Save the Arts!

April 1, 2013

meghan ellie bird brain

By Amy Hackworth. Image by meghanellie.

I recently read and re-read and thoroughly enjoyed a Stanford graduation address by Dana Gioia about the decline of the arts in modern culture. It’s full of more ideas than I can discuss here, so I hope you’ll read it and think about it, too.

Thinkers, poets, painters, and writers were household names 50 years ago because they were featured on television and in the news. Sadly, tragically, that content has been replaced largely by sports and entertainment, offering, as Gioia points out, not only a narrow swath of role models for young children but also a limited exposure to thoughtful, intentional, truly creative work.

And it’s making a difference in society. Gioia cites research that suggests two groups of people emerge in modern culture: those who consume entertainment passively and disengage from community, and those who consume entertainment and engage further. The difference between the two groups is whether they read and participate in the arts.

Entertainment simply doesn’t offer enough substance to inspire us. Consider Gioia’s contrast: “[Entertainment] exploits and manipulates who we are rather than challenges us with a vision of who we might become. A child who spends a month mastering Halo or NBA Live on Xbox has not been awakened and transformed the way that child would be spending the time rehearsing a play or learning to draw.”

That transformational power of art amazes and inspires me. How it works is a bit of a mystery, but Gioia says, beautifully, “Art addresses us in the fullness of our being—simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, intuition, imagination, memory, and physical senses. There are some truths about life that can be expressed only as stories, or songs, or images.”

I agree that we won’t find exposure to the arts in mainstream culture, and we are, to use Gioia’s word, impoverished by it. But I think an answer to cultural artistic deficiency might be found in the curated collections and communities found all over the internet—we’re creating in them, learning from them, and participating in them. While it’s not broadcast like it was 50 years ago, we have more access to more creative work than we’ve ever had. The question now is whether we’ll use it to improve our own and others’ lives.

Do you see the diminishing role of arts in modern culture? How are you engaging with or learning about the arts, as a person and a parent? What are your favorite in-person or online sources for staying engaged with the arts?

P.S. — I see Chris Anderson’s ideas and his philosophy of “making” as a great way to counter the sort of passive culture that Gioia describes.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tulisaa April 1, 2013 at 10:01 am

The image looks like the outline of the shape of Queen Elizabeth’s face on the coins we have here in England!


2 erin April 1, 2013 at 11:01 am

Thank you for sharing this. Now- how do we get the arts back into schools?


3 rebecca alexis April 1, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Two things. This is something I have been pondering A LOT on. How can we, on a cultural & personal level heal from wounds such as SandyHook, War & other loss, without art? I don’t think we can. Art is essential to healing. Not guns.
Second. We need it in our classrooms so that we don’t create robotic children that commit horrible acts and then think it is fine to brag about it on social media. anf then have media sympathize with their actions. Art connects us to our soul and the foundation of who we are.
I also believe in cultural movements and have started an April of Art (of healing, of joy) for myself this month. I wrote some thoughts about this on my blog just this morning so I was so taken aback (and in love with this conversation!!) when I saw this posted here this morning. Also it is national poetry month! hurrah! art in every form! xxoo


4 KelliO April 1, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Yes, yes, yes! I am in agreement all over here. It really makes me cringe and I will rant about how our entertainers are overfunded and teachers, which are so much more valuable, are overlooked. And this application to art and entertainment is the same issue. As a performing arts graduate, I sometimes struggle that I now find myself in an office job because of the insurance benefits(I’m a bit of an accident prone dancer). What good was that dance degree? Oh- yes! For issues like this. I hope with all my heart to teach my own family and community to value all kinds of art. Perhaps it will take a lot of volunteer work to keep art in the classroom, and I plan to be that advocate!


5 Sarah at See. Eat. Repeat. April 2, 2013 at 1:01 am

To me, you hit the nail square on the head. I think when it comes down to it, no one will save the arts but those who love the arts, have personally reaped the benefits, and are thus willing to spend their own time and money to make sure the “challenging pleasures” are enjoyed by others.


6 Lina April 1, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Thanks for sharing this address and continuing the discussion! The question of ‘whether you want to be a passive consumer or an active citizen’ is so pertinent in our day in age and like you said interesting given the access to information and communities we have through the internet. I’m not sure that I see the role of arts diminishing but I certainly see it shifting.

As a parent I’m constantly looking for opportunities to expose my family to arts experiences; be it theatre performances, symphonies, art exhibits and especially our own creating. It’s become my passion actually that I share on my blog .. and a daily practice! It’s so much easier to be the passive consumer but feeding our creative impulses is so much more satisfying!


7 Patricia April 1, 2013 at 7:16 pm

Dear Amy,
Thank you so much for sharing the message about the importance of the arts.
I was lucky enough to be at that Stanford graduation and hear Dana Gioia’s graduation speech. I hung on his every word and have reread his speech many times since then. He inspires me to continue teaching the arts in my public school classroom. With everything being all about test scores, it becomes harder and harder to include what inspires, brings joy, and truly educates our children…the arts. I continue because I know in my heart that art changes lives.


8 Sandra April 1, 2013 at 8:51 pm

I luckily grew up immersed in the arts at school. It breaks my heart to see how the arts and experiencing the arts have become marginalized or elitist.

My parents and my in laws are working class but it was commonplace for them to go to the symphony regularly and see the Bolshoi Ballet on tour. Even go out and hear live jazz. Like you note, television would broadcast plays and opera to mainstream audiences.

Luckily we can travel to Toronto and NYC a few times a year for theater and museums and galleries. Our 7 year old daughter comes with us – it ‘s our mission to expose her to the arts so it is commonplace inherent life.

I’ve also started an evening Salon series whose tagline is “bringing people together through the arts”.

It’s a need, not a luxury, to have the arts as part of our lives.


9 jennifer April 1, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Thank you so much for this post, Amy. This is something I feel so passionately about and think about a lot.
Since Todd and I both have advanced degrees in the arts and spend our days (and nights) creating, it’s vitally important to us to expose our kids to the arts. Our kids are still young, but we study poets and artists together and try to imitate their work. We make classical music playlists and learn about the composers together. We attend the local community theatre productions and jump at the chance to attend symphonies and art exhibitions that come to our college town.
We also enjoy the arts by being creative together as a family: puppet show night, group drawing/painting, group storytelling. I look forward to seeing how these rituals will evolve the older my children get.
The other side of that coin is what we *don’t* do. We don’t expose them to prime-time tv shows (like American Idol) or professional sports or other pop culture icons. They will be exposed to that stuff for the rest of their lives, but while they are in my protective little nest, I want them to experience the joy and richness of the arts.


10 Rachel P April 1, 2013 at 11:50 pm

Don’t forget about dance! “Dance is the hidden language of the soul.” -Martha Graham


11 Sarah at See. Eat. Repeat. April 2, 2013 at 12:56 am

I have loved this speech for years, and I’m thrilled to see it here on Design Mom. I think his words provide a crucial reminder that not everyone feels the way Design Mom readers do about design, aesthetics, and the arts.

I especially love this excerpt, because I personally have learned so much about the world and its people through art:

“Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world—equal to but distinct from scientific and conceptual methods. Art addresses us in the fullness of our being—simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, intuition, imagination, memory, and physical senses. There are some truths about life that can be expressed only as stories, or songs, or images.”

It breaks my heart to see art, dance, music, and other similar classes being removed from school curricula. I agree that the internet is a great resource for spreading the word, but what about those that don’t have access to a computer? Or those that can’t read? I think the lack of arts exposure is probably more concentrated in those groups than the rest of society, so I think grassroots non-profit work is going to be a big part of the solution. Still, it would also be great to see some more celebrities use their fame to encourage participation in the arts.


12 Betsy April 2, 2013 at 8:00 am

I am rather late on joining this discussion, but couldn’t keep away. I am a first year private school kindergarten teacher, and can see first hand the dearth of artistic influences in schools. Even though we have an advanced curriculum that pushes our children in language and math, music, visual arts, and other forms fall sadly to the wayside. Out of frustration (which I knew my kiddos shared), I had to make my own programs to introduce them to the arts – and they ADORE it. When I pull out my poetry book, they are all ears and ripe for discussion about the meaning. When we did a crash course in classical music, they begged to hear their favorite concertos and overtures again and again (opera has yet to hold). It is so important in the expansion of their personal taste and the forming of their minds. What I would give for a school curriculum that took care of all that.


13 Design Mom April 2, 2013 at 11:38 am

Such a great topic, Amy!

When I think of my own children interacting with the arts, I feel like for us, access plays a significant role. Meaning, at least in my memory, it was easier for us to interact with and take part in The Arts when we lived in New York, than when we’ve lived in smaller towns.

I do hope the internet helps bridge the access gap, but man oh man, you have to be so intentional about seeking out The Arts to make that bridge happen.


14 Jennifer Rodgers April 3, 2013 at 6:06 pm

As a public high school art teacher, this topic is at the soul of my being. I have always been an artist as it is quite simply the fiber of who I am. It is wonderful to see the topic of art in society and education here on a public forum because I think all too often, it is taken for granted what artists contribute to our society. Artists create our plates and bowls we use at dinner, they design our clothes, eyeglasses and cars, etc. I could go on and on. However, what happens in most public schools is the importance on standardized testing because those results can be measured. How does one measure/qualify/quantify a dramatic performance, orchestra ensemble or art exhibition? The fact that the arts are in the eye of the beholder makes them transcend such measurement and therefore not considered “important”, “essential”, or a “core curriculum” because no one can truly be held accountable. Sadly, public education in the United States is mostly about politics/accountability and not about exposing children to the joys of human nature (read: art, music, literature, performance). I will get off my soapbox now. Thank you for putting a spotlight on what is nearest and dearest to me.


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