The National Endowment for the Arts, which came within a urine-soaked crucifix or two of abolition in the 1990s, is now embarked on its most outre experiment of all: a poetical chairmanship. For NEA chairman Dana Gioia is among the finest living American poets and a major figure in the "New Formalism," a kind of traditionalist rebellion that promotes meter and rhyme against the modern tyranny of formlessness.
Dana Gioia is the most off beat agency chairman in the federal government. He is a poet, not a bureaucrat; a literary critic raised in a working-class Mexican-Italian family; and a translator of Italian verse who also writes with a native's love of California, the land of Beach Boys and Raymond Chandler and August hillsides "drained of green." And he former vice president of General Foods whose portfolio included such American staples as Jell-O and Kool Aid.
TAE associate editor Bill Kauffman spoke with Dana Gioia in the NEA chairman's office on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.
TAE: You are an accomplished, much-admired American poet. How on earth did you end up here?
GIOIA: Poets have historically been famous for being crazy. I sometimes count my presence in Washington as evidence of Plato's theory on that subject. I never intended either to go into politics or come to Washington. I came to the National Endowment for the Arts because I had been repeatedly asked to consider the job. I eventually gave in.
TAE: Have you met any poetry writers or readers in political Washington?
GIOIA: To my satisfaction, I have met a great many readers of poetry and fiction, as well as numerous aficionados of music. Politics is full of intelligent, artistic people who have gone astray.
TAE: When politicians take office, they commonly reward their friends and allies. Has it been tempting to steer money toward likeminded poets?
GIOIA: I have so many challenges in rebuilding the National Endowment for the Arts that I have no time left for corruption and self-interest. All of our grants are given through an elaborate series of panels and evaluations. In the recent history of the Endowment, very few like-minded poets have won awards.
It is both a strength and a weakness for me that I have strong opinions on art, it is a strength because I understand that the quality of a specific work is the only real test of art. There aren't categories of great art, there are only individual great works. The basic insight that I bring to my job is that more art isn't better art. Better art is better art. I will not be shy at the Endowment in trying to fund what strikes me as the best works.
The weakness is that if you have strong opinions on art, it can blind you to other types of excellence. So I try to be conscious that my opinions on painting, music, and literature are in no sense all-encompassing visions of each media.
TAE: "Bureaucracies," you have written, "by their very nature have difficulty measuring something as intangible as literary quality." So should the NEA or state arts agencies make direct grants to writers?
GIOIA: Bureaucracies are inherently ill-suited to make aesthetic judgments. History has demonstrated that evil tyrants, corrupt popes, warrior-kings, and vicious industrial magnates often have brilliant artistic judgment. Committees of experts do not.
The real issue, to me, is a practical one. With limited dollars at the Endowment, should I give an opera composer an individual grant? Or should I foster American opera by giving grants to organizations which produce opera?
My own considered judgment is that the Endowment better serves the American people by giving grants to organizations. If we fund an individual to write an American opera, he or she may or may not have that opera produced. But if we fund an organization, the composer has his or her work performed; the orchestra gets several weeks of rehearsals and performances plus the experience of doing a new work; the conductor has the experience of producing a new work; a whole cast of singers comes in, originate roles, and perform them; the opera company has the developmental experience of doing a world premiere; and the public is able to see the new work. …