February 8, 2005


Federal Cultural Programs Suffer Little Pain From Bush Budget (Jacqueline Trescott, February 8, 2005, Washington Post)

While the president's proposed 2006 budget, unveiled yesterday, slashed hundreds of domestic programs, cultural groups did relatively well.

The National Endowment for the Arts is a prime example. Since the early '90s, it has had a seesaw relationship with Congress and the White House. Ten years ago Republicans loudly called for its elimination. But the administration of President Bush has been gentler. Yesterday the White House didn't reduce its basic funding but it did propose a redistribution of funds for a popular program. If the White House plan is enacted, Challenge America, which has been sending arts groups and grants to every corner of the country, would lose 30 percent of its budget, but the overall NEA budget would be unchanged.

"Given the fact that 154 other agencies are facing cuts or elimination, we see the level funding of NEA as a show of support," said Felicia Knight, the agency's communications director. The administration asked Congress for $121.2 million for the NEA, the same amount it got in the 2005 fiscal year.

Its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities, is also surviving well. The administration set aside $11 million for a new broad history initiative. The entire endowment would get $138 million, the same amount granted by Congress for 2005.

"President Bush has again demonstrated his commitment to strengthening humanities education, promoting excellence in scholarship and enhancing public knowledge of the humanities," said Bruce Cole, the agency's chairman.

Why is it that the Left has been so confused by the fact that a culture warrior like Mr. Bush supports the preservation, cultivation and spead of our culture?

On the Road with Dana Gioia: He has marketed Jell-O and written opera librettos. Now Dana Gioia brings all his talents to bear on marketing the National Endowment for the Arts in zip codes high and lowbrow. (Philip Kennicott, February 2004, Stanford Business)

Gioia’s self-description has always been more voluminous than the Poet-Businessman shorthand. He is, he says, Latin (of Italian and Mexican lineage), Catholic, and a Californian with working-class roots. He came from East Los Angeles, born in 1950 to a taxi driver father and a telephone operator mother. His youth was spent crisscrossing Los Angeles, in search of new music, and art, and anything else that caught his imagination. He studied the piano, and Latin, and availed himself of the book and record collection left by an uncle killed in a plane crash. An approved biography, though not the one he uses as chairman of the NEA, mentions that he was a high school valedictorian, editor of the school paper, president of the speech club, and that he was “expelled or suspended for conduct three times.”

“He was very proud of the fact that he came from East Los Angeles,” says Lindenberger, Stanford professor emeritus of comparative literature. “I remember him telling me, ‘A lot of the kids I went to high school with are in jail right now.’ Yet here was a kid who had all the social manners of a Stanford student.”

Gioia left Stanford as an undergraduate, spent two years at Harvard studying literature, and then returned to the West Coast to start at Stanford Business School.

“When I arrived at Harvard, I knew everything about books and nothing about the world books were written in,” says Gioia, in his office in Washington, in the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue. He’s in a dark suit and his foot is in a cast, the result of negotiating the driveway, on a dark night, with too much of his kids’ stuff left lying about.

“I realized I wasn’t really being trained to become a writer, I was being trained to be a professor. Comparative literature was in the avant-garde of the whole change in literary studies; it was the first one to go theoretical. What comp lit became was essentially literary theory, and I was being trained to write in this mandarin code—which I was quite good at because I had been trained in theology and philosophy. It is a related discourse: philosophy without truth and theology without God.”

Jobs in academia, especially literature, were becoming scarce. Gioia had no particular sense of entitlement, either. The decision to go to business school was pragmatic and made without any sense of regret or sacrifice. He returned to Stanford determined to get a career—and write.

“People often understand maturity as renouncing parts of your life, rather than refining and developing aspects of yourself,” he says. “I was in business school to qualify for a good job that would develop into a real career. I was surprised that most of the people in business school began talking about their future jobs entirely in the language of self-realization: They imagined themselves coming into careers that gave them human fulfillment. To a certain degree this mystified me, because I brought a working-class attitude. The reason they pay us to do our jobs is because we wouldn’t do them for free.”

Keeping to a promise to write for three hours a day, he remained productive. But he noticed that his writing baffled his business school classmates, especially the “alpha males.”

“I realized that my teachers and my fellow students were confused,” he says. “If you’re in business school, why are you writing? I did not consider them mutually exclusive, and in fact, writing, while having a career in business, made my life more complicated, but it eventually made me a better businessman. I had kept certain creative and imaginative capacities active and alive during my early years that I very much needed later on.”

At least one Business School classmate, Richard S. Kelly Jr., says Gioia’s fellow students were aware of his literary life, but not the degree of his productivity. “He was very engaging with people—a fun guy—and a lot of us were surprised at how prolific he was. He was very quiet about it,” says Kelly, a retired investment banker who now works in the nonprofit world.

After school, when he went to work for General Foods, Gioia took his writing underground while working his way up the corporate ladder. He moved to New York and did what was required of an ambitious young man. But as he rose through the ranks, he didn’t join the expected country clubs. His cars didn’t get noticeably better, and his social world was increasingly centered on the arts. Frederick Morgan, a poet and founding editor of the Hudson Review, met Gioia when Gioia came to a reading at a New York loft, on a day snowy enough that attendance wasn’t mandatory even for close friends of Morgan’s.

“He heard about my reading through the grapevine,” said Morgan, shortly after Gioia’s Senate confirmation. “Before he came to New York, he found out everything about the poetry scene, and he is certainly still doing that. He knows what’s going on.”

Middlebrook, who has remained a friend of Gioia’s, says that “his character has been remarkably consistent since the time I met him to the present day.” His writing has remained lucid, his sense of self firmly rooted to his upbringing in California, and his criticism has often returned to the same themes. He has remained loyal to early enthusiasms, such as the writing of Weldon Kees, a California poet who disappeared, at age 41, probably into the waters below the Golden Gate Bridge. Gioia has written of Kees, “[His] work demands a critic who shares his belief in the desperate importance of poetry, and most critics—both in and outside of the universities—don’t believe that poetry matters all that much to anyone’s life.”

In that line, one gets a sense of two threads of Gioia’s life: Poetry matters desperately to him, and like other poets, he craves readers, especially ideal ones. The time at General Foods, especially the early years writing without much audience, found Gioia speaking two very different languages, a vulgate of commerce and a private discourse of poetry. And yet, as much as these were separate in Gioia’s life, there was definitely communication between them. Gioia’s poems are troubled by the sense that words, if unread, are impotent (“…among the endless shelves of the unreadable…” “Here are the shelves of unread books…” “The world does not need words”). Put in crass terms, a poem without an audience is like a product without a market, and Gioia very much wanted, and wants, a market for his poetry.

Gioia says he wasn’t really able to draw on his full talents—those imaginative skills he kept vital at night—until he had risen high enough to have a broader influence at General Foods. He cites, as an example, having rethought the marketing of Jell-O, which had been an immensely profitable but long declining product. The end result of this campaign was something called Jell-O Jigglers—a stodgy dessert reconfigured as finger food, home craft exercise, and a toy.

“I could absolutely think like an 11-year-old kid, and then step back and do the shares and volumes,” he says. “It went from decline to double-digit growth.”

Gioia, however, is impatient with platitudes about creativity in the work environment.

“For a lot of people in business, being creative means just coming up with crazy, stuff—you’re so creative,” he says. For him, rather, being creative was not just thinking like a child, but being critical at the same time. “I think the most important thing I did for General Foods, near the end of my career, was to be able to distinguish between a potentially high creative idea and mediocre creative idea, and to take the high potential creative idea through a series of careful refinements and additions to turn it into an enormous idea.”

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 8, 2005 6:01 PM

If there is a nickle for pbs or npr in this budget, then the budget is bloated.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 9, 2005 12:42 PM