For the Arts, a 'Lost Generation'

by Janet Eilber

March 15, 2007

"You are the lost generation,” Gertrude Stein said to young writers, such as Ernest Hemingway, who came to her salon in Paris after World War I.

Dana Gioia, chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts, talks about “a whole generation of Americans growing up without the benefits of the arts being brought to their education.”

“This has cultural, social and economic consequences for this country,” Gioia says. He goes on to express concern over a problem of primary importance to the health of the arts and arts education: “The media has generally stopped covering the arts—or even acknowledging them.

 “You will not see poet or a composer or a painter or a playwright in the media,” Gioia says. “The electronic commercial entertainment has eclipsed the arts …. Every artist in the United States has been marginalized as a result.”

Ours is a country that prides itself on creativity. “The distinguishing feature of science in America compared to the rest of the world is its unwavering—you might say relentless—emphasis on originality,” writes Holden Thorp, chairman of the chemistry department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Why, then, isn’t creative achievement in the arts celebrated in the national media? Why doesn’t the premiere of an American opera receive the same enthused and detailed coverage as the opening of baseball season or the most recently rejected “American Idol” contestant?

The media are not solely to blame. Arts education has been declining in schools for almost 30 years, and we arts advocates are looking for allies in a generation that often lacks a basic relationship to the classic arts.

The first children affected are now adults in their mid to late 30s: they are the parents we ask to advocate for more arts in the schools, the classroom teachers we expect to incorporate the arts; the elected officials we call on to revise arts policy and increase budgets, the journalists we urge to report on the arts with more detail and substance. 

How can we reverse this trend? In one instance a movie has done the trick.

“Dancing Classrooms” was launched in 1994 as a project of the American Ballroom Theater Company. This arts-in-education program teaches ballroom dance to elementary, junior high, and high school students through artist residencies.

“Dancing Classrooms” added an average of eight participating schools in each of its first 10 years. Then, in 2005, “Mad Hot Ballroom” was released.

This documentary chronicling “Dancing Classrooms” residencies in New York public schools swept the country. In the two years since, more than 100 new schools have implemented the “Dancing Classrooms” curriculum, 90 schools on Long Island are next in line, and requests are arriving from all over the country. The impact of the media attention for this fine program is undeniable.

But we can’t wait around for the next “inspirational” (Washington Post), “irresistible” (Los Angeles Times), “magnificent” (Montreal Gazette) documentary to capture the public’s attention. The media need encouragement, and arts advocates need to be more demanding.

Lewis Segal, the venerable dance critic for the Los Angeles Times, spoke at an arts seminar I attended about 10 years ago and exhorted us all to become activists. “Don’t stay silent about the reduced coverage for dance in the area because you think you won’t have any effect,” he said. “Write the newspaper editors, call the radio and TV stations, make some noise!”

We can also go above and beyond what the traditional media cover; we can actually contribute. Blogs, e-mails, podcasts, Webcasts, and Web pages offer individuals and arts organizations the opportunity to get their message across to a wide public.

Our newest generation was born “wired”: surrounded by and constantly forging new types of expression using the stunning new tools of technology. But to express themselves with any hope of emotional complexity and lasting influence—whether they are blogging or creating 90-second Webcasts or starring at the Metropolitan Opera—they must also be conversant if not fluent in the techniques of the classic arts: making music, dancing, acting, writing, designing, composing. To be receptive and inspired audience members, they must have context for the profundity of great masterworks of art and their timeless lessons in human awareness.

Media coverage isn’t the only answer to revitalizing arts in the schools, but it offers potent means to help ensure that the generation in school today will become, for the arts, “the found generation.”