Friday, August 1, 2014

Dana Gioia - An Impressive Guy Part 1

This has been my year for poets. Usually one doesn't come across poets in one's day to day life. They're like actuaries and Feng Shui consultants: you know they're out there but you don't expect to see them. But this year U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway spoke at my daughter's college graduation. Last April I actually paid money to hear Poet Laureate Billy Collins. And last week I went to hear Dana Gioia, the former Director of the National Endowment for the Arts. He's also, you know, a poet. He says poetry is his true calling and everything else he's done otherwise, as a business man, a professor and bureaucrat he's done to support time with his muse.

He's a very impressive guy, so I'm going to divide these posts about him into three segments over the next week: first about his work with the NEA, next about his writing about the place religion in the fine arts and finally about poetry. I'm sure you'll plan your schedule accordingly.

When Gioia was first asked by President George W Bush to serve as director of NEA, he didn't want to go. He said asked repeatedly and felt like Jonah being asked to go to Nineveh. He accepted before he had to "be delivered in the belly of a whale."

Gioia describes Washington as a place where blood sports are practiced with civility and impeccable fashion. He took the position knowing that Democrats would oppose him as a Republican appointee and Republicans opposed the agency he would head. But he made a commitment with himself and God before taking the job. He would endeavor to act as a Christian. He would not lie and he would treat others with respect and listen.

Gioia is, not surprisingly, a believer in the transformative power of the arts. He grew up in a working class area in southern California and has gone on to highest corridors of power in government and the media. But two sources of culture changed his life. His mother loved poetry and quoted it to him often. And he frequented the public library. It led him to a love of literature that changed his life.

Gioia set as a goal as NEA director that funding decisions would be based on artistic excellence and not partisanship. He is concerned by the coarsening in the popular culture and the self-involved focus of much of the finer arts community and hoped the work of the NEA could address those issues. He also wanted to be sure funding went to all people, not just to the coastal elites.

He said he would often hear from those on the right, "You aren't going to sponsor gay art projects?" And he would respond, "There are gay people in America, aren't there? And the NEA is for all Americans." From the left he would hear, "You aren't going to sponsor Christian projects, are you?" And he would similarly respond, "There are church goers in America, aren't there?" He also established a policy of grants going to every congressional district.
He was most proud of a program to bring Shakespeare to military bases and a writing project for servicemen returning from combat.

Gioia met regularly to members of congress, listening to concerns and complaints about the NEA. And every year he was able to get an increase in funding. He credited the President and the First Lady for their steadfast support.
These days, considering what goes on in the federal parks service and the IRS, I expect NEA funds are being used to paint campaign signs for Wendy Davis, film commercials for PETA and enact a passion play for kindergarteners about the life of President Obama. That's why I would love to see the NEA eliminated. But with the right leadership, I think the agency can do more good than, say, farm subsidies or Obamacare.

With $17 quartrogazzillion in federal debt, I'm all for cutting federal spending. If I was in congress, I would voted to eliminate the NEA. But if I could be assured that a guy like Gioia would always be directing the agency, maybe not.

No comments: