Arts & Culture

Overview

The development of the arts in America — music, dance, architecture, the visual arts, and literature — has been marked by a tension between two strong sources of inspiration: European sophistication and domestic originality. Frequently, the best American artists have managed to harness both sources.

In the 20th century artists in the United States broke free from Old World antecedents, taking the various cultural disciplines in new directions with impressive, innovative results.

In the 21st century, Music, film, theater, dance, architecture and other artistic expressions continue to transform. A rejuvenation in music, new directions in modern dance, drama drawn from the U.S. heartland, independent filmmaking across the landscape, the globalization of the visual arts — all of these are part of the contemporary scene in the United States.

While the arts and culture in the United States continue to engage substantial attention, energy and resources of society, this happens largely outside the direction of government. The United States has no “ministry of culture” that sets national policy for the arts in the United States government, thus reflecting the conviction that there are important areas of national life where government should have little or no role. The two national endowments — the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) — provide grant support for individual artists and scholars and for arts and humanities institutions.

Online Reading

American Canvas (National Endowment for the Arts)(PDF file 1.36MB)

The Arts in America: New Directions (Electronic Journal, Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, April 2003)(PDF file 667KB)

How the United States Fund the Arts (National Endowment for the Arts) (PDF 446 KB)

Portrait of the USA: Distinctively American Arts (published by Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, Sept 1997) (PDF 70 KB)

Portrait of the USA: Exporting Popular Culture (published by Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, Sept 1997) (PDF 67 KB)

America’s unmistakable contribution to architecture has been the skyscraper, whose bold, thrusting lines have made it the symbol of capitalist energy. Made possible by new construction techniques and the invention of the elevator, the first skyscraper went up in Chicago in 1884.

Many of the most graceful early towers were designed by Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), America’s first great modern architect. His most talented student was Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959), who spent much of his career designing private residences with matching furniture and generous use of open space. One of his best-known buildings, however, is a public one: the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

European architects who emigrated to the United States before World War II launched what became a dominant movement in architecture, the International Style. Perhaps the most influential of these immigrants were Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) and Walter Gropius (1883-1969), both former directors of Germany’s famous design school, the Bauhaus. Based on geometric form, buildings in their style have been both praised as monuments to American corporate life and dismissed as “glass boxes.” In reaction, younger American architects such as Michael Graves (1945- ) have rejected the austere, boxy look in favor of “postmodern” buildings with striking contours and bold decoration that alludes to historical styles of architecture.

Online Reading

History of the United States Capitol (PDF 359 KB)

Closely related to the development of American music in the early 20th century was the emergence of a new, and distinctively American, art form — modern dance. Among the early innovators was Isadora Duncan (1878-1927), who stressed pure, unstructured movement in lieu of the positions of classical ballet.

Closely related to the development of American music in the early 20th century was the emergence of a new, and distinctively American, art form — modern dance. Among the early innovators was Isadora Duncan (1878-1927), who stressed pure, unstructured movement in lieu of the positions of classical ballet.

The main line of development, however, runs from the dance company of Ruth St. Denis (1878-1968) and her husband-partner, Ted Shawn (1891-1972). Her pupil Doris Humphrey (1895-1958) looked outward for inspiration, to society and human conflict. Another pupil of St. Denis, Martha Graham (1893-1991), whose New York-based company became perhaps the best known in modern dance, sought to express an inward-based passion. Many of Graham’s most popular works were produced in collaboration with leading American composers — “Appalachian Spring” with Aaron Copland, for example.

Later choreographers searched for new methods of expression. Merce Cunningham (1919- ) introduced improvisation and random movement into performances. Alvin Ailey (1931-1989) incorporated African dance elements and black music into his works. Recently such choreographers as Mark Morris (1956- ) and Liz Lerman (1947-) have defied the convention that dancers must be thin and young. Their belief, put into action in their hiring practices and performances, is that graceful, exciting movement is not restricted by age or body type.

In the early 20th century U.S. audiences also were introduced to classical ballet by touring companies of European dancers. The first American ballet troupes were founded in the 1930s, when dancers and choreographers teamed up with visionary lovers of ballet such as Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996). Kirstein invited Russian choreographer George Balanchine (1904-1983) to the United States in 1933, and the two established the School of American Ballet, which became the New York City Ballet in 1948. Ballet manager and publicity agent Richard Pleasant (1909-1961) founded America’s second leading ballet organization, American Ballet Theatre, with dancer and patron Lucia Chase (1907-1986) in 1940.

Paradoxically, native-born directors like Pleasant included Russian classics in their repertoires, while Balanchine announced that his new American company was predicated on distinguished music and new works in the classical idiom, not the standard repertory of the past. Since then, the American ballet scene has been a mix of classic revivals and original works, choreographed by such talented former dancers as Jerome Robbins (1918-1998), Robert Joffrey (1930-1988), Eliot Feld (1942- ), Arthur Mitchell (1934- ), and Mikhail Baryshnikov (1948- ).

Online Reading 

Dance: A Constantly Evolving Tradition (The Arts in America, Electronic Journal, Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, April 2003) (PDF 81 KB)

Moving pictures were not an American invention; however, they have nonetheless been the preeminent American contribution to world entertainment.

In the early 1900s, when the medium was new, many immigrants, found employment in the U.S. film industry.

They were able to make their mark in a brand-new business: the exhibition of short films in storefront theaters called nickelodeons, after their admission price of a nickel (five cents).

Within a few years, ambitious men like Samuel Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer, and the Warner Brothers had switched to the production side of the business. Soon they were the heads of a new kind of enterprise – the movie studio.

The major studios were located in the Hollywood section of Los Angeles, California.

During the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, the studios were cranking out a total of about 400 movies a year, seen by an audience of 90 million Americans per week.

Movie-making was a business and motion picture companies made money by operating under the so-called studio system.

The major studios kept thousands of people on salary and they owned hundreds of theaters in cities and towns across the nation – theaters that showed their films and that were always in need of fresh material.

What is remarkable is how much quality entertainment emerged from such a regimented process. One reason this was possible is that, with so many movies being made, not every one had to be a big hit.

The studio system succumbed to two forces in the late 1940s:A federal antitrust action that separated the production of films from their exhibition; and the advent of television.

The number of movies being made dropped sharply, even as the average budget soared, because Hollywood wanted to offer audiences the kind of spectacle they couldn’t see on television.

This blockbuster syndrome has continued to affect Hollywood. Added to the skyrocketing salaries paid actors, studio heads, and deal-making agents, it means that movies released today tend to be either huge successes or huge failures, depending on how well their enormous costs match up with the public taste.

Online Reading

Film: Movies and Modern America (The Arts in America, Electronic Journal, Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, April 2003) (PDF 85 KB)

The Movie Business Today (Electronic Journal, Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, June 2007) (PDF 2.80 MB)

American literature begins with the orally transmitted myths, legends, tales, and lyrics (always songs) of Indian cultures. There was no written literature among the Indian cultures.The earliest American writings were concerned directly with the dream of a new world, and mostly accounts of pioneering motives and settlements were published.

Regional literature has always been important in the United States. Until the end of the 19th century, American literature was dominated by the works of New Englanders, such as Cotton Mather. Sermons and religious tracts provided the greatest part of the writing. The Puritan definition of good writing was that which brought home a full awareness of the importance of worshipping God and of the spiritual dangers that the soul faced. Puritan style varied enormously — from complex metaphysical poetry to homely journals and religious history.

The 18th-century American Enlightenment was a movement marked by an emphasis on rationality rather than tradition, scientific inquiry instead of unquestioning religious dogma, and representative government in place of monarchy. Enlightenment thinkers and writers were devoted to the ideals of justice, liberty, and equality as the natural rights of man. Benjamin Franklin, whom the Scottish philosopher David Hume called America’s “first great man of letters,” embodied the Enlightenment ideal of humane rationality.

The Romantic movement reached America around the year 1820. In America as in Europe, fresh new vision electrified artistic and intellectual circles. Yet there was an important difference: Romanticism in America coincided with the period of national expansion and the discovery of a distinctive American voice. The solidification of a national identity and the surging idealism and passion of Romanticism nurtured masterpieces by authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

In the second half of the 19th century, the United States was transformed into a modern, industrial nation. As industrialization grew, so did alienation. Characteristic American novels of the period, for example by Stephen Crane and Jack London, depict the damage of economic forces and alienation on the weak or vulnerable individual. Survivors, like Mark Twain ‘s Huck Finn, endure through inner strength involving kindness, flexibility, and, above all, individuality.

Although American prose between the two World Wars experimented with viewpoint and form, Americans such as Ernest Hemingway, wrote more realistically, on the whole, than did Europeans. William Faulkner set his powerful southern novels firmly in Mississippi heat and dust. The importance of facing reality became a dominant theme in the 1920s and 1930s: Writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald repeatedly portrayed the tragedy awaiting those who live in flimsy dreams.

Narrative since World War II resists generalization: It is extremely various and multifaceted. It has been vitalized by international currents such as European existentialism and Latin American magical realism.

The Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to nine Americans:

Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Pearl Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Toni Morrison.

Online Reading

U.S. Literature In Brief (published by Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, May 2007) (PDF 475 KB)

Outline of American Literature (published by Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, posted Dec 2006) (PDF 1.17 MB)

Writers on America (published by Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, posted Dec 2002) (PDF 635 KB)

 

All musical genres are represented on the American music scene, but the resource collection here will focus on jazz and rock/country and classical music.

Jazz

Jazz originated in New Orleans early in the 20th century, bringing together elements from ragtime, slave songs, and brass bands. One of the distinguishing elements of jazz was its fluidity: in live performances, the musicians would almost never play a song the same way twice but would improvise variations on its notes and words. Jazz was the reigning popular American music from the 1920s through the 1940s. In the 1930s and 1940s, the most popular form of jazz was “big band swing,” so called after large ensembles conducted by the likes of Glenn Miller and William “Count” Basie. In the late 1940s, a new, more cerebral form of mostly instrumental jazz, called be-bop, began to attract audiences. In the 1960s, jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane experimented with a wide range of musical influences. Younger jazz musicians began to include the rhythms of rock and roll. Later, in the 1970s, many jazz musicians experimented with electronic instruments and created a blend of rock and jazz called fusion.

Rock and Country

By the early 1950s, however, jazz had lost some of its appeal to a mass audience. A new form of pop music, rock and roll, evolved from a black style known as rhythm and blues: songs with strong beats and provocative lyrics. To make the new music more acceptable to a mainstream audience, white performers and arrangers began to “cover” rhythm and blues songs – singing them with toned down beat and revised lyrics. At the beginning of his career, Elvis Presley covered black singers. One of his first big hits was Hound Dog, which had been sung by blues artist Big Mama Thornton. Soon, however, Presley was singing original material, supplied by a new breed of rock and roll songwriters.

A challenge to rock appeared in the form of folk music. Folk music was based largely on ballads brought over from Scotland, England, and Ireland; it had been preserved in such enclaves as the mountains of North Carolina and West Virginia.

Bob Dylan extended the reach of folk music by writing striking new songs that addressed contemporary social problems, especially the denial of civil rights to black Americans. The division between the two camps – rock enthusiasts and folk purists – came to a head when Dylan was booed for “going electric” (accompanying himself on electric guitar) at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Far from being deterred, Dylan led virtually the entire folk movement into a blend of rock and folk. This merger was a watershed event, setting a pattern that holds true to this day. Rock remains the prevalent pop music of America – and much of the rest of the world – largely because it can assimilate almost any other kind of music, along with new varieties of showmanship, into its strong rhythmical framework.

Like folk, country music descends from the songs brought to the United States from England, Scotland, and Ireland. The original form of country music, called “old-time” and played by string bands, can still be heard at festivals held each year in many southern states. Modern country music developed in the 1920s, roughly coinciding with a mass migration of rural people to big cities in search of work. Like many other forms of American pop music, country lends itself easily to a rock-and-roll beat, and country rock has been yet another successful music merger.

Classical Music

The development of the arts in America has been marked by a tension between two strong sources of inspiration – European sophistication and domestic originality. A distinctively American classical music came to fruition when such composers as George Gershwin and Aaron Copland incorporated homegrown melodies and rhythms into forms borrowed from Europe.

The arts in America get relatively little government support. To survive, symphony orchestras depend largely on philanthropy and paid admissions. Some orchestra directors have found a way to keep mainstream audiences happy while introducing new music to the public. Rather than segregate the new pieces, these directors program them side-by-side with traditional fare. Meanwhile, opera – old and new – has been flourishing; because it is so expensive to stage, however, opera depends heavily on the generosity of corporate and private donors.

Online Reading

American Popular Music (PDF 7.70 MB)

Music: The Quintessential American Sound (The Arts in America, Electronic Journal, Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, April 2003) (PDF 98 KB)

U.S. Pop Music:  A Conversation with Gary Burton (PDF 24 KB)

American theater is traditionally dated from the arrival of Lewis Hallam’s English troupe in Williamsburg in 1752. After the end of the Revolutionary War, the Republic witnessed a slow expansion of the dramatic arts. Theaters were built in Charleston, Philadelphia, Newport, New York, and Boston.

Theater became a more pervasive part of American life during the early nineteenth century and the two decades before and after the turn of the century were golden years for theater. In the second half of the nineteenth century, theater became both more diverse and more specialized. Audiences could choose between legitimate theater, ballet, vaudeville, burlesque, and opera. In the second half of the 19th century, vaudeville emerged. From the 1880s through the 1930s, vaudeville’s fast-paced collage of music, comedy, dance, novelty numbers, and skits appealed to a large audience.

The development of motion pictures changed the theatre scene. By the 1920s, theater had lost its national mass audience. Even though Hollywood deprived live theater of a mass public, it enabled it to play to its unique strengths and the early twentieth century witnessed a turn to serious drama and innovative stagecraft. During the depression, an unprecedented social and political consciousness was displayed on the stage. The oppression of workers and immigrants was publicly castigated. During the 1960s and 1970s, off- and off-off-Broadway groups served up political commentary (e.g., MacBird, 1967).

The musical stage of the twentieth entury proved to be the country’s most popular theatrical export. Music had accompanied theatricals since colonial days, but no native works appeared until the 1780s. In 1866, the “The Black Crook” was produced and the American musical was born. Song, dance, and spectacle were grafted onto an existing melodrama. By the end of the nineteenth century the American musical stage encompassed a number of genres: Operettas, topical musicals and revues with roots in minstrel shows. After World War I, Broadway entered a golden period. Although dancing had always been a part of the musical, only in the 1930s did it became more closely linked to the story. Ever since the production of “West Side Story” in 1957, dance has been integral to the story. Perfomers now had to sing, dance, and act – the triple-threat talent required for most subsequent shows. Rock ‘n’ roll pushed Broadway out of its place as the trendsetter of American popular music.

Today’s American theater might be divided into three categories. First, Broadway productions persist and many new plays, usually about 50 producations a season, are presented first in the theater district of New York City. Over the years, New York theater has developed new avenues known as “off-Broadway” and “off-off Broadway” where plays are staged in small playhouses, but some rank with the best Broadway performances in professional skill. Second, many fine regional theaters produce some of the best new drama. Subsidized by corporations, foundations and the government, regional theater for some critics represents the best hope of American drama. Finally, colleges and universities support active theater programs.

Online Reading 

Theater: Playwrights New and Old (The Arts in America, Electronic Journal, Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, April 2003) (PDF 87 KB)

U.S. Theater in the Nineties:  A Heartland Perspective (an article describing the decentralization of American theater) (PDF 49 KB)

America’s first well-known school of painting — the Hudson River school — appeared in 1820. As with music and literature, this development was delayed until artists perceived that the New World offered subjects unique to itself; in this case the westward expansion of settlement brought the transcendent beauty of frontier landscapes to painters’ attention.

The Hudson River painters’ directness and simplicity of vision influenced such later artists as Winslow Homer (1836-1910), who depicted rural America — the sea, the mountains, and the people who lived near them. Middle-class city life found its painter in Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), an uncompromising realist whose unflinching honesty undercut the genteel preference for romantic sentimentalism.

Controversy soon became a way of life for American artists. In fact, much of American painting and sculpture since 1900 has been a series of revolts against tradition. “To hell with the artistic values,” announced Robert Henri (1865-1929). He was the leader of what critics called the “ash-can” school of painting, after the group’s portrayals of the squalid aspects of city life. Soon the ash-can artists gave way to modernists arriving from Europe — the cubists and abstract painters promoted by the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) at his Gallery 291 in New York City.

In the years after World War II, a group of young New York artists formed the first native American movement to exert major influence on foreign artists: abstract expressionism. Among the movement’s leaders were Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), and Mark Rothko (1903-1970). The abstract expressionists abandoned formal composition and representation of real objects to concentrate on instinctual arrangements of space and color and to demonstrate the effects of the physical action of painting on the canvas.

Members of the next artistic generation favored a different form of abstraction: works of mixed media. Among them were Robert Rauschenberg (1925- ) and Jasper Johns (1930- ), who used photos, newsprint, and discarded objects in their compositions. Pop artists, such as Andy Warhol (1930-1987), Larry Rivers (1923- ), and Roy Lichtenstein (1923- ), reproduced, with satiric care, everyday objects and images of American popular culture — Coca-Cola bottles, soup cans, comic strips.

Today artists in America tend not to restrict themselves to schools, styles, or a single medium. A work of art might be a performance on stage or a hand-written manifesto; it might be a massive design cut into a Western desert or a severe arrangement of marble panels inscribed with the names of American soldiers who died in Vietnam. Perhaps the most influential 20th-century American contribution to world art has been a mocking playfulness, a sense that a central purpose of a new work is to join the ongoing debate over the definition of art itself.

Online Reading 

Art on the Edge: 17 Contemporary American Artists (jointly published by ART in Embassies Program and Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State) (PDF 4.10 MB)

The Visual Arts: Blurring the Boundaries (The Arts in America, Electronic Journal, Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, April 2003) (PDF 76 KB)