Tradition tells us that baseball is the national pastime. Economics tells us that it’s pro football. Casual conversation makes it clear that the America’s favorite sport is complaining about government. Herewith, then, something counterintuitive: an encomium to government, indeed to the federal government, in fact to a typically controversial part of the federal government — the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) which, thanks to its current chairman, the poet Dana Gioia, is actually spending your money on culturally important projects.
It wasn’t always that way. Remember Karen Finley, the “performance artist” and NEA grantee, whose “art” consisted of smearing her naked body with chocolate and then sprinkling herself with bean spouts? There’s been none of that sort of self-indulgent rubbish on Dana Gioia’s watch. Instead, to take a first example, there’s been Shakespeare.
Under Gioia’s leadership, NEA created the “Shakespeare in American Communities” program, which has brought twenty-two of the Bard’s plays to more than a half-million Americans in over 2,000 performances — and not in major cities, but to small towns, rural areas, and military bases. It’s been the largest Shakespeare tour in American history, involving seven professional theater companies, and it’s touched down in all fifty states. The last is a reflection of Dana Gioia’s political smarts: Members of Congress from sea to shining sea know that their constituents are being served by the NEA. More importantly, though, “Shakespeare in American Communities” is an expression of Chairman Gioia’s populism, which is of the very best kind: he believes the American people are eager for something more than “American Idol” and “Die Hard XLIV” (or whatever number we’re on).
The military has been a special concern of Gioia’s: fittingly enough, as his service as NEA chairman has coincided with both the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. NEA’s “Great American Voices Tour” has taken professional performances of Broadway music (“South Pacific”) and classical opera (“Carmen” and “Don Giovanni”) into thirty-nine Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force bases around America. The artists and musicians involved also visit local schools and conduct pre-concert seminars to help their audiences appreciate the nuances of these different musical forms.
Then there’s “Poetry Out Loud,” a project close to the heart of Dana Gioia, one of America’s most distinguished poets. I confess that, when I hear rap “music,” I hear vulgar chaos; Dana Gioia’s poet’s ear heard a longing for a return to oral recitation, so he launched an NEA program that encourages kids across America to learn serious poetry by heart, and then learn how to recite it publicly in a compelling way. Tens of thousands of students across the United States have participated in this project, co-sponsored by the state arts endowments and the Poetry Foundation — and in doing so have gained in self-confidence, learned their own literary heritage, and developed impressive public speaking skills.
“The Big Read” is even more ambitious: this Gioia initiative aims at nothing less that restoring reading — and reading serious fiction at that — to the center of our national cultural life. More than one hundred communities are participating in “The Big Read” this year, reading American classics ranging from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to Willa Cather’s My Antonia to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In partnership with corporations and private foundations, participants use well-prepared study materials to get inside an author’s head, and are given the opportunity to attend lectures and seminars that help restore the idea of reading great literature as an adventure as well as a pleasure.
Although it’s constitutionally irrelevant, it’s no accident that these ambitious programs have been led by an NEA chairman who is a very serious Catholic, and who believes that the world, created through the Word, is unveiled in all its mystery and beauty through the mediation of words. Dana Gioia knows that ours is a sacramental world, in which the extraordinary lies just on the far side of the ordinary. And he knows that great art, in its many forms, helps up through that permeable border and into the realm of transcendent truth — and love.
That’s why he’s the best chairman NEA has ever had.