A Contrarian Take on Dana Gioia’s Commencement Speech

Posted by at 11:35PM

After reading the transcript of Dana Gioia’s commencement speech, I can’t help but think that he is being overly facile with his point. Not that I’m against more air space for intellectuals in our culture—I worship at the altar of Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life—but I think he paints an overly grim and facile picture of our intellectual culture today.
It’s an afterthought in the beginning, his citing the Tarantino films Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, but a revealing one. Suffice it to say that when you leave out the best film and the best TV of our generation, you get a pretty bad conception of American culture. There’s plenty of great movies coming out and being watched today, and at any rate, the average is certainly a lot better than it certainly was in terms of narrative structure and complexity.

Take Lost for example: it’s a TV show of baroque complexity, characterization and narrative structure. Questions abound about the show and what’s going on. Now, you might say, “Darius, it’s just a freaking pulp show.” And I’d say, “Exactly.” The relative complexities and thought required for Mike Hammer and Lost are like comparing a yip dog to a wolf: oh, sure, the yip dog tries to be aggressive, but it’s just annoying; the wolf just is. The pulp entertainment of today, especially the best, just is more complex and thought-provoking.
Furthermore, if you look at many of the artistic people I know, most of them are into film as a means of expression above all, and everybody watches at least some serious film. Now, if you’re biased towards one form of expression over another (I’m sure Mr. Gioia would want to pipe up for poetry, which is neglected today), then that’s a problem. I myself wish writing were given more precedence, mostly selfishly, as that’s what I want to do. But it’s not the case that our culture is completely derelict.
Now, Mr. Gioia has a rose-colored conception of the past. He speaks of the way artists and public intellectuals were honored back in the day, and he just doesn’t see it of our own time. To be fair, it is a commencement speech, not a scholarly article, but it’s a sentiment I hear all the time. I’m not so sure our intellectuals really were honored all that much back in the day; nor am I sure we’re such a wasteland. Take a look at the Daily Show or Colbert Report’s guest lists—there are authors on there, on obscure subjects (The Glorious Revolution, for example) all the time. Or look at Oprah’s Book Club—maybe her taste isn’t always the best (ahem—James Frey—ahem) but it’s not as if she’s completely intellectually destitute.
It’s natural for Mr. Gioia to have fond memories of the past’s intellectual contribution, and not just it was his childhood—we tend to retain the best examples of our culture. We don’t remember Mike Hammer. We do remember the greats, by and large. This makes sense. But it biases us, because we’re by and large seeing the best of the past, and comparing it to the drab in our own time.
This is not to claim that everything is perfect or as good as it should be. I am merely saying that things are not as relatively bad as Mr. Gioia likes to claim. Many of the problems Mr. Gioia mentioned, like underfunded arts problems, are great and should be addressed. I would add many other complaints to his: the vacuousness of our political-media culture; the shaming of intellectuals and intellectualism, etc., etc. But these problems have persisted and will persist for a very long time, and it’s a little disingenuous to claim that we have exited some Golden Age of Intellectualism (one with Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon of course) and are entering an Idiocracy; there is, shamefully, nothing special about our current intellectual culture.


3 Responses to “A Contrarian Take on Dana Gioia’s Commencement Speech”

  1. Jim says:

    You raise some excellent points, although I must say I think the cult of celebrity is more pervasive now than it has ever been. But your main point reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s answer when he was asked if the world (circa 1900) was getting better or worse. He said, “Neither. It wobbles.”

  2. Tony says:

    The Arts today are more accessible and diverse than they ever were. But who has time when we have to catch up on Blackberries and Blogs?

  3. Jason says:

    I think Gioia knocks modern pop culture too hard. Every generation complains that the next one is uneducated, immoral and is perverting the culture, ever since Aristotle.
    Our current media makes us think a lot harder than in the past. Check out Everything Bad is Good for You for more on that.


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