A pair of images hangs over my computer. In one, Merlin points to the moon as Arthur curiously searches the sky. Above that is a panoramic photo taken when I was a Writing grad student at CalArts in 1999, the view from the deck outside my apartment where I often stood to gaze out at the horizon.
I just reread Dana Gioia’s wonderful 2007 Stanford commencement address. It’s breathtaking and heroic, a call to “trade easy pleasures for more complex and enjoyable ones” and a strong defense of the arts and reading for pleasure, both in education and in life. He points to studies showing that those who don’t read for pleasure or participate in the arts are – empirically and statistically – more likely to become passive consumers of electronic media and less likely to engage in community activities or discussions than those who do read, do practice art or music. “These cultural activities seem to awaken a heightened sense of individual awareness and social responsibility,” he says.
How do we recondition our culture? How can we reinvigorate creative pursuits and community dialogue? By awakening curiosity and storytelling power. As Gioia says, “Adult life begins in a child’s imagination, and we’ve relinquished that imagination to the marketplace.” Advertisers and the media cater to the insecurities and fears of our perceived selves right now instead of elevating us and giving us a vision to aspire to, as art does. The instant gratification of the flickering screen, of ready-made food and instant communication, doesn’t require much of us. No imagination, no hard work required.
But the rewards that come from pursuing something artistic and literary are so immense compared to those easy satisfactions. I’ve seen pure joy on the faces of my students when they discover their voice and the power in their writing, when they realize they can break out of a pre-written and over-structured life through poetic or literary endeavors!
As teachers, as adults, as writers and artists, as humans, we must strive toward curiosity, toward exploration and creativity. Celebrate intellectual discussion in public places. Spread thoughts and ideas about writing and art, not just among fellow artists, but equally with all people, even – especially – with those you think might oppose your viewpoint. Dialogue is key.
Art education is not just about creating more artists or writers. The imagination of children is at stake. Our imagination is at stake.
I must say, Dana Gioia is one of my heroes, and someone I’m proud to call a neighbor (he lives in Sonoma County part-time). I was privileged to meet him last year at a poetry reading in Sebastopol, although, in typical fashion, I stumbled over my words and acted a fool when I went up to talk to him and have him sign my book.
Such is the power of poetry, to stun and to awe me.