Trading off the Challenging Pleasures of Art for the Easy Comforts of Entertainment

Has American culture become a vast infomercial?

Memo to rest of the world: Don't copy.

In a society dominated by celebrity, almost everything, even the news, has been reduced to entertainment, said Dana Gioia, (former) chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, during Stanford University's 116th Commencement in Stanford Stadium, June 2007#.

Dana_gioia_poesiaI met Dana Gioia that same year.

It was indeed a joy (gioia in Italian) to be sitting among the audience at the Wharton Leadership forum and letting his verse enchant me along with 300 people.

If anyone can tell a story with a poem it is Gioia. 

The purpose of art is to bring people together, he said. Gioia sees the arts as an ecosystem that helps bring love into the conversation. If you follow the link above and read his biography, you will be impressed.

He received a BA and an MBA from Stanford University and an MA in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. He also worked for 15 years in the corporate world, eventually becoming President of General Foods.

I must admit that the most endearing attribute to me is that he is of Italian and Mexican descent and can not only speak, but also translate from Italian, Latin, German and Romanian. He translated Eugenio Montale's Mottetti: Poems on Love (1990), probably my favorite Italian poet.

We often hear about the science part of business and marketing. We forget the art part that nourishes it.

Yet if we do want to forge a deep emotional connection with the people around us, with those we serve, if our desire is to listen to what people are saying, if we want to dance in the reinvention of this often pragmatic and 'just do it' business environment — we would be smart to raise our daily actions into the realm of artistic excellence.

My friend Constance Goodwin calls this Leadership as a Performing Art(R).

Montale, who received a Nobel-Prize for literature in 1975, wrote about a man's place — and displacement — in the natural world, about remembrance and loss, and about love.

The strength of his poetry is direct, intuitive, forceful existential provocation, obtained with dry synthesis, with words and verses distilled to stern minimal syllables and signs: situations, feelings, fears and concepts precisely evoked with three, four words, two, three verses.

These are the things that life is made of.

This poem, in a translation I cannot attribute at the moment, is one of my favorites:

[Maybe one morning walking in air of dry glass,

I'll turn and see the miracle occur —

nothingness at my shoulders, the void

behind me — with a drunkard's terror.

Then, as on a screen, the usual illusion:

hills houses trees will suddenly reassemble,

but too late, and I'll quietly go my way,

with my secret, among men who don't look back.]

We should not try to read too much into it, I learned.

It is easier to listen, to feel, and to understand without going for rational intervention. The poet's obscurity is the reader's liberty.

Do you sense the hopeless yearning to relate our life to the life of the universe? The intuition that nothing could be at our shoulders?

It is this intuition that produces his affectionate embrace of life, his careful attention to the small daily details and the burden of going with our secret, among people who don't look back.

Artistic excellence is an attitude, the availability to life, to the things we find important. We never know how long we have.

Gioia demonstrated that we can put the heart back into culture. Cultural activities do awaken a heightened sense of individual awareness and social responsibility.

Art allows us to see the small mundane details of life in the proper perspective, and by doing that, it makes us see that we matter. Love is a conversation.


[updated from archives]


Valeria is an experienced listener. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on variety of topics. To book her for a speaking engagement click here.