Disturbing Arts: A Conversation with Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia’s words have started arguments. His 1991 article, “Can Poetry Matter?”, sparked a national discussion about poetry, and his 2013 essay about the state of Catholic writing, “The Catholic Writer Today,” launched another debate. As a poet, arts advocate and chairman of the National Endowment For the Arts (200309), he has shaped America’s cultural life for more than 20 years. Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch interviewed Gioia about art, literature and faith.

As a Catholic writer and public intellectual, you have spoken and written about faith and art. How are they related? Is one the expression of the other, or the outgrowth of the other?
I’m a poet not a theologian, so I hesitate to answer questions about religion. I was raised and educated as a Catholic. I remain a communicant. That means that my perspective as a lifelong Catholic affects everything I write in some way, large or small, even when my subject is not explicitly religious. But art is different from theology as a way of knowing and expressing the world. Art is experiential, holistic, intuitive and sensory. Theology is abstract, conceptual and rational. The two modes do not overlap or blur into one another.

Most people do not experience their faith in conceptual or philosophical terms. They come to faith mostly in subjective, experiential terms — through emotion, intuition, imagination. They feel a change in the narrative of their lives, and the event startles them into a new sense of their own existence. They may go to theology afterward to explain the inner change in rational terms, but the central experience mostly lies beyond ideas, perhaps even beyond words. That is why art is important. It speaks to humanity as incarnate beings in its own terms. It doesn’t ask people to separate the body from the mind, or deny the reality of the imagination, memory and emotion.

How would you describe Catholicism’s regard for its own religious art at this moment in the 21st century?
The Catholic Church has almost entirely lost its connection to art and artists. This is not an entirely recent phenomenon. It began in the early 20th century and then accelerated after Vatican II. But by now the schism is a fait accompli. The Church has focused on so many other things — such as poverty, social justice, theology, liturgical reform and education — that it gradually lost not only its expertise in art but even its basic interest. When art is considered at all, it is typically construed in moralistic and instrumentalist terms as a vehicle to deliver some uplifting message. When one thinks of contemporary Catholic art, what comes to mind is the banal, the maudlin, the didactic and the amateurish. This situation constitutes an astonishing break with Catholic tradition. For nearly two millennia, the Church had stood at the center of Western art, music, architecture and literature. The Church will never renew itself until it reconnects with beauty and the arts.

You’ve also said our postmodern age is characterized by the dismissal of beauty. Is your poem “Pity the Beautiful,” in your recent collection with the same name, a description of the cost of dismissing beauty?
“Pity the Beautiful” expresses the cost of thinking beauty merely an external phenomenon or, worse yet, a possession. If what we idolize is the ephemeral, at the end of the day, we are left with nothing. In some ways, my entire book is a critique of the culture that I see in my native city of Los Angeles, which is driven by shallow and materialistic values. I’m not entirely immune to the allure of those things, but they need to be viewed with trepidation.

How do we account for religion’s role in rejecting beauty, say for example, in the form of Protestant traditions that rejected Catholic images of beauty, or in the destruction of religious symbols, such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan?
There is a constant temptation in religious faith, especially in the Abrahamic religions, to reduce faith to abstractions. One finds this tendency even in Catholicism. At the root of this temptation is the notion that somehow humanity is unworthy of the divine. But if we are made in God’s image, our material essence is impossible to disconnect from our true being. One of the great virtues of beauty is it brings us back to specific reality and reminds us that we can only see the divine through the lens of our material existence. The abstract austerity of the Puritan Christian impulse has a dehumanizing impact. The glory of Catholicism is its recognition of the incarnate nature of existence. If this were not important, why would the Son of God have become human? Perhaps I’m simple-minded, but to me, the Incarnation suggests that flesh and blood are important.

In your article in First Things magazine, you describe the mid-20th century as a golden age of Catholic writers. Have Catholic writers retreated from writing with a clear sense of Catholic identity, as you suggest, or do they reflect a Catholic community that has been absorbed by the dominant U.S. culture and has a weaker sense of identity?
The retreat of Catholic writers from mainstream literary culture is not the result of a single cause. Several factors combined to create this circumstance. First, there was the assimilation of educated Catholics into the social mainstream. Second, there was the lack of interest in literature and art by the American Catholic Church. Third, there was the secularization (and, later, openly anti-Christian hostility) of cultural and intellectual life. Finally, there was the failure of Catholic colleges and universities to preserve, foster and champion our literary heritage. Over the past 60 years, these factors have eroded the Catholic literary, social and intellectual identity. There is still an enormous creative vitality among American Catholics, but it finds no center and no home.

What would Catholic writers address in today’s cultural and political climate?
Catholicism is a worldview that encompasses both human existence as well as perception of the eternal. That means that Catholic writers can conceivably cover every subject in existence, including culture and politics. What makes a Catholic writer Catholic is not subject matter, but worldview. We see ourselves living in a fallen world, dependent on the grace of God. We conceive of our lives as pilgrimages fraught with many temptations and setbacks on a road toward salvation. We understand that sin and evil are real. We do not despise the material world but consider it, however problematically, fundamental to our nature. We believe in community, and our sense of community not only encompasses the living but the dead. And we have a long historical view that goes back to the time of Caesar and Christ. It’s interesting to me that when I read Catholic writers, they allude to the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the ancient world in an utterly natural way. One does not see that in most other American writers.

What are you, as a Catholic poet and critic, pondering these days?
I worry that contemporary America has become hopelessly besotted by a culture of material acquisition and excess, of constant distraction and superficial novelty. I love this country. I come from poor, immigrant stock on both sides, and America has been good to my family. But I worry that our culture has lost its ability to speak to what is best in us as a nation. Our public values now seem to be wealth, celebrity, glamour and conspicuous consumption — all haunted by a reckless infatuation with violence. When I was a child, there were famous scientists, poets, humanitarians, doctors, scholars and even a few saints. We knew that Dr. Albert Schweitzer, one of the most brilliant men of his generation, labored in poverty in equatorial Africa to provide free medical care. Nowadays, all of our famous people are entertainment figures, sports stars and the flamboyant rich, with a few politicians sprinkled in to recognize the importance of sheer power. If you asked a college student to list 100 famous living people, I doubt you would find a single scientist, philosopher, poet, painter, humanitarian or saint. The values of a culture emerge in whom it chooses to celebrate. I don’t feel proud of living in a society that celebrates Donald Trump, Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan.

Much is made of the Catholic imagination, and sociologist Father Andrew Greeley wrote an important book with that title. Would you say the Catholic imagination is an identifiable trait of Catholicism today?
The Catholic imagination is unkillable, though the Church has occasionally done its best to neuter it. There is, even in Catholicism, an impulse to control the often anarchistic energy of art. Art is unpredictable; it is sometimes rude, irresponsible and disreputable. Modern Catholic literature, for instance, is rarely pious. It’s often disturbing. Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene, to name two of the giants of the 20th century, are disturbing writers. Yet without their disturbing our complacency, we would never be able on our own to go as deeply to the places they take us. The Catholic imagination has recently been in a period of dormancy. I hope that it is about to reawaken.

As chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, you promoted Shakespeare programs, jazz, writing workshops for veterans and their families, and poetry education in high schools. What are the accomplishments that you are proudest of having achieved?
I created some large and influential programs when I was leading the NEA, but let me instead remember one small deed that almost no one noticed.

One of the great American painters of the past 60 years was George Tooker. In the 1940s and 1950s, Tooker developed a realistic but phantasmagoric style — a visual version of Magical Realism. His work vividly embodied the anxiety of mid-century America. He was boldly contemporary, but his technique grew out of the tempera painters of the Renaissance, such as Piero della Francesca. Tooker was gay. Raised Episcopalian, he had never felt any deep religious impulse. After the death of his lover in the early ’70s, however, he converted to Catholicism. The anxiety in his paintings was almost immediately replaced by a quiet joyfulness. He painted everyday scenes, which often proved to be subtle depictions of moments from the Gospels.

Tooker eventually settled in Windsor, Vt. When his parish church burned down, he volunteered to paint a new altarpiece — a triptych of the seven sacraments, which is probably the greatest American Catholic painting of the past half-century. Years later, he painted a series of the 14 Stations of the Cross.

The fact that Tooker remains unknown to most American Catholics says everything about the Church’s disengagement from culture and the alienation that Catholic artists experience in their own community. Tooker died a few years ago. His paintings are found in most major U.S. museums, but he received little critical attention. One of the things I am proudest of having done at the National Endowment for the Arts was to have helped Tooker receive the National Medal of Arts in 2007. It is important for a nation to recognize its great artists. Perhaps the Church should do a little more of that, too.


Dana Gioia, who is known mostly as a poet and critic, became chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts after being unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2003 following his nomination by President George W. Bush.

Accepting the chairmanship at that time represented one’s willingness to also accept a complex political challenge. The NEA had survived the contentious 1990s, when Congress, reflecting the culture wars in the United States, fought bitterly over federal support for the arts. NEA budgets had been severely cut back, forcing staff reductions. In 1996, for example, NEA appropriations had plunged to near the levels that existed in the mid-1970s.

Gioia has said that, when he was nominated, friends urged him to prepare for the conflict. But the metaphor that governed his tenure was reconciliation, not battle. “The NEA,” Gioia later told the Los Angeles Times, “is not about artists, it’s not about audiences, it’s not about government, it’s about a whole ecosystem [of arts], and [making] it healthy and vital.” Under Gioia’s leadership, the NEA launched or expanded a variety of programs at national and local levels and in an array of arts and arts education fields. It was his goal to bring “the best in the arts and arts education to the broadest audience possible.” Among them were:

  • Shakespeare in American Communities, designed to increase access across the nation to Shakespeare’s work and local theater productions
  • Operation Homecoming, Writing the Wartime Experience, a program of writing workshops for veterans held at military bases across the United States
  • NEA Jazz Masters Initiative, a program expanded under Gioia that supported musician tours and educational activities that brought jazz into schools
  • American Masterpieces, which funded dance and fine arts exhibitions and performances in all 50 states
  • The Big Read, which encouraged literary reading by the public with the help of foundations, corporations, and local and state agencies
  • Poetry Out Loud, which promoted poetry readings and recitations

In June 2003, not far into his six years at the NEA helm, Gioia spoke confidently to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., about his determination to rebuild NEA funding and to demonstrate the agency’s national importance. “Leadership is, after all, the art of changing the odds in one’s favor.” When 2008 budget appropriations were decided, not long before Gioia resigned as chairman, funding was well on the rise, and that year’s appropriations were 16 percent higher than the year before.