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.