A question from the head of the NEA

While delivering this year's commencement address, Dana Gioia (the head of the National Endowment for the Arts) asked new graduates at his alma mater, Stanford, this question:

How many living American artists and writers can you name?

He is making a point about America's waning self-consciousness about its artistic culture. A few decades ago, he argues (and I highly encourage you to follow the above link to the whole speech, which isn't long), the average American - not to mention the average American college graduate - could name at least a handful each of writers, visual artists, architects, theatrical artists, non-pop musicians and composers, not to mention scientists, historians, and public intellectuals. Has the culture of artistic and intellectual celebrity, and with it our pride in our national thinking life, waned?

I submitted myself to Gioia's test, and found that (given one minute) everyone I could name was a theatrical artist (not counting movie stars) or a writer. In other words, everyone whose name I immediately produced comes from my area of professional expertise, and thus doesn't really count as someone known to me as a cultural celebrity. Given five to ten minutes, I could add several political thinkers and a scientest or two to the list. Pretty grim, huh?

So here is the challenge I put to you:

Leave me a comment and let me know how many and which living American artists, writers, and professional thinkers (for lack of a better term) you can think of. Hold yourself to this rule: give yourself no more than one minute, without consulting the internet, your shelves or reference books. Be sure to note in your comment what part of the world you are writing from or hearken from.

I would be curious to see whether there is a difference between our self-consciousness about American culture and our cultural reputation abroad (which is, I suspect, also more dismal than it was several decades ago). I look forward to either being buoyed by your greater cultural engagement (and the non-death of American artistic and intellectual life it heralds) or soothed by the knowledge that everyone had the same grim recall of these public figures that I did.

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