. Years later, glancing belatedly at the poetic scene, they tell us that poetry is dead. They left poetry; therefore they blame poetry for leaving them. Really, they lament their own aging. Don't we all? But some of us do not blame the current poets."
posted by plaingurl at 11:55 AM on June 26, 2007


delmoi is trying to claim that popular entertainers are the same as artists, and that isn't true.

I think the argument is more that it doesn't make sense to draw lines between artists and non-artists based on either classical conceptions of art (sculpture, poetry, painting, etc.) or on the perceived "quality" of the work. Steven Spielberg, Kanye West, and Gary Trudeau are artists, and good ones. And most people know who they are. Jerry Bruckheimer, Vanilla Ice, and Cathy Guisewite are artists too, just not so good. I don't see the argument as anti-intellectual so much as recognizing that the nature of art has evolved. Sure, poetry is fading in prominence, but that doesn't mean that creative expression is being devalued more generally.
posted by brain_drain at 11:58 AM on June 26, 2007


sfts2: spend an entire commencement address...whining about something so obvious. No wonder he works for the Government.

Just because something is obvious doesn't mean it's not worth whining about. For example, Darfur. It's obviously a problem - that doesn't mean it's going to be fixed.

I liked the speech. Art/entertainment that challenges the mind is harder to consume than art/entertainment that doesn't. In an increasingly competative entertainment market, people appear to be drawn to something they know will entertain them (something easy to consume). That is why the Regal Cinemas near my apartment is playing Pirates of the Carribean 3, Ocean's 11 3, Shrek 3, Bruce Almighty 2, Fantastic Four 2, Die Hard 17, and only two movies that aren't sequels: Waitress and A Mighty Heart. Art/entertainment that is harder to consume is pushed to the margins, even though it also offers as much excitement, insight, wonder, wisdom and joy as the easy stuff. As American culture is increasingly unwilling/unable/pushed away from paying the barrier to entry to less-consumable works, it is cut off from a huge range of experienc and ideas. And that's a shame.
posted by taliaferro at 11:59 AM on June 26, 2007


Ridiculous, people of great political and cultural import change throughout the times. We can't name great classical musicians, playwrights and poets because we don't have those anymore. Several hundred years ago we would have been naming merchants, mapmakers, theologians and frilly shirt makers. Now, we can name David Chase, John Williams, Stephen Spielberg, Ben Kingsley, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Malcolm Gladwell and Guillermo del Toro.

Think those names represent just the best of popular culture? A generation ago a mom went to see A Glass Menagerie and talked about how great it was when her son just rolled his eyes, put on a Miles Davis album and read William S Burroughs new book. Kind of like when some kid a couple thousand years ago was all over Livy's latest work and his dad was complaining no one knew who Heroductus was.
posted by geoff. at 12:00 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


brain_drain wrote:

This argument is way scarier than any perceived cultural deficit. Keep the government away from "forcing" the media to provide "noble" content, please.

Good boy brain drain, Ronald Reagan taught you well. Don't trust the government - let the free market tell you what you need. They look out for your best interests much more than the big bad government. Why don't you give the free market your social security as well, I mean, they've done such a wonderful job with healthcare haven't they?
posted by any major dude at 12:03 PM on June 26, 2007


plaingurl,

donald hall was defending artists from people saying that modern poetry is worse than poetry used to be, near as I can figure. This is absolutely valid. I'm speaking more of the movement in popular culture away from appreciation of poetry, painting, art house film, etc... which certainly does exist.

I think the argument is more that it doesn't make sense to draw lines between artists and non-artists based on either classical conceptions of art (sculpture, poetry, painting, etc.) or on the perceived "quality" of the work.

I think it's important to point out that Gioia actually doesn't draw that line, and the first person to point out that particular line in this particular discussion was, in fact, delmoi. Gioia simply identifies particular forms of art which are losing ground in mainstream culture, and then points to athletics and american idol as being the kind of thing mainstream culture has replaced those particular forms of art with. In other words, non-commercial art (or simplistically, art for art's sake) has been replaced by not-art. not-art does not, in his speech, include Kanye West or Steven Spielberg or Gary Trudeau. This is what is so frustrating about delmoi's arguments so far. The best they accomplish for this discussion is to muddy the issue and confuse everyone as to what Gioia actually said. here's an examplary statement from the speech that more closely gets at the heart of his point:

Today no working-class or immigrant kid would encounter that range of arts and ideas in the popular culture. Almost everything in our national culture, even the news, has been reduced to entertainment, or altogether eliminated.

he's saying that popular culture has narrowed its range, and it has done so by eliminating perfectly valid and worthwhile forms of art and expression from mainstream every day exposure to be replaced specifically by entertainment only. this is a very good point, though as has been pointed out it sort of falls into the "no shit sherlock" category.
posted by shmegegge at 12:07 PM on June 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


examplary? meh. going out for a smoke.
posted by shmegegge at 12:09 PM on June 26, 2007


PUSHPIN! POETRY! PUSHPIN! POETRY!

I CAN'T DECIDE!
posted by chlorus at 12:09 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Sure, its true. Thats not the point, the point is to spend an entire commencement address at one of the most prestigious universities in the country whining about something so obvious. No wonder he works for the Government.

Agreed. What a lame speech, overriden with cliches, an exaltation of the past (isn't that a conservative view) and no real salient points. Here was his chance to present a vision, a discerning comment on the current forms of Art and its distribution -thanks to YouTube I can finally see all those incredible short films I had to wait to see at film festivals or on late night TV. His chance to present a roadmap, an inspiring call to arms to Artists of all kinds (architects, designers, video artists, performance artists, photographers) that gets them excited about the future.

Instead we get a regret that people aren't familiar with more "conductors." Conductors, really?
posted by vacapinta at 12:11 PM on June 26, 2007


Gioia is just another superfluous government bureaucrat going in front of a sympathetic audience and complaining that his agency is underappreciated. His speech is a thinly-veiled plea for more tax dollars.
posted by three blind mice at 12:12 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


shmegegge,

did you read the entire article? it was written in response to people saying that poetry is dead and that it's not appreciated anymore. he points out that more poetry is now being published than has ever happened before. (among other things.)

i agree completely that it's moved out of the mainstream culture, though. it's moved significantly more into the academic world, where mfa programs are in high demand and readings take place on a regular basis. unfortunately those readings are mostly attended by other people in academia. slam poetry, as a contrast, has been doing a great job of bringing poetry back to mainstream culture, but i do think that slam and written verse are very different things.

there are a few poets who have been able to bridge the gap into popular culture--such as billy collins who remains one of the few contemporary poets to have best selling books. billy collins has also complained that too many people are writing and publishing poetry, so it's hard to find the good stuff because there's simply so much out there. (this was in the introduction to the best american poetry 2006, which he guest edited.)

if poetry is fading as much as many people would like to suggest, i don't think that such arguments would be made by people such as mr. collins.
posted by plaingurl at 12:16 PM on June 26, 2007


Gioia simply identifies particular forms of art which are losing ground in mainstream culture, and then points to athletics and american idol as being the kind of thing mainstream culture has replaced those particular forms of art with.

But see, that's a ridiculous comparison. American Idol isn't replacing Robert Frost, it's replacing American Bandstand. If you want to talk about the death of modern literature, talk about Dan Brown or Tom Clancy.

I know a large number who will only read a book if their parents make them

Few kids ever wanted to read, either now or in the past. It's ridiculous to say that any children were consumers of literature.
posted by muddgirl at 12:17 PM on June 26, 2007


"Entertainment: agreeable occupation for the mind."

I would just like to say that the steak I had last night was both delicious and--by this definition--entertaining. It was so good I was just closing my eyes and thinking about nothing but the flavor.

I need to marinade my steaks more often.

Oh, er... carry on.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 12:17 PM on June 26, 2007


shmegegge is right. There is a big difference between art that is rewarded for commercial viability and art that is not. No one ever talks about the number of tickets sold for the opening weekend of a MOMA exhibit.

Watch this clip of John Cage on a 1960s gameshow and tell me anything like this still happens. This would be like Bruce Andrews being invited to read his poetry on Deal or No Deal, and Howie deciding to forgo the game to give him time to read. Instead, we have Bruce being screamed at by Bill O'Reilly.
posted by roll truck roll at 12:26 PM on June 26, 2007 [7 favorites]


Vacapinta and Geoff. are right - we have more access to cultural events, performances, artworks, etc. than ever before. And, thank goodness, we do have our own have our own artists and thinkers who have pierced into the pop-cultural realm - particularly Malcolm Gladwell. And The Daily Show and Colbert Report feature philosophers and writers on TV every day.

But shmegegge and Gioia are right also that "the range of arts and ideas" in popular culture is diminished - or at least the range that is fed to the public for passive consumption, primarily on TV and through movies and videogames, is diminished. Yes, you can find whatever you want on YouTube, but it's hard to find what you don't know about.
posted by taliaferro at 12:26 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Fifty years ago, I suspect

I don't really give a shit what you suspect. Can you prove that bold statement? (HINT: no, you can't).
posted by teece at 12:28 PM on June 26, 2007


muddgirl: Few kids ever wanted to read, either now or in the past. It's ridiculous to say that any children were consumers of literature.

!!!?!?!?!?!?!??! Umm...I read voraciously as a child. I know many other people who did as well. Why on earth would you say what you just said?
posted by taliaferro at 12:29 PM on June 26, 2007 [4 favorites]


We can't name great classical musicians, playwrights and poets because we don't have those anymore.

not true.

there have been poets since the dawn of recorded history. and there still are. many people just don't read as much as they used to in our culture, which is a whole separate problem, and i think symptomatic of a more general intellectual laziness that's infected virtually every strata of society.

even our gov't's highest-placed foreign policy leaders often don't bother to do the intellectual heavy-lifting their duties require, as has been amply demonstrated elsewhere.

we're lazy. intellectually, morally, spiritually, and physically. face it. why shouldn't we be? we've got literally thousands of marketers reminding us on a near hourly basis from the time that we're toddlers through adulthood how important it is to get what we want quickly, easily, and with a minimum of inconvenience.

not to mention reinforcing the idea that nothing we consume should make us uncomfortable, or challenge our core belief in the supremacy of our own individual preferences, beliefs and desires.


Few kids ever wanted to read, either now or in the past. It's ridiculous to say that any children were consumers of literature.

Yeah, and we have always been at war with Eurasia.

That claim is ridiculous--for the better part of history, since literacy first became widespread with the advent of the public education system, reading was just about the most popular form of entertainment going.

Reading and letter writing used to be favorite pastimes among the middle class in America, and yes, kids actually liked reading--stories like Mark Twain's Celebrated Jumping Frog... and Huckleberry Finn were hugely popular among young readers. What the hell are you basing this claim on? If you've got anything more than just intuition to back it up I'll let it slide, otherwise it seems like an outrageous claim to me.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:29 PM on June 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


did you read the entire article? it was written in response to people saying that poetry is dead and that it's not appreciated anymore. he points out that more poetry is now being published than has ever happened before. (among other things.)

I did not, I'm sorry. You raise a good point.

if poetry is fading as much as many people would like to suggest, i don't think that such arguments would be made by people such as mr. collins.

This is another good point, and I won't be able to say one way or the other that I can prove anything. I happen to be one of those people who is consistently frustrated by Mr. Collins as a poet and as a figure within poetic circles, but that's beside the point. The thing that I think Mr. Gioia is saying is that it's a shame that poetry and the like HAS moved out of the mainstream, and become cloistered among academics. It may be that he's imagining it, but I find it hard to believe.
posted by shmegegge at 12:33 PM on June 26, 2007


Wow. shmegegge crushes on this one.

Look, the difference between commercial and non-commercial entertainment, even if one of emphasis, is a substantial one, and Gioia is right to note the passing and sublimation of the latter to the all-encompassing might of the former. In an age when even poetry must meet a minimal number of "buys," it is harder and harder for poetry to find an outlet. I hardly think this is controversial, and the various ad homs against Gioia and the sundry collapse of all art into entertainment does more to bolster the argument than it does to deflate it.

There may be some value in undermining or deconstructing the assumed authority that particular cultural motifs have, just as there might be some real reason to undo the stranglehold that certain types of entertainment have, in favor of new and maybe less conventionally accepted forms of entertainment. I cannot imagine any reason why one must be familiar with classical music or jazz, for example, but I do not think that this lack of necessity necessarily explains or justifies the absence of any sustained opportunity to encounter these forms of entertainment on most commercial radio. Internet radio changed some of this, but we all know that story. XM is also changing it, though again, that is far from a problem-free enterprise right now.

The larger and more interesting questions, of course, are whether or not the abundance of entertainment carries the cost of a declining educational content, and what standards are used to adjudicate educational content. Those can be answered at your leisure, but it's silly to pretend as if certain presumptions negate a general failure on the part of the mainstream media conglomerates to provide interesting outlets for intellectual life, be it in the form of poetry or physics or what have you.
posted by hank_14 at 12:34 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


But see, that's a ridiculous comparison. American Idol isn't replacing Robert Frost, it's replacing American Bandstand. If you want to talk about the death of modern literature, talk about Dan Brown or Tom Clancy.

Oh, I have! But the truth is that it's not that straightforward a replacement. As Gioia mentions in his speech, once upon a time the most watched television show in America, Ed Sullivan, had poets on it. That doesn't happen any more. Things like poetry, sculpture, painting, architecture and all that simply don't have the footprint in mainstream culture that they used to, and they have, as a group, been replaced by entertainment as another group.
posted by shmegegge at 12:36 PM on June 26, 2007


!!?!?!?!?!?!??! Umm...I read voraciously as a child. I know many other people who did as well. Why on earth would you say what you just said?

!!!!?!??!?!???!?!??!!! Umm, I read voraciously as a kid, too. But my brother only read comic books. My mom hated to read until she was 20. My dad was a voracious reader, but none of his friends liked to. So let's continue looking at anecdotes and presenting them as facts.

stories like Mark Twain's Celebrated Jumping Frog... and Huckleberry Finn were hugely popular among young readers

Yes, and Harry Potter is hugely popular among young readers today.

Perhaps "few" was the wrong word. My point was that just as many kids today are voracious readers as kids in the past. It's "golden agism" to assume that kids today hate to read more than kids in the past hated to read.
posted by muddgirl at 12:37 PM on June 26, 2007


Meant to add: "kids today just have more entertainment to consume"
posted by muddgirl at 12:39 PM on June 26, 2007


muddgirl,

I think what stuck in some people's craws was more this:

It's ridiculous to say that any children were consumers of literature.

this is a bold statement to say the least.
posted by shmegegge at 12:43 PM on June 26, 2007


I happen to be one of those people who is consistently frustrated by Mr. Collins as a poet and as a figure within poetic circles, but that's beside the point.

it seemed to me like there was a reason that i liked you ;) billy collins drives me crazy. 'the trouble with poetry' (the poem not the book) succeeds in doing absolutely nothing except make me angry. and i'm one of those silly people in those poetic circles.

The thing that I think Mr. Gioia is saying is that it's a shame that poetry and the like HAS moved out of the mainstream, and become cloistered among academics. It may be that he's imagining it, but I find it hard to believe.

anyway, i think that what we're really doing here is violently agreeing. i haven't really disagreed with anything you've said and think that you're making points that i would like to make better than i could. i think that literary poetry has founds itself snuggled into the world of academia, and it makes me sad. i also agree with what gioia said, though, that it's the artists who find themselves stuck in academia who need to make more of an effort to "get out there," so to speak.

gary mex glazner has a book out called 'how to make a living as a poet.' it gives a lot of examples of ways to get poetry back into mainstream culture, although he's doing so as ways to make money. for example, he worked out a partnership with a hotel and left poems on everyone's pillows with mints. he also encourages people to do poetry-diner type benefits, where people are able to "order" from a menu of poetry and the poets, who are present, will go around and perform what they ordered. ideas like this are splendid, and i wish that they happened more often.
posted by plaingurl at 12:44 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


I too think that American culture was much better when white men controlled it.
posted by ozomatli at 12:48 PM on June 26, 2007


"Then I'd ask them how many living American poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, classical musicians, conductors, and composers they can name.

I'd even like to ask how many living American scientists or social thinkers they can name."

oh yes, if they can't name all the important people in the world like playwrights, painters, sculptors...let's give them a second chance with the less important scientists and thinkers.

What a dick.

On a related note, I was wandering around the downtown area near Syracuse Uni, and asking students if they knew the starting lineup of the basketball or football team, or any of the 3 nobel laureates teaching at the time. 0 on the nobel laureates, about 50% on the sports teams and everyone knew at least one player. (disclaimer: I don't go to the school and could no longer name off anyone from either group.)

That being said, hero worship sucks no matter what. Lets get them to stop worshiping the athletes and pop stars rather than worshipping the prestigious members of society instead. It's the ideas they've put forth, not the names that are important
posted by kigpig at 12:49 PM on June 26, 2007


I too think that American culture was much better when white men controlled it.
posted by ozomatli at 3:48 PM on June 26 [+] [!]


You mean we don't anymore?
posted by shmegegge at 12:50 PM on June 26, 2007


Perhaps "few" was the wrong word. My point was that just as many kids today are voracious readers as kids in the past. It's "golden agism" to assume that kids today hate to read more than kids in the past hated to read.

Don't get me wrong--"golden agism," to use your term, is definitely problematic. I'm not saying things were all wine and roses in America's cultural past (uh, lynchings come to mind for starters). However, to gloss over obvious recent changes in the cultural landscape seems silly to me. Modern attitudes toward reading are unique. At one time in history, people were actively deprived of opportunities to learn how to read by ruling elites because the ability to read was seen as such an inherently desirable and culturally valuable skill. Children who could read, did so at every opportunity; children who couldn't, did everything in their power to learn how. Not so anymore. So, for good or bad, a lot of people's mental muscles don't get the same kind of work out they used to, and that's bound to have broader effects.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:56 PM on June 26, 2007


"Then I'd ask them how many living American poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, classical musicians, conductors, and composers they can name."


Why only "classical" musicians composers and conductors? Why playwrights over screenwriters?
Why architects instead of interior designers?
Why no chefs?

He chose a list of professions either very carefully or he's so out of touch with reality that he thinks conductors are actually something we think everyone should know. Basically his rant is about how people should like the same things he does.
posted by ozomatli at 12:59 PM on June 26, 2007


muddgirl: Perhaps "few" was the wrong word. My point was that just as many kids today are voracious readers as kids in the past. It's "golden agism" to assume that kids today hate to read more than kids in the past hated to read.

Sorry I dookied a shooter there, muddgirl. I'm at work and foolishly trying to actually be productive and read MeFi at the same time. And consequently doing a poor job of both.

Anyway, "golden ageism" may not be wrong in this case, and for the very reason you point out: kids today just have more entertainment to consume. So they read less and play video games more. And reading, I would hazard, provides less easy stimulation to many of them than video games. I don't have statistics here, but it seems like a fair assumption.
posted by taliaferro at 1:00 PM on June 26, 2007


Late to this thread, I know, but it's worth noting that Dana Gioia is an aesthetically reactionary formalist writer who has made a second career (his first was as an executive at General Foods) publicly dithering (most famously in his book Can Poetry Matter?) about the relevance of his academic poet peers and being dismissive toward poets working in more innovative styles. So the speech is pretty much his standard schtick (no big surprise, since his standard schtick has gotten him a long way in academic poetry and government funding circles).

shmegegge: do you know what poets Ed Sullivan actually had on his show?
posted by aught at 1:00 PM on June 26, 2007


I don't really give a shit what you suspect. Can you prove that bold statement? (HINT: no, you can't).

It's that special quality that makes him a bush appointee!
posted by delmoi at 1:01 PM on June 26, 2007


I also have to wonder at the appropriateness of this venue for this speech, as Stanford hardly seems to be a haven for anti-intellectualism and mediocrity.

Perhaps not today. But in 10 or 20 years, how many of those kids are going to be deep in the fold of rampant consumerism, focused only on making piles of money and amusing themselves with popular entertainment and technological gadgetry? That's what he's warning them against.

Hell, I know for myself it's been a long time since I've read any kind of serious, intellectually challenging literature (in other words, not Stephen King or J.K. Rowling) simply for personal growth and the enjoyment of it. 99% of my reading materials consists technical manuals and journals, focused on my work. And that's to my own detriment.

I don't think the man is being alarmist at all. I think he's dead on. When school children in the 11th grade can't find Russia or China (for godsake) on a map, and their experience with "the arts" is some rapper talking about how he likes to do his women from behind, we're in deep trouble. And we are.

Everyone who's saying "Nah, he's overblowing this" is missing the point. The issue isn't so much what the situation is this very second. It's about what life is going to be like 50 years from now, and what the children and grandchildren of these graduates are going to be inheriting from us culturally.
posted by mstefan at 1:06 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


shmegegge: do you know what poets Ed Sullivan actually had on his show?
posted by aught at 4:00 PM on June 26 [+] [!]


Never having watched it, I can only go by Gioia's article, which mentions Robert Frost and James Baldwin among other non-poet writers as well as other artists. I can personally think of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac making appearances on the Steve Allen show, as well. Why?
posted by shmegegge at 1:06 PM on June 26, 2007


My point was that just as many kids today are voracious readers as kids in the past. It's "golden agism" to assume that kids today hate to read more than kids in the past hated to read.

It's not only that they're reading (yes, that's a good thing in its own rights), but what they are reading. Harry Potter is not exactly on par with classical Greek poetry like the Iliad, or epics like Beowulf. Heck, how many kids today actually read Shakespeare when it's not part of a homework assignment?

The point being is that while reading is good, it also shouldn't just be pulp fiction, horror and fantasy novels. Actually engaging your brain when you read is a good thing.
posted by mstefan at 1:14 PM on June 26, 2007


I daresay that in 1957, few Americans knew who Sandy Koufax was...
posted by AJaffe at 1:19 PM on June 26, 2007


New things I've learned today:

1) If you are associated with George W. Bush in any way you cannot be intelligent or worth listening to.

2) Rappers like Jay-Z and 50 Cent are 'poets' on a part with Williams, Crane, and Eliot. Nobody's better than anyone else, just different!

3) Old people are cranky and can't see that cultural life wasn't better in their youth, just different!

4) The fact that fewer and fewer people read for literary fiction for pleasure in the United States isn't a problem because TV is the new literary fiction. Novels aren't better, just different!

Hooray diversity and sensitivity training! Hooray our collective intellectual suicide, America!
posted by inoculatedcities at 1:22 PM on June 26, 2007 [3 favorites]


no, i never said that all rappers make a lot of money, and I'd be interested in seeing where you believe I said that.

I don't. I belive that plaingurl said it.

This is because neither I, nor anyone else, has to hate rap to recognize the simple truth that as I said above non-commercial artists are far more marginalized than they used to be.

That's not the point. The artists that Gioia held up as exemplars also made money. Hell Arthur Miller was fucking Marilyn Monroe. I have no idea if Non-commercial artists are more popular or less, my point is that Gioia is basically claiming certain types of art are intrinsically better then other types, and that there is something "wrong" with people if they don't like it.

delmoi's argument is profoundly anti-intellectual, and as much as I hate the inherent conservatism in Gioia's speech, delmoi's responses here serve to justify it.

Anti-intellectual? Well, I would say it's more anti-snooty. But the basic argument is that because intelligent people liked these art forms in the past, people who do not like them now are not intelligent. It defines the past as good because it was the past. Certainly you can be intelligent without likening modern poetry, perhaps even intellectual. I don't think you can measure the intellectuality of the population by the types of art that they like, and I certainly don't think you can make a population smarter simply foisting older types on them. There is intellectual and intelligent art spread out among all types of art, IMO.
posted by delmoi at 1:24 PM on June 26, 2007


plaingurl writes "I know a large number who will only read a book if their parents make them, and even when they do, they can't visualize the characters. They don't know what Harry Potter or Hermione look like until they see the movies. I do think that's sad, and I do think that at least a part of that comes from the fact that electronic forms of entertainment have become such a prevalent part of our lives."

Possibly, but keep in mind that there are also folks like me: I was a voracious reader as a child, but I couldn't visualize characters. Or rather, I stopped visualizing them at a young age. I found that if I visualized them, inevitably, on the next page, or in the next chapter, there'd be some sentence like "he swept the pages off the table with his long, bony hands", and my mental image up to that point had been a short, fat guy, so I'd have to reset my image. And then later on it would mention his meticulous dress, or his brown hair, or his weak chin, or whatever, and I'd have to reset yet again. And not just people: the layouts of rooms. The heights of buildings. The styles of vehicles. Everything. After a while I just gave up on visualizing anything, as the constant resets really disturbed my ability to enjoy the book.

Even now I tend to read a lot, but I don't visualize much at all. If I see a movie version of a book I've read, it's often my first visualization.
posted by Bugbread at 1:25 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


“I like steak, but it's not entertaining.”

Well, it depends what kind of lubri - look, I’m not the one on trial here.
Er, the point is, I’m with you on the non-commercial art/etc. being marginalized thing.
Forget what I said about steak. It is entertaining. But it’s not at all educational or complex - attributes which can lead to a refinement and depth of understanding (and thus greater overall entertainment.) Whether that devolves into an argument of snobbery vs. egalitarianism concerning art and other ideas isn’t that relevent to the main point - being that a depth of culture has indeed been lost due to something that is manifestly different than losses following past cultural shifts like those due to a change in media such as the one following the introduction of novels or alterations in ethnic makeup and so forth.

The broadest medium today is relatively the same technologically (television) but the kind of entertainment is obviously different.
There have indeed been - whether due to unfunded mandates or whatever - less music and art programming in schools much as physical fitness has been marginalized in the country - overall. More focus has been put meeting annual yearly progress in the basics.
Some of the critiques here are similar to what Postman’s been writing about. Particularly the Marcus Aurelius reference.
This is not to say arts, music or civic responsibility hasn’t been emphasized or broadened in (some) schools. Out here kids can’t graduate without spending some time volunteering in the community. But those values did exist and were more visible in society (in the broader context) in the past on television and elsewhere.
Whether the values associated with them were of value or not is debatable, as is government involvement in their preservation.
But the results of non-commercial oriented - for lack of a better word - social paradigm, can’t be denied. Hell, you could probably argue the changes in the 60s wouldn’t have occured without the internalization of the basic concept that one had the right and duty to be involved in community events and social concerns on whatever scale.
And indeed, the differences between the kids who volunteer and those who don’t have, as a result, become sharper and more obvious as the social motivations to be involved have diminished.
But that’s (from me) anecdotal. And details other than that central point (whether he’s a dick and whatnot) I concede.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:26 PM on June 26, 2007


To me, and I have an admittedly limited knowledge of hip-hop, the difference always seemed to be that in hip-hop the words are manipulated to fit the music, and because of the necessity for the proper fit with the music, sometimes the quality of what's said is sacrificed. Granted, the same thing will happen if a poet is struggling with his or her meter. It seems like in hip-hop the focus is on the music, and in poetry the focus is on the language. I'm not saying that one is better than the other, as I think they're vastly different, but rather that I think their differences make it difficult to make such a broad statement of comparison. Certainly not all hip-hop artists could be poets, and certainly not all poets could be hip-hop artists.

I think there's a point that a lot of people simply refuse to acknowledge...music, poetry, mostly anything we term as art, sacrifices the actual content of the message for the beautification of the package the message is sold in. It is in this way, intrinsically propagandist.

There's no reason the poet could not say what they wanted to express in a forthright way, but by playing on meter, they can attach an emotion to the meaning of their words and thus influence the gravity of them without regard to the value of the idea.

This is even more pronounced in music where the tone and the harmonies create an associated emotion and in some a form of hypnosis (the unconscious desire to dance being an example) that can actively hinder the ability to critically think about them in some people.

< /end tangent>
posted by kigpig at 1:34 PM on June 26, 2007 [4 favorites]



no, i never said that all rappers make a lot of money, and I'd be interested in seeing where you believe I said that.

I don't. I belive that plaingurl said it.


...what?

i just reread my post, and i'm pretty sure that i didn't mention money at all, actually.

...And not just people: the layouts of rooms. The heights of buildings. The styles of vehicles. Everything. After a while I just gave up on visualizing anything, as the constant resets really disturbed my ability to enjoy the book.


fair point.
posted by plaingurl at 1:35 PM on June 26, 2007


/Obviously, it seems to me he’s asserting that poets like Frost, and scientists, etc. etc. don’t have modern iconic equivalents because of cultural changes due to commercial considerations not natural or technological or other changes and that the impact that has had on the American culture has narrowed the scope of cultural thought rather than merely asserting the primacy of certain forms of art over another or arguing things were better in the good old days. If I’m wrong in that take than my argument would be invalid since that’d be the premise I’m working from.

//also - Diet Pepsi in the (Sistine) Blue
posted by Smedleyman at 1:39 PM on June 26, 2007


delmoi - The point you don't seem to grasp is that nobody can be an intellectual if they don't read. The art/entertainment discussion is complicated and usually bores me stiff, however, not all forms of cultural expression are equal in depth. It's not that we have "new forms of art", and that it's unfair of Gioia to speak of the decline of poetry...it's that non-commercial creative expression has been devalued and largely dropped from the national conversation. He's absolutely right to acknowledge that in years past the culture was smarter and the fact that it's so obviously dumbed down in the present (so obvious in fact, as to go without saying) is a shame. Philip Roth recently said the following when asked why readership is going down in America:

"I think the core of serious readers still exists, but it’s not huge. I think that talking about books has absolutely disappeared. I remember back in the '50s and '60s among my friends that if you were in a group of people and if someone brought up a book, you could be sure that maybe half the people had read it. Now, I find that no one ever does that. If they talk about a book it’s a comment and then that’s the end of that. Movies, people can talk about endlessly. And they can bank on the fact that people have seen the movie."
posted by inoculatedcities at 1:40 PM on June 26, 2007


no, i never said that all rappers make a lot of money, and I'd be interested in seeing where you believe I said that.

I don't. I belive that plaingurl said it.


That's odd, because you were directly responding to a quote of mine.

The artists that Gioia held up as exemplars also made money.

So? They were writing and creating art without it being for the sake of commercial entertainment.

Hell Arthur Miller was fucking Marilyn Monroe. I have no idea if Non-commercial artists are more popular or less,

less.

my point is that Gioia is basically claiming certain types of art are intrinsically better then other types,

No he isn't, and this is why your points are so frustrating. You're making assumptions that the text of his speech do not support. He's claiming that certain types of art are less available to the public via mainstream exposure, and that that's a shame. If you want to believe that people growing up not knowing who Milton was is ok, then discuss that. But don't do so behind arguments that Gioia never made. Just say it for yourself.

and that there is something "wrong" with people if they don't like it. Again, no. He doesn't say that there's somethign wrong with people, at all. He says that there's a fundamental lack in popular american culture. You can blame it on corporate interests, political issues, anything you want, but he never says that there's anything wrong with the american people.
posted by shmegegge at 1:46 PM on June 26, 2007


...what?

Er, sorry. I got totally mixed up here. It was shmegegge who said
here is a marked difference between poets who, among people who read poetry, are massively successful but still hope for a teaching job at a nice university that they can actually feed a family on and rappers who are massively successful for a year or two and then retire early to live a life of leisure on their bajillions of dollars
And that's what meant to reference. My mistake.

Even now I tend to read a lot, but I don't visualize much at all. If I see a movie version of a book I've read, it's often my first visualization.

Strange. For me, visualization while reading is an automatic, involuntary process.
posted by delmoi at 1:46 PM on June 26, 2007


It's ridiculous to say that any children were consumers of literature.

I think I read more books more frequently as a child than I have in the past few years...
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 1:48 PM on June 26, 2007


You're making assumptions that the text of his speech do not support. He's claiming that certain types of art are less available to the public via mainstream exposure

But why would he make that claim if he didn't think that certain types of art are inherently better or more valuable somehow?
posted by delmoi at 1:48 PM on June 26, 2007


Movies, people can talk about endlessly. And they can bank on the fact that people have seen the movie."

While I can sympathize with the lack of discussions of books, this drives me nuts. I went to school for English literature, but I'm a film and video editor now and I will go to my grave thinking that any disparagement of movies as a proper art form is fightin' words. And that's all I have to say about that.
posted by shmegegge at 1:50 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


And that's what meant to reference. My mistake.

and as I said, I never said that poets didn't make money, or that all rappers do. you're dancing around my point and not addressing it.

But why would he make that claim if he didn't think that certain types of art are inherently better or more valuable somehow?
posted by delmoi at 4:48 PM on June 26 [+] [!]


Because anyone who loves an art form, or several, would lament that culture is marginalizing it? You don't have to say "I hate everything else" in order to say "I love this specific thing."
posted by shmegegge at 1:53 PM on June 26, 2007


What a lame speech, overriden with cliches, an exaltation of the past . . . and no real salient points.

Sounds like it meets all the requirements for a commencement speech then, eh?
posted by spock at 1:53 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


But why would he make that claim if he didn't think that certain types of art are inherently better or more valuable somehow?

why would i claim that i can only get orange juice at the local supermarket unless i thought apple juice and grape juice were inherently better and more valuable than orange juice?
posted by saulgoodman at 1:59 PM on June 26, 2007


While I can sympathize with the lack of discussions of books, this drives me nuts. I went to school for English literature, but I'm a film and video editor now and I will go to my grave thinking that any disparagement of movies as a proper art form is fightin' words. And that's all I have to say about that.

I certainly take your point but I doubt Roth was arguing that film isn't an artistic medium. It's a far more commercialized medium that literature and the bulk of the films that people are wont to discuss are Harry Potter Part 5, Spider Man Part 6, and Pirates of the Caribbean Part 4, not Killing of a Chinese Bookie, La Règle du jeu, and Aguirre: der Zorn Gottes.
posted by inoculatedcities at 2:01 PM on June 26, 2007


Anti-intellectual? Well, I would say it's more anti-snooty.

No, anti-intellectual. You're purposely confusing high art and popular culture. They are not the same thing. I'm certainly not making the argument that pop stars aren't artists of a sort, but they aren't engaged in part of the intellectual pursuit of our culture. This doesn't mean that they aren't intelligent or even that they aren't intellectuals, but it does mean that there is a difference between their pursuits and the high arts. There are also, obviously, differences within popular pursuits.

This kind of knee-jerk flattening of hierarchies is the same move made by people who argue that because their opinion about evolution is different than the consensus of science it should be treated as equally valid. It's tempting to not see it as the same because science deals with fact, but the argument that bluegrass or hip-hop takes place on the same stage as Shakespeare or Noh plays is ridiculous and adolescent.
posted by OmieWise at 2:18 PM on June 26, 2007 [3 favorites]


inoculatedcities: you make a good point. great movies that don't lend themselves easily to marketing tie-ins and cross-promotion essentially don't get any attention, regardless of quality, because they don't generate enough revenue--not movie viewer revenue but revenue from cross-promotion and merchandise deals. so a sexy flick like spider man iii (which i actually liked, btw) gets tons of focus, while an excellent though far more challenging film (both in terms of its content and its cinematic technique) like "children of men" hardly gets noticed.

reminds me of henry ford's famous quip about the model t, which i suspect inadvertently sheds some light on many industry leaders' real attitudes toward consumer choice:

'you can get it in any color you want. as long as it's black.'
posted by saulgoodman at 2:27 PM on June 26, 2007


For me the difference is that the definition of good or worthy has become measured by how much money the activity makes. This just isn't in the arts, but also business, science, sports, and yes, politics.
posted by Eekacat at 2:28 PM on June 26, 2007


I'm late to the party, but I'm struck that I don't see in the comments any discussion of one of Gioia's main claims, and the cliam that I found most interesting: that people who read books and do other high-culture things are better citizens and better people, as measured in non-literary/non-cultural terms (i.e. with regard to civic engagement, volunteerism, etc.). If this is true, I think it rebuts the "hierarchy-flattening" impulses of some of our commentators.
posted by sy at 2:44 PM on June 26, 2007


Harry Potter is not exactly on par with classical Greek poetry like the Iliad, or epics like Beowulf.

No, but I don't think ancient epics have been popular with the kids for the past few thousand years.

Heck, how many kids today actually read Shakespeare when it's not part of a homework assignment?

How many did in 1957? 1907? 1857?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:47 PM on June 26, 2007


Oh, and one other thing that struck me. I feel like I could have named most of the people Gioia mentioned, in his opening thought experiment, as being prominent American artists and thinkers of mid-century, but that I could name far fewer of their analogues today. This could be because I learned about most of them through formal education, which is inherently behind the times, but it could be because a) complex human achievement now takes place in other genres than sculpture and classical music, and so the fact that I know about the Cohen brothers and Gary Kasparov should "count" or b) that art has become more elitist, arid, specialized, and all-around closed in the last two generations. Alexander Pope, the J.K. Rowling of his day, made serious bank selling his translation of the Iliad because he took a ripping good yarn and put it into catchy couplets. I don't see a lot of tenured poets sending one out to the guys who clean their offices these days.
posted by sy at 2:50 PM on June 26, 2007


I'm certainly not making the argument that pop stars aren't artists of a sort, but they aren't engaged in part of the intellectual pursuit of our culture.

I was curious when someone was going to actually define a measure of what made something high art or not. Unfortunately I'm a bit confused as to what 'engaged in the intellectual pursuit of our culture' means? What heuristic is used to determine if it is engaged in the intellectual pursuit? My immediate thought would be it having increased the net knowledge of the world, the laws of nature, of the human condition, etc...

Of course, this would throw out most of what people call high art as well. In fact I can't offhand thing of any poetry that would pass this standard though I realize it's largely due to my lack of exposure to it. All purely instrumental classical music should be tossed. Paintings and sculpting would be removed.
posted by kigpig at 2:53 PM on June 26, 2007


ROU_Xenophobe: a lot of kids read Shakespeare for fun into the 20th century. Reading aloud in the evenings, as a family or in other groups, was a very common pre-mass media activity even for working-class families. The Iliad and Odyssey were 18th century best-sellers, and anyone who could afford to sent their sons to schools where they were taught to read them in the original before the age of fifteen. That's what the educational system was.

You know what another form of extremely popular 19th century entertainment was? Lectures. People paid to see them. Emerson lived off of giving lectures in small New England towns for much of his life.
posted by sy at 2:55 PM on June 26, 2007


sy - d'ja read mine?
posted by Smedleyman at 2:55 PM on June 26, 2007


Smedleyman-- Sorry, I skimmed it but was still chuckling about your steak joke and missed the point about civic engagement. I think I agree with what you're saying, though.
posted by sy at 2:59 PM on June 26, 2007


Late to the game again, but this sounds to me an awful lot like the handwringing about highbrow culture vs. "Midcult" and "Masscult" that was going on during the fifites. . . but now entertainment from the 50s and 50s (well, of the Norton Anthology vein) is the new exemplar?

I think one of my vacuum tubes just blew.
posted by absalom at 3:09 PM on June 26, 2007


On Preview:

Sy- What's different now? Look how much Rudy and many, many others have made on the lecture circuit. It's still there. It's still popular.
posted by absalom at 3:12 PM on June 26, 2007


You're purposely confusing high art and popular culture. They are not the same thing.

This argument appears several times in the thread, but no one has explained why the two are mutually exclusive. Does great art lose its greatness merely because it becomes popular? To me, The Sopranos was great art by any rational measure of greatness. It was also popular. Reasonable minds can differ as to whether The Sopranos is an artistic work in the same class as, say, Arthur Miller. But it shouldn't be excluded from the discussion merely because it is part of popular culture.

the argument that bluegrass or hip-hop takes place on the same stage as Shakespeare or Noh plays is ridiculous and adolescent.

That isn't the argument I see being made (or at least it isn't one I'd make). It's true that not all art is created equal; some works are better than others, and some genres of art are more likely to produce great works of art than others (i.e., the best books are likely going to be more impressive than the best bluegrass songs). But popularity has nothing to do with this. There's a lot of crap in popular culture, but there's a lot of great stuff too. And there's a lot of crappy literature, poetry, "art" cinema, etc.
posted by brain_drain at 3:19 PM on June 26, 2007


Here's the text of a graduation speech that the late Neil Postman once prepared but, as far as I know, never actually delivered. It makes for a great short read.
posted by New Frontier at 3:24 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


for your consideration and comparison:

To the graduates, their families, the faculty and staff of Hampshire College: Congratulations. I would particularly like to salute the Baldwin Scholars graduating today. James Baldwin delivered the commencement address here at Hampshire twenty-one years ago. That day, he said: “The reality in which we live is a reality we have made, and it’s time, my children, to begin the act of creation all over again.”

In that spirit, I welcome you to the Republic of Poetry. The Republic of Poetry is a state of mind. It is a place where creativity meets community, where the imagination serves humanity. The Republic of Poetry is a republic of justice, because the practice of justice is the highest form of human expression.


--from "The Republic of Poetry," a commencement address delivered by Martín Espada at hampshire college, 19 may 2007
posted by ronv at 3:25 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


inoculatedcities writes "If they talk about a book it’s a comment and then that’s the end of that. Movies, people can talk about endlessly. And they can bank on the fact that people have seen the movie.'"

Interesting. I hadn't thought of that, but it's true: whenever I talk books with friends, it's always in this weird circuitous manner, because they inevitably haven't read the book in question, or they have and I haven't, so we're talking about it without giving anything away just in case the other party intends to read it. With movies, the odds that we've both seen it rises amazingly.

But, really, isn't that a function of the fact that there are far, far, far more books published each year than movies? Plus, books take longer to read, so even if you spend equal time reading and watching, you'll see four times as many movies as you read books? Perhaps in the olden days, there was much more StephenKingMichaelCrictonJohnGrishamisation, where everyone read the same books as everyone else?

delmoi writes "Strange. For me, visualization while reading is an automatic, involuntary process."

Yeah, I know it's strange. I didn't mean for my example to be representative, just a "remember the 1% of us weirdos who don't visualize when we read" comment.

The other problem is that I visualize slowly. I've tried visualizing while reading as an adult as a bit of an experiment, but to flesh out a scene, to really get a picture, I need to close the book, and close my eyes for a minute or two. Fun, but if you're doing that every few pages, reading becomes incredibly slow. I can speed up the visualization by visualizing things less creatively, but, then, what's the point?

OmieWise writes "the argument that bluegrass or hip-hop takes place on the same stage as Shakespeare or Noh plays is ridiculous and adolescent."

I dunno. Depends what Shakespeare you're talking about. Some of it is high-faluting stuff, but some of it is pretty damn low-brow entertainment. Titus Andronicus is basically Silence of the Lambs. Noh was a good choice, though (if you'd said Kabuki, I'd have to remind you that it was basically advertising for prostitutes back in the old days).

Eekacat writes "For me the difference is that the definition of good or worthy has become measured by how much money the activity makes."

I think a marked change in approach is that, I suspect, in the old days the thinking would be "It made a lot of money, because it was good", while now it's "It made a lot of money, so it's good".
posted by Bugbread at 3:34 PM on June 26, 2007


Nice grab New Frontier
posted by Smedleyman at 3:40 PM on June 26, 2007


ROU_Xenophobe --

Not to repeat what sy wrote, but reading classical literature for leisure, along with the Bible, was fairly common in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Certainly for the very poor they didn't have an extensive library (in many cases the Bible was the only book they owned), but for the middle/merchant and upper classes, it was very common.

And, as sy pointed out, if you could afford to send your son to school, reading classical literature in the original Greek (and sometimes Latin) was par for the course. Now, I'd admit that isn't recreational reading, but it's a good indicator of how far our educational institutions have slid down the tube. Unfortunately, up to the early 20th century, if you wanted your daughter to be well-educated, the best option for her was to become a nun.

A personal anecdote. When I graduated high school, I had fulfilled my language requirement for university with four years of Latin. Or so I thought. As it turns out, they made a fuss because it wasn't a living language. Never mind that it's the foundation of all the Romance languages. To me, that seemed like an awfully utilitarian perspective.

I see it as an example of how we're discarding anything and everything in our education system that isn't deemed "practical" (in other words, can be used in a profession to make money). Learning for the sake of knowledge and personal growth is just being chucked out the window in the name of efficiency and short-sighted fiscal conservatism.
posted by mstefan at 3:42 PM on June 26, 2007


And, as sy pointed out, if you could afford to send your son to school, reading classical literature in the original Greek (and sometimes Latin) was par for the course. Now, I'd admit that isn't recreational reading, but it's a good indicator of how far our educational institutions have slid down the tube.

How is this a good indicator? So being able to read Homer "original" greek makes you better educated? When will the idea that a classical education is the superior one ever die?
posted by ozomatli at 3:54 PM on June 26, 2007


I'm late to the party as well, but this is interesting; I remember there was a bit of a controversy back in January when it was announced that Gioia had been chosen as speaker. Ah, here it is. Scroll down to read the heartrending complaints of DISSAPOINTED SENIORS. Representative complaint: WTF? Some random poet nobody has heard of? Way to go, Stanford, treating students like you always do -- like dirt.

As for the speech itself, I think Jilly said it best: These are strong words coming from a man who helped develop Jello Jigglers.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 4:01 PM on June 26, 2007


When will the idea that a classical education is the superior one ever die?

When the ability to read "Dick and Jane" stops becoming the minimal reading requirement to graduate from high school. Hell, what am I saying? You have kids that "graduate" that can't even read that without stumbling through it.
posted by mstefan at 4:02 PM on June 26, 2007


mstefan writes "A personal anecdote. When I graduated high school, I had fulfilled my language requirement for university with four years of Latin. Or so I thought. As it turns out, they made a fuss because it wasn't a living language. Never mind that it's the foundation of all the Romance languages. To me, that seemed like an awfully utilitarian perspective.

"I see it as an example of how we're discarding anything and everything in our education system that isn't deemed 'practical' (in other words, can be used in a profession to make money). Learning for the sake of knowledge and personal growth is just being chucked out the window in the name of efficiency and short-sighted fiscal conservatism."


I agree that things are becoming profession oriented, but I disagree with the particular example of language. To illustrate with an anecdote: when I was a teacher in a Japanese high school, I was amazed that kids were learning the physical dimensions (width, height, depth, weight) of a certain gold seal that Japan received from China 1,000 years ago. That's totally, totally useless information. It is, indeed, learning for the sake of knowledge, but, frankly, that type of learning-for-knowledge is stupid.

I'm not going to say that learning Latin or Greek is the same. However, with the limited exception of reading the classics in their original languages, the application is extremely limited. Learning a real living language, however, has far, far more uses, and they aren't exclusively, or even primarily, limited to monetary concerns. Learning a new language makes you notice the quirks of your own language (this is also satisfied by learning classical Greek or Latin), but it also opens up a window to the cultures and ways of thinking of people in other cultures. Sure, classical Greek or Latin do as well, but it's a very limited one, because it's what people used to think about things that used to happen. It lends itself exceedingly easily to the trap of "People used to think A. Now they think B." Learning a living language, though, allows you to realize "People in my country think A. But not everyone! People in this other country have a whole different view of things." This kind of perspective is sorely needed, not for financial gain, but for a whole slew of civic reasons. Too many Americans, having access to only their own culture (and possibly Canada, the UK, and Australia) mistake the way their countries think as "the way people think in the 21st century", with only a vague, cartoonish sense that "people in Arabia think weird stuff", etc. Learning a living language gives the person the tools (whether they use them or not is a different issue) to realize that other cultures have totally different views of things, not just on an external level, but to really see the fundamental differences.

I'm not expressing myself well. I'm sorry, I'm tired. Still, I see it (and have seen it) around me all the time: people in the US whose immediate families were from other countries had a much fuller perspective on the range of possibilities in human thought. People here in Japan who speak English well have a much better idea of what makes us Americans tick than the people who get their cartoonish views from the limited media available.

These are all things that aren't really possible with Latin or classical Greek, and they aren't economic benefits.
posted by Bugbread at 4:07 PM on June 26, 2007


Er...much more succinctly:

Yes, there is more of an emphasis on practicality in education. And there is much more of an emphasis on monetary advantage. The emphasis on monetary advantage is neither here nor there. If it results in detriment to other practical education, that's bad. If it is in tandem, or complements other practical education, that's good. The emphasis on practicality is good. Impractical education is education for the sake of education. You may as well memorize pi to 100 digits, or learn the names of all of Shakespeare's relatives. If it doesn't help you in any way, intellectually, financially, or spiritually, it's what we used to call in elementary school "busy work".
posted by Bugbread at 4:12 PM on June 26, 2007


Sure, classical Greek or Latin do as well, but it's a very limited one, because it's what people used to think about things that used to happen.

You make some good points, however I'm reminded of the fact that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Knowing what people used to think about things is, to my mind, just as important as what people think about things today. And it doesn't need to be an exclusionary process, where because you are learning Latin, you're oblivious to the modern world around you. In fact, I'd say that learning classical Greek or Latin can give you a unique and even more valuable perspective on the world today.

To understand where we're going, we need to know where we've come from.
posted by mstefan at 4:16 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


To clarify the comment "I'd say that learning classical Greek or Latin can give you a unique and even more valuable perspective on the world today", the reason that I say that is because to truly understand Latin (as with any language), you also need to understand the culture of the people who spoke it. Otherwise, you're simply engaging in translation, not learning.
posted by mstefan at 4:22 PM on June 26, 2007


“When I graduated high school, I had fulfilled my language requirement for university with four years of Latin. Or so I thought.”

Similar thing happened to me. I came out of the military speaking several languages and good hunks of others (recreationally, not fluent of course) and having traveled throughout the world. Big fuss over some of my college requirements since I hadn’t taken credit earning language courses at the college.
href= hyperbole>oh, never mind that you fluently speak Gaelic, Urdu, Hebrew and Marathi, Mr. Smedleyman, if have you haven’t taken three credit hours of French or Spanish or another pedestrian language we teach we can’t give you a degree from our university> /a


“People here in Japan who speak English well have a much better idea of what makes us Americans tick than the people who get their cartoonish views from the limited media available.”

Oh, I don’t know. Cartoonish views of the U.S. seem pretty accurate lately.

“The emphasis on practicality is good.”

Is art practical? (straight question, I’m not trying to lead your point into absurdity) If so, I suspect that’s part of what is at issue - that emphasis on monitary advantage supercedes the otherwise practical but not visibly advantageous intellectual gains from more abstract consideration.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:28 PM on June 26, 2007


To clarify the comment "I'd say that learning classical Greek or Latin can give you a unique and even more valuable perspective on the world today", the reason that I say that is because to truly understand Latin (as with any language), you also need to understand the culture of the people who spoke it. Otherwise, you're simply engaging in translation, not learning.

This is totally tangential, but are you serious? In my experience, the average high school Latin class has far too many "banquets" and far too little conjugation.
posted by roll truck roll at 4:29 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


A lot of things to be learned aren't all that practical, but can provide mental excercise to teach your brain new ways of thinking. The benefits are often indirect. Learning how to learn is just as important (if not more so) than learning any particular piece of information.
posted by SBMike at 4:32 PM on June 26, 2007


mstefan writes "Knowing what people used to think about things is, to my mind, just as important as what people think about things today."

True, but given that the requirement is for one language, not two, I'd say knowing what the other people think today is more important than knowing what they used to think. If we're talking about studying two languages, then, sure, a living language and a dead language would also be a good choice.

mstefan writes "To understand where we're going, we need to know where we've come from."

Again, true, but to understand where we're going, what is especially important to know is where everyone is.

Knowing, for example, what Sparta thought of Athens may give you an insight into things nowadays. Knowing what South Korea thinks of North Korea will give you an insight into things nowadays. (By which I mean, what people really think, not just what the governmental position is)

Smedleyman writes "Oh, I don’t know. Cartoonish views of the U.S. seem pretty accurate lately. "

Yes, but largely incomprehensible. People who are fluent in English understand not just the conclusions, but the values, thought processes, mores, etc. that lead to those conclusions.

Smedleyman writes "Is art practical? (straight question, I’m not trying to lead your point into absurdity)"

Good question. I don't know. I like art, but I must confess that I never really understood the reasons that are given for teaching art in school. It was fine by me, because I enjoyed learning it, but it was like someone telling me "I'm going to give you a backrub, because it releases karmic energy". I dunno about karmic energy, but I enjoy backrubs, so, whatever, go ahead. Basically, I don't truly understand the position of people who favor art education. That doesn't mean I disagree, it means I just plain don't really grok it. As such, I don't have an opinion on the importance of art or music education, either way. Just that I personally enjoy them.

SBMike writes "A lot of things to be learned aren't all that practical, but can provide mental excercise to teach your brain new ways of thinking."

I probably could have chosen a better word than "practical", because I'd totally include "teaching your brain new ways of thinking" in whatever expression I was trying to convey with "practical". That's one of the advantages I was trying to posit for learning a living language: it gives you the tools to learn new ways of thinking, giving a fuller perspective on things than one's own limited environment.
posted by Bugbread at 4:53 PM on June 26, 2007


For all the talk of enormous, blockbuster movies taking over small films, we also live in an era - an era promised at the birth of VHS and now come into reality with DVD and NetFlix-like services - where almost any movie, from high art to low taste, can be ordered and seen in very short order. Theatrical exhibition is extremely difficult to make profitable, especially for smaller films, whereas more than a few wonderful independent movies have found their footing on DVD.

Also, it's difficult to talk about who our artists are nowadays, as our culture is less monolithic, and we don't know what the future will hold as far as what gains a following.

I don't want to get into a "your favorite x sucks" discussion, but I can think of a number of currently well-regarded artists who present wan garbage that will be faintly remembered in years to come, whereas a number of less-respectable artists are making fine art that people will be returning to more and more as time goes by. And sometimes, an individual work which is more mainstream and makes more money can be infinitely superior to an individual work which has been made for cheap, "without capitalist motive."
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:02 PM on June 26, 2007


a lot of kids read Shakespeare for fun into the 20th century.

You have evidence of this? Surveys of children being asked what their favorite activities were, and answering "Shakespeare!"

Reading aloud in the evenings, as a family or in other groups, was a very common pre-mass media activity even for working-class families.

But is there any evidence that this was at the prompting of the children, who really wanted to recite Shakespeare, and not simply children being forced by their parents to do something they thought was salutary?

You know what another form of extremely popular 19th century entertainment was? Lectures. People paid to see them. Emerson lived off of giving lectures in small New England towns for much of his life.

Lectures are still common, and plenty of people make very good livings on the lecture circuit. These even include scientific lectures; I once paid something like $10 to see Carl Sagan give a talk primarily about Voyager to an audience of several thousand people.

Now, I'd admit that isn't recreational reading, but it's a good indicator of how far our educational institutions have slid down the tube.

It's not a good indicator of anything except the declining social importance of Greek and Latin.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:30 PM on June 26, 2007


for your consideration and comparison:

To the graduates, their families, the faculty and staff of Hampshire College


Hampshire college? Hampshire fucking college? I wouldn't trust one piece of the self-centered crap that comes out of that place. It's filled with drugged-out hippies, atavistic layabouts. Jesus.
posted by OmieWise at 5:40 PM on June 26, 2007


F'90.
posted by OmieWise at 5:40 PM on June 26, 2007


mstefan (and others in the education-centric sub-thread):

First off, in the interests of full disclosure, I refuse to start from the premise that abandoning Homer and Virgil in the original somehow means a "watering down" of American education. . . BUT, to speak to the larger topics brought up by those others late to the ball. . .

It is not as if one moment the country woke up and all of a sudden the classical curriculum just vanished. For starters, when was this par for the course? You are clearly not talking about adolescent education - what we might now call elementary and high school grades. Yes, in your elite universities, boarding schools, and finishing academies, or under the wing of a private tutor, that was essentially private education for the wealthy.

Even though there have been "public" schools in the US since the 17th century, one doesn't really find public schools until the 1840s. (And then only in MA. Remember, by 1900, only about 30 states had mandatory public schooling) In these "common schools," the closest relative of our current public and compulsory school system, the only real textbook was the MacGuffy Reader (Which, of course, pulled heavily from the Bible, etc.). Latin and Greek in the original? No. Try rote memorization in a single roomed building for hours a day, complete with physical punishments that would make the Sisters who taught me in middle school blanch. These schools focused entirely on the the R's : what were considered the most fundamental of fundamentals.

As the common schools met up with rapid industrialization, it became pretty clear that the Reading/Writing/Arithmetic model was not up to the job, and a slew of reformers started exploring how to make education more effective (and truly universal. During this ("progressive era" of American Education, the focus turned to practicality. (Finally, something that almost looks like a school of today.) Grade levels, early vo-tech, etc. To my mind, a step up. Oh, also the idea that teachers should be semi-specialists in their subjects becomes pretty popular (I teach becomes I teach science, for example).

It wasn't until (IMHO) the late 20s when John Dewey and some other revolutionary thinkers from, I believe, Univ of Chicago, began to test an educational system like which you are describing. Where independent thought is rewarded, in which different modes of learning are taught, in which the first steps towards wedding practicality with knowledge of intellectual and cognitive development were taken. (Which makes sense, if you think about what is going on with the various -ologies of the day.)

It is also around this time, and especially with the development of the basic IQ test for the US Army during WWI, that the other head of our great Beast named education spawned: testing. (we'll come back to that, do not worry).

So, to pause a moment, it seems the education system that helped you develop your (presumably) critical and analytical mind did not come out of the classicist mold at all. The furthest thing from it.

I'm going to skip over the education developments and theories of the mid-century. Not because they are not important, but because they are not relevant because most of them are viewed with enormous skepticism by the public and school boards, and so have very little place in modern schools. (Or, in the national curricula, the emphasis in Math and Science after Sputnik is pretty well known)

Instead, I'll shift directly to April of 1983. The US embassy in Beruit is a smoking heap and the rerelease of Duran Duran's first album is tearing up the charts. Also, an alarmingly alarmist report called A Nation At Risk is released. It caused an uproar, and thus began the great Federal overhaul of the educational system. It was largely because of this report that the high school requirements for graduation became codified and semi-unified across the nation. (Also, remember that skepticism about some modes of education that came out of the 50s-70s I hinted at above? A little bit of bus-throwing-under, perhaps.) Usually it plays out something like this: 4 years English, 3 Years Math, 3 years Social Studies, etc. . . Our own modern version of the 3 R's.

Now, don't get me wrong, there was a LOT wrong with education that needed reform, and "ANAR" did a lot to address it. However, one of their findings was (And I'll quote this):

"Minimum competency" examinations (now required in 37 States) fall short of what is needed, as the "minimum" tends to become the "maximum," thus lowering educational standards for all.

I told you I'd come back to it. Yes, testing. Measure teacher, student, and administrator all in one go. How efficient! And, with this OBJECTIVE and QUANTIFIABLE data, we can start using them as sources for evaluation of our teachers and administrators.

Which, of course, makes NCLB sort of the logical evolution of that idea. However, what we see is that all NCLB does is teach teachers and administrators how to game the system. And, since money is involved, it also means state legislatures are learning how to game it. (example: NCLB requires students be measured competent by way of testing. It leaves the definition of "competent" in the hands of state legislators - irony of ironies - and I expect you know what happens next.)

So, anyway, other than being the longest derail ever that isn't a cut-n-paste, what's the point? First, that the educational system that the child-of-workaday-Joe is going to has never really been steeped in the classicism that some are eulogizing.

John Taylor Gatto has another perspective that's pretty interesting.

PBS actually did a documentary about the history of the public schools.
posted by absalom at 5:54 PM on June 26, 2007 [5 favorites]


a lot of kids read Shakespeare for fun into the 20th century.

You have evidence of this? Surveys of children being asked what their favorite activities were, and answering "Shakespeare!"


I don't know about a lot, and I know I'm not the one being asked, but I remember it being a rather important point in Angela's Ashes that Shakespeare was Frank McCourt's one true joy in life as an elementary school student.
posted by shmegegge at 5:54 PM on June 26, 2007


If I can just wax historical a little bit here...

If you look at maps of Jacobean London, you'll note that there were a bunch of different sorts of places you could go for public entertainment. Theatres, for one, but also Bear Baiting, well, arenas I suppose. Not everyone was interested in theatre. Some people just wanted to watch bears and dogs ripping each other apart.

Shakespeare's company was known as The King's Men because King James basically (and to oversimplify) was their patron. To the best of my knowledge, royalty didn't patronize bear baiting. That supported itself fine on box office sales.

In fact, most of the history of the fine arts is about the very wealthy subsidizing them. Opera, ballet, Noh, jingju, poetry, painting, and more lived for hundreds of years because rich people paid for it. They didn't necessarily appeal to the lower classes; they did not have to to survive.

Many of the early books on aesthetics (like the Natyasastra for example) talk about how the art will only be appreciated by a refined audience. How is that audience made ot be refined? Well, they were wealthy enough to spend time studying the arts and literature instead of shoveling pig shit. The pig shit shovelers had to find other things to entertain themselves, like xenophobia or cockfighting or religion or drinking or dealing with starvation.

High arts, when brought to America, were brought by the wealthy. The people who had time to participate were the people "of worth." They have been kept alive artificially through grants and donations - or by very dedicated people doing it out of love. They aren't kept alive through box office.

If these arts are suffering right now, it is because the wealthy are losing interest in them. Thus, it makes perfect sense to try and lecture the young children of the wealthy (I would imagine that Stanford has its share of those) on patronizing the high arts.

Anyhow, different social classes of people historically enjoy different kinds of entertainment. It is one of the ways most cultures separate the "haves" from the "have nots."

(and, historically, the people who perform the arts are usually in the "have not" category, which is why it serves the wealthy art patron well to encourage his own children to go into banking, but the inner city kids at the schools whose art programs he supports to go into the arts)
posted by Joey Michaels at 7:28 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Okay, but children who grow up to win Pulitzer Prizes are probably a wee bit different from your average kid.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:31 PM on June 26, 2007


Well, it's almost a derail. . . but I thought I'd mention that last night I caught the first episode (Caravaggio) of Simon Schama's BBC program, The Power of Art on my local (US) PBS station.

If we're looking for popularizing public intellectuals of the sort Gioia's longing for, Schama's about the best around. Episode 1 was quite excellent, and I'd advise everyone to check your local listings and have a look.

That is all.
posted by washburn at 7:40 PM on June 26, 2007


Joey: That's true, but also an oversimplification. Every one of those eras has its own theatre for the lower class, who probably loved Hamlet just as much as Queen Elizabeth, and you really think He was thinking like a Lit Major when he was filling his plays with bloody guts and revenge and ghosts? No. When Theatre was segmented by force of law, like with Noh, you get Kabuki and Bunraku. Speaking of Puppets, Punch and Judy shows were just a generation removed from MacBeth, and they based on Commedia dell'arte shows from the 15th century. Before that, Theatre was a church affair in the form of morality plays - also for the masses. In the "earliest" days, Theatre truly was for everyone, as it played into religious festivals. (Then, as now, where you sat was what really mattered) As for Opera, it started wealthy, but at least in Italy, you find public for-profit Opera houses by the 1640s.

Also, the earliest books on theatre (and pretty much any topic) were written by the literate, aka wealthy, members of society. I am shocked and amazed by how easily they recognized that they alone appreciated true culture. Aristotle was not a prole.

(And, for that matter, Shakespeare - and presumably other - theatres accepted all coin. Remember the groundling section of the Globe? Poor people. His company did not exist on royal patronage alone, either. The Globe was a business, and the actor/director/writers all owned a share.)

Anyway, hopefully I have disabused you of some of your notions about theatre vis a vis the have nots.
posted by absalom at 8:04 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


While I confess I oversimplified some to make a point, the "common" forms of theatre to which you point are not the ones most frequently studied and financed by wealthy Americans. How many cities consider it a point of personal pride to have a commedia company? On the other hand, how many boast about their symphony or their opera or ballet?

The forms of art lamented in Gioia's speech were forms more popular with the wealthy elite in their time than the masses. If TV were more intellectual at its dawn, perhaps that is because the people who could afford TV back then were the rich and well educated. Or perhaps it was because the networks hadn't realized yet that they could make a lot more money showing men getting kicked in the nuts 24/7.

Yes, Shakespeare made some nods to the groundlings, but he was firmly in the pocket of the ruling class. Furthermore, if Joe Blow's version of Hamlet has not survived to this day (but was popular with the groundlings in its time) it is probably because some very wealthy people decided that Shakespeare's was worth preserving and Joe Blow's wasn't (sorry, Colin Quinn).

As far as morality and pagaent plays go, well, who was sponsoring them? The church. Who had the money to create the materials and feed the actors? The church.

Anyhow, my point is that the popular theatre of those eras languishes in obscurity with nary a Dana Gioia lamenting their absence from the public sphere. Meanwhile, Gioia mourns the loss of interest in the art forms loved by the noveau riche of eras past.
posted by Joey Michaels at 9:49 PM on June 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


"If TV were more intellectual at its dawn, perhaps that is because the people who could afford TV back then were the rich and well educated. Or perhaps it was because the networks hadn't realized yet that they could make a lot more money showing men getting kicked in the nuts 24/7."

Probably elements of both, but I very much suspect the latter weighs far more heavily.
Additionally, mass media or media for mass consumption has always been tightly controlled, most particularly at it's outset. So you have privileged language, print, film, television, etc. etc. and it's regulated counterparts which are typically earlier forms. So we all get to read "Ulysses" now but nearly everything on television is regulated (and attempts are being made to force greater regulation of the net and computer games) because who wants to read Molly's soliloquy when you can find porn just about anywhere online.
But the great war has always been over ideas and the free flow of new ideas, information, and most certainly over training people how to think vs. just training people.
Television did have the potential for greatness if not a glimmer of that greatness in the past.
Certainly there are shows that serve as examples in stark contrast to purely commercially driven television (Mr. Rogers comes to mind).

Seems natural to ask - why don't we have more of that?
Perhaps that's not what Gioia put across in the incidentals and his choice of word, but it seems to be his main point.
'Course that's seems to me.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:02 PM on June 26, 2007


(and doesn't address your point on popular theater)
posted by Smedleyman at 11:03 PM on June 26, 2007


the Regal Cinemas near my apartment....Uh , taliaferro, you're also near the Quad and Cinema Village, which screen the art house/foreign films not picked up by the major studios--of course, what plays there does not get the budget for huge ads and previews; I usually base my decisions for going to first-run films on how well they are reviewed from various periodicals. There's been talk about digital projection making non mainstream fare more available, but I don't know how soon that might happen.

Like Gioia, I grew up in Southern California and went to public schools. Before Proposition 13 went through in 1978, my elementary school had a music teacher come regularly to each class, there was a weekly gifted class, the children's librarian from the North Hollywood branch would visit at the beginning of the year...all of that stopped when there was no longer funding.
posted by brujita at 11:21 PM on June 26, 2007


brujita, also, in 1977 there were 23 high schools with symphony orchestra programs in LA county; in 1978, there were 2. There are currently, I think, three.

Late to the party, but some reactions:

Geoff: We can't name great classical musicians, playwrights and poets because we don't have those anymore.

Sorry, but that's one of the dumber things I've read on this site. Our great classical musicians, playwrights, and poets don't exist because you are unaware of them? Please.

This points up why I rarely engage in these kinds of conversations: in my experience, most people (well educated, smart, thoughtful, curious people) are appallingly ignorant of contemporary art and artists, have no idea what's considered exciting or great or why, and thus assume they simply don't matter or even exist.

You don't know they exist because they have no place or voice in contemporary popular culture, which is exactly one of Gioia's points. Your ignorance on this point illustrates why he's talking about this in the first place, and especially why he's saying it to a bunch of Stanford graduates: even many of our educated elite remain ignorant of contemporary arts.

He's not exalting a specific canon from the past--that would be the conservative political view. He's arguing that substantial art has a far more narrow place in our shared experience of the world, and that's detrimental to us in some profound ways. He in fact makes no mention whatsoever of which art should have a more prominent place, simply that art-making and performing, etc., should have a place in every child's life.

vacapinta: Instead we get a regret that people aren't familiar with more "conductors." Conductors, really?

Being a conductor, I'm duly insulted.

Not really, but are you familiar with what conductors actually do? With what makes a 'great' conductor great? Why their work is widely considered to be important in their art form? What influence they have on the development of contemporary concert music?

Or do you just have some vague idea of a conductor as an old guy in tails, flailing his arms to boring music in front of an orchestra, who is laughably uncool and therefore completely irrelevant?

Basically his rant is about how people should like the same things he does.

No, it isn't. It's that the things he mentions have substantial intrinsic value, as well as substantial, measurable beneficial effects on both the individual and the society in which he or she lives. His plea (it isn't a rant--that's you projecting) is that creative activity, and the works such activity produces, are important.

If you think his argument is about taste, I suspect you are a victim of the lack which he elucidates.

Unrelated and FWIW: for me, the difference between entertainment and art is intent.

Also, finally: what OmieWise said.
posted by LooseFilter at 12:23 AM on June 27, 2007


Also, OmieWise mentioned, in the comment I linked:

it does mean that there is a difference between [pop stars'] pursuits and the high arts.

Several asked about what metric might be used to differentiate between art and entertainment, and I agree that that's dangerous, subjective ground--but that doesn't mean the idea shouldn't be explored. As I mentioned, for me the biggest distinction is intent.

In addition to that, I can best speak to where I find important differences between what I would consider art vs. entertainment in music. I love all kinds of music, and my listening habits are eclectic and voracious. The pop music that I love, I appreciate on several levels, and am consistently impressed by the level of craft that goes into really excellent tracks--writing, production, performance, everything. However, nearly all commercial music in my experience lacks an important, fundamental element that distinguishes it from concert, or 'art', or 'high art' music: development.

As Leonard Bernstein famously taught in his Young People's Concerts (another significant cultural mass market program of those they-can't-possibly-have-been-smarter-than-us days gone by), development is what makes music symphonic.

The thing about development in music is that it's conceptual in nature, and to be able to perceive and enjoy this aspect, one has to have an intellectual understanding of the idea itself, as well as some experience hearing it. (Brahms is the absolute best example that comes to mind--stunning genius on a regular basis, he develops ideas almost before he's finished introducing them, and so exquisitely. Check out the last movement of his 4th symphony for a great example.)

My experiences with pop (or maybe more accurately, commercial?) music are often no less substantial than those with the symphonic music I perform, study, and listen to, emotionally; however, they almost always lack the intellectual fascination, the surprise and sense of play, and pure conceptual delight that the best concert music does.
posted by LooseFilter at 1:00 AM on June 27, 2007


smedleyman: Is art practical?

Yes, because art is creative exercise, and the capacity for creative thought is our single greatest evolutionary advantage. Part of the care and maintenance of the planet's biggest brain is that we need to let it dream.
posted by kid ichorous at 2:12 AM on June 27, 2007


Joey: They didn't watch a different version of Hamlet. They watched the same Hamlet as everyone else. Lords and Queen in the same building watching the same show, in fact. The Lord Chamberlain's Men/The King's Men were in the Royals pocket in that they had to OK all of their plays through the Master of Revels, so it payed to be on good terms with the powers that be. And, for that matter, those who bought shares in the Globe became wealthy not because of patronage, but because of ticket sales because commoners and nobles alike enjoyed the theatre in Elizabeathan London.

You seem to be jumping around some, so it's hard to discuss specific points. You appear to be saying that "The forms of art lamented in Gioia's speech were forms more popular with the wealthy elite in their time than the masses" while in the same breath backing this up by pointing out that *today* they are popular with the wealthy. Yes, but that does not mean it was always so. As I tried to point out in comments above, the "high class" forms of entertainment often started out with no class distinction - that only came later. *Especially* in Shakespeare's case. If you want to argue that his work was only appreciated or attended or financed or whatever by the wealthy and elite, you will be arguing from the most untenable position possible, because it's simply not true. Patronage was not required financially, but legally, in order to obtain a Letters patent to form a theatre.

And, for that matter, let's talk anecdote: In the last ten years, my city - Memphis, TN (kind of a crap pot) - has build a brand new opera house, a brand new symphany center, and is in the process of building a pretty amazing theatre, to go with the two other professional theatres we have in town and one community theatre. If we get brand new opera houses and theatres here in Memphis, I'm pretty sure the arts are not exactly languishing.
posted by absalom at 7:37 AM on June 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well, I'll make a an argument about the practicality of art, music, and literature in the classroom. All of them involve the intentional manipulation of something for some desired effect. In the visual arts you manipulate color, texture, perspective, and form. In music you use tone, harmony, silence, and rythim. In literature, you use words. In addition to the basic building blocks and theory, you have a rich set of signs which point to additional layers of meaning.

Every day, we interact with objects and media that were designed for us using aesthetic principles that have centuries of history. Producers and consumers in "information economies" can certainly benefit from knowing a bit about that history.

re: art vs. entertainment: I think these terms are orthogonal to each other, and personally I think the concept of "art" as something that is only created by educated professionals is killing amateur engagement in art, which in turn, is creating the problem that is lamented here of a lack of support for professional artists. Certainly we can argue about the concept of development as it is used by the Elfman soundtrack vs. Mozart symphony. Or pop songs vs. dances (if you are going to compare you might as well compare between musical forms of similar length.) However, it seems fairly clear to me that composers were partly motivated by a desire to entertain their audiences, and used development to that end.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:30 AM on June 27, 2007


However, it seems fairly clear to me that composers were partly motivated by a desire to entertain their audiences, and used development to that end.

Most definitely--I think the difference is that (what I regard as) music of substance--be it symphonic, pop, or otherwise--is entertaining in part, but not in whole. Brahms certainly wanted to entertain his listeners, but he did not only wish to entertain. That's what I'm alluding to when I say an important distinction is intent (and the artist's success in achieving that intent, of course).

Also, to compare musical forms of similar length, I would say lieder by Schubert or Schumann contain significantly more development than a typical pop song of any genre. With long form music, the most interesting comparisons to me are between symphonic concert music (symphonys, etc.) and electronica, particularly IDM (Warp Records would be a good starting point for that).

KirkJobSluder, you also make an outstanding point about aesthetics and artistic awareness influencing nearly every product we use and interact with. Daniel Pink's book is fascinating in this regard, especially his stats on hiring trends of people with arts degrees (they're now being hired at a much greater rate than those with business degrees).

I would also recommend reading some of the studies done by Francis Rauscher and Gordon Shaw into the importance of musical study and performance and cognitive development, as well as what kinds of music best accomplish that. (Examples here or here for first-things-Google-turned-up).
posted by LooseFilter at 9:05 AM on June 27, 2007


Well, I'll make a counter-argument that there is development within pop music and folk music. But since pop music inherits from the 12-bar blues forms, the primary liberties for that development are poetic and lyrical rather than in theme and harmony.

lieder by Schubert or Schumann contain significantly more development than a typical pop song of any genre.

Well yeah, they also contain significantly more development than the typical choral choral composition produced by their 19th century contemporaries. The Schubert and Schumann leider are the cream of the crop. While people performed Schubert and Schumann, they also performed quite a bit of stuff that is probably better left forgotten. (Except for this one little chamber operetta that should be revived for sheer over-the-top camp.) We need to be carefully aware of the filtering effect of history in talking about any kind of art.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:33 AM on June 27, 2007


We need to be carefully aware of the filtering effect of history in talking about any kind of art.

Absolutely, as I remind my students all of the time. But when I talk about music at all, one of my ground rules is that I really only have patience for talking about the cream of the crop, be it 19th century lieder or 21st century pop.

I'll make a counter-argument that there is development within pop music and folk music.

Interesting--any specific examples come to mind to support that argument? Your point about 12-bar blues as a primary form for pop music (or, more commonly, 32-bar form) actually supports my assertion. That pop music centers on relatively simple, short forms precludes many kinds of development and other elements of compositional craft that add depth, complexity, and interest to a work of music.

In fact, I have a pet theory that the formal simplicity of pop and folk music is the biggest barrier to listeners' enjoying more formally complex music--as this guy taught me, "perception of form is key to a meaningful musical experience"--and the average listener in the United States has little experience with anything other than formally pretty basic music, and music employing more complex architecture can be quite disorienting from that perspective, and thus not very enjoyable.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:13 AM on June 27, 2007


I've been sort of reading this thread on and off while no one's looking at work, so I'm sure there's a lot I've missed.

LooseFilter, are you actually saying that there is no innovation in pop music? There are all kinds of innovation in pop music, and an awful lot of cross-pollination between pop and classical/"new" music. I have to think that either you're being willfully obtuse or you're very much listening to the wrong things. Since you're clearly well-versed, I'll go with the former.

Look, there's a lot of innovation in pop music, and there are a lot of people who simultaneously operate in multiple arenas. The problem (or one of the problems) is that the Lou Reeds and the Momuses and the Bucketheads are only allowed on MTV at their least innovative. Simultaneously, Robert Ashley and Gyorgi Ligeti and the Kronos Quartet are only played on NPR at their most stereotypically classical. In both cases, contextualization is kept to a bare minimum.

This all leaves listeners with the incorrect idea that musical camps are extremely well-defined and mutually exclusive.

Also, the whole art vs. not-art discussion is rather disingenuous, I think. Art is always wrapped up in politics and economics; sometimes those entanglements are very problematic. But to disregard entire genres of art based on these problems is to lie to yourself about whatever Real Art you're heralding.

I think the real problem isn't so much who is being discussed and who isn't; it's that the discussion really sucks. To return to my previous point, movies are praised based on their ability to sell tickets. That's pretty much the lowest possible rung of criticism.

But a lot of people never quite leave that rung. I've watched undergraduates write off Antonin Artaud's entire artistic project by saying, "I just don't like it." Well, I could give a rat's ass whether you like it. What's going on here is extremely complicated and important, and if that's all you can say about it, then what are you doing in college?
posted by roll truck roll at 12:19 PM on June 27, 2007


absalom: I'm not denying that the groundlings were not an essential part of Shakespeare's audience. However, his company was, after all, the King's Men. They staged and performed pieces at the request of the nobles ("Merry Wives of Windsor" is, of course, a notable example of this). Without the patronage and support of the nobility, I argue that Shakespeare's work would have survived to this day.

I applaud that Memphis has built some outstanding new arts facilities. Who supported funding them? Who is going to be the main group of people taking advantage of them? I put it to you that the majority of patrons are going to be either artists or the middle upper-upper class. Furthermore, I bet you anything you'll find that these were built largely through corporate donations and not so much through grass roots funding. I could be wrong here, but that has been my experience in fund raising for arts organizations.

I have not made my argument clear.

What I have been trying to say is that, historically, art supported by the masses and art supported by the elite are frequently very, very different. The arts that people, according to Gioia, aren't especially aware of are the ones that, in their time, appealed more to the wealthy elite than to the working class.

Furthermore, the wealthy in many time periods took pains to make sure that the "high arts" were not accessible to the working classes by making sure there were ticket prices and dress codes that prevented them from being in attendance.

In so much as Stanford students are, for the most part, children of the wealthy elite, it is appropriate for him to urge them to preserve the art forms patronized by their ancestors.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:37 PM on June 27, 2007


LooseFilter, are you actually saying that there is no innovation in pop music?

No, I'm saying there is very little development. I'm being neither willfully obtuse nor am listening to the wrong things--you're inferring a lay definition of 'development' when I'm using it in a very specific, formal musical sense to indicate compositional technique. Check out the Bernstein link in my earlier comment for his very eloquent explanation of what development means in a musical context.

This all leaves listeners with the incorrect idea that musical camps are extremely well-defined and mutually exclusive.

Yes, clearly an incorrect idea. Again, I'm not using 'development' to mean 'innovation'.

But to disregard entire genres of art based on these problems is to lie to yourself about whatever Real Art you're heralding.

I'm disregarding nothing, and heralding no music over any other--I love all kinds of music, high, low, popular, classical, whatever. I perform, study, teach, and write about music for a living, and am talking about objective differences among different musics, rather than their subjective quality or worth. I hope I've implied nothing about artistic "worth", but substance and craft in a musical work do have considerable objective components that can and should be pointed out and discussed.

Well, I could give a rat's ass whether you like it. What's going on here is extremely complicated and important, and if that's all you can say about it, then what are you doing in college?

I completely agree--I suspect you and I actually have very similar perspectives on all this.

Joey Michaels: What I have been trying to say is that, historically, art supported by the masses and art supported by the elite are frequently very, very different. The arts that people, according to Gioia, aren't especially aware of are the ones that, in their time, appealed more to the wealthy elite than to the working class.

I think your observation is correct, but the conclusion you draw here is not historically supported. Yes, most "high" art was and continues to be supported by a social elite (or, in the 20th century, by government patronage)--that happens for many reasons, many of them pragmatic. But it is incorrect to conclude that a wealthy elite are the only ones who enjoy that art--many, many classical composers were widely and popularly enjoyed in their time, and many had a very strong conviction to write music that most people would enjoy (Brahms comes to mind, but there are many examples).

The fact that Shakespeare's company existed because of royal patronage does not change the fact that the floor seats cost a penny (or half-penny? can't recall), poor people packed the house, and enjoyed his plays a great deal. Or didn't, and were very vocal about their displeasure.

Great works of art tend to be at least fairly complex, and this complexity is often a barrier to entry for many, which is why great art has often needed champions, financial or otherwise. In the U.S., the gospel of the free market says that that which appeals most widely is most lucrative, and art that is complex and challenging has an ever-increasingly difficult time existing. Gioia's call has nothing whatsoever to do with elitism, and everything to do with substance, quality, and depth. He is not calling for the dismissal of "inferior" art, or the superiority of "high" art--he's saying that we've lost an important component of our popular culture, and articulates some reasons why he thinks that loss is harmful.
posted by LooseFilter at 1:08 PM on June 27, 2007


LooseFilter: Interesting--any specific examples come to mind to support that argument? Your point about 12-bar blues as a primary form for pop music (or, more commonly, 32-bar form) actually supports my assertion. That pop music centers on relatively simple, short forms precludes many kinds of development and other elements of compositional craft that add depth, complexity, and interest to a work of music.

Well, the other half of that statement was that the primary form of development is poetic and lyrical, rather than focused on theme and harmony as is the case in many classical treatment of choral works, where the actual lyrics are often irrelevant. Beethoven's 9th is very much enjoyable even without knowing the poem around which he builds the fourth movement.

As an example, I would count When the Levee Breaks by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy as one of the great pop songs of the 20th century. The 1929 version isn't outstanding as a work of music (compared to say, a Gershwin concerto), but as a poetic performance it is haunting, evocative, and layered with meaning. It describes a national disaster in starkly personal terms, uses it both literally and as a metaphor for a failed relationship, and includes a political dimension as well. And it manages to do this in less than a dozen couplets, with the first line repeated for each couplet. The first verse frames the problem, and then each additional verse elaborates on the problem taking the listener in different directions.

I remember hearing an interview with Alice Randall about the time that The Wind Done Gone was winding it's way through the court system. When asked about why she came out of Detroit and Harvard to become a country music lyricist of all things, she said that country music used forms of narration and tense that are simply ignored by the literary novelists and poets. Sonnets and Haiku are very simple forms, but there is a lot of complexity that can be packed into both by a good wordsmith.

I must say that I disagree with the claim that "perception of form is key to a meaningful musical experience." Or rather, I would argue that the human brain is naturally kinked to perceive pattern and form in auditory data. Babies have meaningful musical experiences without a lick of training. If you can hear, and have reasonably normal cognitive development, you can perceive the patterns, even if that perception is just tacit rather than the explicit formulations used by music theorists. I think one of the barriers around "fine art" music is the idea that one must approach a work as one would approach a sudoku to be decoded.

And, I must say, I can sense the structure in some conceptually complex modern music without really enjoying it. I can hear that the composer is making a point, while at the same time feeling that his statement and elaboration of that point is about as enjoyable as an etude. At least part of the problem with the "fine arts" in the 20th century is a tendency to take a theoretical idea to absurd extremes just to make a point. I think it's worthwhile to consider just what is sacrificed to make that point.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:03 PM on June 27, 2007


LooseFilter writes "perception of form is key to a meaningful musical experience"

I'd say it's key to a certain type of meaningful musical experience. For me, that experience is less meaningul than the one I have before perceiving the form. For example, I am a great fan of Beethoven. I enjoy all the contrasts and development and emotional resonance. However, I've started listening to a lecture series (a very long one), and the section on Beethoven has actually decreased my enjoyment of him, as it has shown very simple patterns and progressions that he uses in the music (specifically, I'm thinking of the part where he goes through the fifth, pointing out that after the first "da-da-da-dum" theme, it starts in with a theme of four descending notes, then in later iterations this is stripped down to two, and then to one, and then transposed so that it becomes four ascending notes, etc.). Intellectually, sure, that's neat. However, now when I listen to the music I hear less of the emotionally moving aspects, and more of the mechanics, and the increase in intellectual interest is smaller than the decrease in emotional interest.

Don't get me wrong. That's just me. I'm not saying it's that way for everyone. For some people, the intellectual interest just compounds the emotional. For some, it may decrease the emotional, but the increase in intellectual is greater. There's probably a wide variety in how those balance for people.

But to say it is "the key" is basically to say "a meaningful musical experience is the kind of musical experience I enjoy. If you enjoy a different one, yours is by definition not meaningful". To say it is "a key" is to say "there are many kinds of meaningful musical experience. One of them comes from understanding the form, and hence that understanding is key to that type of meaningful musical experience".

I have the same problem with electronic music: psychedelic trance used to have a very powerful effect on me, because the sounds were so pure and alien and almost lividly visible. Then I learned about specifically how it was made, how a delay, gate, reverb, flange, and pitch shifter can work together to make some of the alien sounds I enjoyed. Now those sounds don't have the same pull on me. I hear them, and instead of being swept away by the purity and incomprehensibility, I think "he's probably fed that particular sound through a vocoder, and then used another vocoder to gate the sound to make that clipped staccato rhythm".
posted by Bugbread at 5:23 PM on June 27, 2007


bugbread, I can sympathize with some of what you say--as a student, I went through a similar progression (with Beethoven, natch) where my purely emotional enjoyment--derived in part from the magical mystery of the music--was supplanted by colder, more intellectual enjoyment. For me, though, I came through the other end of that, and rediscovered the mystery and now have a much, much more full experience that is both emotional and intellectual--and I can sort of turn the intellectual off, too. YMMV.

But to say it is "the key" is basically to say "a meaningful musical experience is the kind of musical experience I enjoy. If you enjoy a different one, yours is by definition not meaningful".

But I didn't say it's the key, merely that it is key--which could mean that it is the only key element, or that it is one of several key elements. I think you've inferred something from that statement that isn't actually there. Also, that quote was from an important musicologist, Rich Crawford (an Americanist, in fact, who created the conceptual framework for American musicology as distinct from other areas of that field, so that it can embrace the unique ways that music exists and is created in American culture), and knowing that a specialist said it, one must be even more careful--the word "meaningful"--just like the word "development" in my earlier contexts--has a specific definition in this context. In this case, it refers to understanding the music itself, not the emotional experience of listening.

but as a poetic performance it is haunting, evocative, and layered with meaning.

Interesting, I will definitely listen to it. But now we're talking about poetry instead of music. I was speaking specifically of the technique of development in musical composition, something nearly all pop and folk music lacks. (That's not a bad thing, but it is a true thing.)

If you can hear, and have reasonably normal cognitive development, you can perceive the patterns, even if that perception is just tacit rather than the explicit formulations used by music theorists.

Yes, absolutely--but unconscious perception is perception nevertheless. I think that's why folk and popular music sticks with 32-bar and 12-bar blues forms--listeners in American culture perceive those forms intuitively.
posted by LooseFilter at 5:49 PM on June 27, 2007


LooseFilter : "I think you've inferred something from that statement that isn't actually there."

Oops, you're right. Sorry, end of night shift slows brain.
posted by Bugbread at 8:29 PM on June 27, 2007


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