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America's fine arts developed under conditions far different from those in many other countries. The United States began as a group of colonies; its settlers were drawn from many places with differing customs and traditions. All of these customs and traditions, so well suited to society's needs in their lands of origin, had to be adapted to life in a strange and difficult environment. A formal "American" culture, rooted in these modified traditions from distant places, but different from them grew and developed only after the United States was established as an independent nation.

Early American leaders looked to the development of the arts as a sign, expected to manifest itself with the passage of time, of the new nation's evolving maturity and success. "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy," John Adams, the nation's second president, wrote in 1780. "My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography,natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."


Though Adams' ideal of artistic evolution could be realized only approximately, a vital and vigorous tradition of creativity in art and music has, in fact, developed in the United States. Its growth over the years has been marked by the conflict between two strong forces of inspiration—domestic, sometimes primitive, creativity, and European sophistication. Generally, the very best American artists have been those who managed to combine both forces to create their own original forms.

Just as there is, however, no single American ethnic or cultural group, there is also no peculiar or recognizably "American" style in the arts. There is, rather, a mixture of many styles, reflecting the reality of American society. Still, some generalizations which attempt to define that which is "American" in American art are revealing. American art traditionally has been produced and enjoyed with a minimum of direct government support or control. In fact, one of the qualities that has lent distinction to

American culture has been its inability to rely on government financial support. In order to survive and expand, museums, art galleries, symphony orchestras, chamber music societies and theaters have all had to depend on private benefactors, university endowments and ticket sales as the primary means of raising money. Without the security of government subsidies that art in other countries traditionally enjoys, American arts have always been tied to American commerce.

It is this very union, however, which contributed to America's cultural experimentation and ingenuity. Perhaps these traits are best seen in the development and creativity of the motion picture industry and in the worldwide influence of American popular music. They are also reflected in the spread of regional theaters and ballet companies, galleries exhibiting the work of local artists, and the growing strength of less prominent symphony orchestras throughout the United States. Culture in America seems to have flourished precisely because of its independence from government subsidy and control.

The arts in America have grown rapidly, especially over the past 20 years. One major trend has been the expansion of the universities' role as centers in which the arts were created and performed. To meet students' increased demand for arts training, they have added to their staffs active composers,

musicians, painters and other artists. In turn, universities have spread cultural activity outward from its traditional centers—such as New York and Chicago—to other cities and regions throughout the country.

Greater arts training has increased the numbers of serious amateur artists. Some 53 million Americans play musical instruments. Another 50 million paint or draw in their spare time. And the ranks of amateur writers, poets, photographers and dancers are similarly large.

Another major development, occurring in contrast to earlier practice, has been a cautious but increasing federal and state government role in supporting the arts, especially in providing grants to cultural institutions. Spending by the National Endowment for the Aits, a government agency created in 1965, topped $174 million in 1990. That figure was exceeded by state government arts agencies, which spent $274 million. Still, all government arts spending remains small compared to more than $7.9 billion in private arts contributions recorded in 1990. It must also be remembered, however, that a percentage of private contributions to the arts is deductible from taxes owed by individuals to the federal government. In this way, the government provides much support to the arts without compromising the tradition of the arts' independence from government control and their direct support from private sources.

The government also supports the arts in other ways—through military bands, programs to support Native American arts and crafts, through commissions of sculpture for government buildings, and in many other ways.

Government financial support of the arts, especially on the federal level, has sometimes aroused controversy. In a few cases the National Endowment for the Arts has funded a project which some people consider obscene and offensive. Many people felt that, although artists might have a right to express themselves, they didn't have a right to government funding. Others said that, if the government refused to fund art that some people considered obscene, the government would be imposing censorship. Congress, which appropriates money for the arts agency, insisted that, in the future, the panels that review applications for funds apply "general standards of decency" in making their decisions. Still, artistic excellence remains the main consideration in funding the arts.

Public support for the arts has never been higher. A recent public opinion poll reported that over 90 percent of Americans believe that the arts "make a community a better place," improve the quality of life and are an important asset to the "business and economy" of their communities. These numbers demonstrate that the arts belong not to an elite, but are solidly in the mainstream of American life.


In the years following World War II, a group of young New York artists emerged with a fierce drive to remake the goals and methods of art. Their movement, known as Abstract Expressionism, became the first American art movement to exert major influence on foreign artists. By the early 1950s, New York City was a center of the art world.

The Abstract Expressionists went further than earlier European artists had in their revolt against traditional graphic styles. Among the movement's leaders were Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and Willem de Kooning (1904- 1988). These young artists abandoned formal composition. Instead, they stressed space and movement, and they relied on their instinct and the physical action of painting.

"My feeling is that new needs need new technique, and the modern artist has found new ways and new means of making his statement," Pollock said in 1950. "It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age—the airplane; the atom bomb; the radio—in the old forms of the renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique."

Artistic creativity in the colonial period and the early decades of the new nation generally found expression in the production of useful, everyday implements such as simple, elegant furniture or colorful patchwork quilts. For the busy, practical-minded Americans, portraits were the only kind of "fine" art that seemed necessary. Most American artists of the time were self-taught. Their work had the primitive charm of folk art—first-hand observation, a sense of character and instinct for color, line and pattern. Today the hundreds of early portraits that still exist are highly valued by collectors.

In the years before the United States revolution, some of America's most noted artists traveled to Europe. Some thrived there. Benjamin West (1738-1820) became court painter to Britain's King George III and served as president of the Royal Academy for 28 years. But the work of others, such as John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), perhaps colonial America's leading portrait painter, seemed to lose its power away from the shores of North America.

America's first well-known "school" of landscape painting—the Hudson River School—appeared in the 1820s. Westward expansion had brought a realization of the vast scale and unspoiled beauty of the continent. Led by Thomas Cole (1801-1848), the Hudson River painters combined great technical skill with romantic American scenery. Their paintings were visual explorations of light and natural wonder.

This tradition of directness, simplicity of vision, and clarity developed in the late 19th century into something new—naturalistic portrayal of the broad range of American life. Rural America—the seas, the mountains, and the men and women who lived there—was the subject of Winslow Homer (1836-1910).

The middle-class city life of the period found its poet in Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) an uncompromising realist whose gaunt honest portrayals provided redirection away from the romantic sentimentalism favored by the "polite" society at that time. * Controversy became a way of life for Americans. 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). Henri was leader of what critics dubbed the "ash-can" school because of the group's realistic portrayal of the squalid aspects of city life, familiar themes from John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle and others.

Just a few years later the "ash-can" artists were pushed aside by the arrival of modernist movements from Europe, such as cubism and

abstraction, promoted by the great photographer Alfred Stieglitz at his "Gallery 291" in New York City. But by the 1920s a renewed sense of nationalism encouraged artists to rediscover and explore Americana. Regionalists such as Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) and Grant Wood (1891-1942) celebrated the rural Midwest. At the same time artists such as Edward Hopper (1882- 1967) pictured cities and small towns with new realism.

The Depression of the 1930s and growing world tensions sparked an increase in romantic social protest art in movements stylistically similar to those of artists in the U.S.S.R. and muralists in Mexico. Artists everywhere mounted extraordinary pictorial attacks on social systems in scores of paintings and public murals. Yet, in no other country did so many artists state so frankly and idealistically what was wrong with their country—often literally at their government's expense, as thousands of artists were added to the United States payroll as part of the federal government's attempt to provide employment.

* The Abstract Expressionists' radical innovations in the 1940s and 1950s were matched by American sculptors. The heroic models of the past were discarded in favor of open, fluid forms. New materials were adopted and color was used. Alexander Calder (1898- 1976) developed the mobile. David Smith (1906-1965), the first sculptor to work with welded metals, developed a monumental abstract style that was a major influence on other artists.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, young artists reacted against Abstract Expressionism to produce works of "mixed" media. These artists—among them Robert Rauschenberg (1925-) and Jasper Johns (1930-) used photos, newsprint, and discarded objects in their paintings. The early 1960s saw the rise of "Pop" art. 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, cigarette packages and comic strips. "Pop" was followed by "Op"— art based on the principles of optical illusion and perception.

The 1970s and 1980s have seen an explosion of forms, styles and techniques. Artists are no longer confined to their studios, or even to the creation of objects. An artist's work might be an empty gallery, or a huge drawing cut into the western desert. It could be a videotaped event or a written manifesto. These different kinds of art bear a variety of names: earth art, conceptual art, performance art.

Still, the rapid rise in the 1980s of a new group of young artists has shown that painted figures on canvas remain popular with the art- viewing public. This new group, which includes David Salle and Susan Rothenberg, are the newest stars of the art world.


Few shapes symbolize the spirit of the American city better than the skyscraper. Made possible by new building techniques and the invention of the elevator, the first skyscraper was built in Chicago in 1884. Its designer was William Le Baron Jenney (1832- 1907). Jenney devised the steel skeleton which

provided interior support, meaning that exterior walls no longer had to carry the weight of many floors. As land values rose in city after city, so did taller and taller buildings.

Many of the most graceful early towers were designed by Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), America's first great modern architect. "Form ever follows function," Sullivan preached, meaning that a building's purpose should determine its design. That idea has been one of modern architecture's guiding principles.

Sullivan's most talented student was Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959). Now considered the nation's most original and influential modern architect, but ignored for major commissions during much of his life, Wright spent much of his career designing private homes that stressed open space and the inventive use of materials. One of his best- known buildings is the cylindrical design for the Guggenheim Museum (1959) in New York City.

The ideas of Sullivan and Wright— though very different—came to dominate American architecture. Some were adapted by a group of Europeans who emigrated to the United States before World War II and who later shaped another dominant movement in architecture. Among them were Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe (1886-1969) and Walter Gropius (1883-1969), both past directors of Germany's famous design school, the Bauhaus. Their work, called the International Style, stressed machine technology, geometric form and materials. Some critics have called buildings based on their ideas "glass boxes," but others consider these structures monuments to American corporate life.

A radically different approach to design was developed by R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1984). Fuller used mathematical principles in creating a form he called a geodesic dome, in which the structure of the roof supports its own weight.

Today's leading architects include Philip Johnson (1906-), usually considered a "post­modernist," and I. M. Pei (1917-). Many younger architects have turned away from the glass boxes. One leader of this movement is Michael Graves (1945-), whose work is rich in detail and decoration.


Any large city in the United States can provide musical choices to satisfy every taste. Performances of jazz, pop and rock bands, symphony orchestras, opera, chamber music, blues, folk, country and blue grass music, and musical theater have become a part of the daily offering at concert halls across the country.

As was the case in American graphic art, this rich musical heritage is also the product of many influences. Strongest has been the interaction—and often conflict—between Europe's classical traditions and the vitality of regional and ethnic idioms. In fact, many of America's most talented composers have worked in popular forms.

Edward MacDowell, the nation's finest serious composer at the turn of the 20th century, wrote that before America found "a musical writer to echo its genius," it needed "above all, both on the part of the public and on the part of the writer, absolute freedom from the restraint that an almost unlimited

deference to European thought and prejudice has imposed upon us.

America's earliest settlers brought their music—folk songs and dances, psalms, hymns and some formal music—with them to their new homeland. Among these, it was the religious music that dominated. The melodies for the hymns were handed down largely !n an oral tradition, and served as the basis of much colonial music.

Historians give the honor of being America's first native composer to Francis Hopkinson of Philadelphia (1737-1791), a leader of the American Revolution and a close friend of George Washington, the first president. Music experts, however, credit William Billings (1746-1800) with being a revolutionary force in early American song. A self-taught composer who never ceased complaining about musical rules, Billings wrote what he called "fuging" tunes. They have been called clumsy and crude, but they were full of joy, had contagious rhythms and were easy to learn.

Of all the forms of popular singing and theater to emerge in early 19th century America, none was as influential—or so characteristically American—as the minstrel show. In these shows, which appeared in the 1820s and lasted well into this century, white performers in costume impersonated black song, storytelling and dance.

The minstrel show produced Stephen Foster (1826-1864), considered America's first great songwriter. Despite little musical training, Foster had the gift of writing simple, irresistible songs that captured American feelings. Even today, almost everyone knows a handful of Foster's songs by heart. Among them was "Oh! Susanna," sung by thousands of miners during the Gold Rush of 1849.

Also popular in the late 1800s was marching band music. The most prominent composer and bandleader was John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), who first gained fame as director of the United States Marine Corps Band. Sousa's sunny, patriotic music, such as "The Stars and Stripes Forever," remain all- time public favorites at parades, civic festivals and the like.

Most American composers and performers of serious "art" music, however, remained dominated by European musicians and traditions throughout the 19th century. Edward MacDowell (1861-1908) stands out among the serious American composers during this period. With the best training Europe had to offer, MacDowell established his reputation on both sides of the Atlantic as a brilliant pianist and composer of romantic works. A leader in music education, he headed the first department of music at a major United States college, Columbia University, in 1896.

MacDowell's blending of traditional romanticism with new music forms strongly influenced some later American composers, including the outstanding neoromanticist Samuel Barber (1910-1981). At the time MacDowell was struggling to raise public awareness of serious music, ragtime, a development of Dixieland and southern "barrelhouse" music, was raising spirits in parlors and theaters across the country. The first black American music to gain large popularity, ragtime was primarily piano music featuring almost continuous syncopation. Ragtime's greatest composer was Scott Joplin

(1868-1917), who wrote two ragtime operas and believed his music stood the test of comparison with European classical music.

The blues, which developed from African folk songs and Christian religious music, is typically a lamenting song with an undercurrent of resignation and often humor. The greatest of the early recorded singers were often women, including Gertrude "Ma" Rainey (1886-1939) and Bessie Smith (1900-1937). The modern blues is usually played by small bands that feature electric guitar and other solo instruments as prominently as they do the singer. Among the most popular modern blues musicians were Muddy Waters (1915-1984) and B.B.King (1925-).

Jazz emerged as blues and Dixieland musicians refined their instrumental styles. One of jazz's central features is improvisation. While the basic harmonic structure of jazz music is usually written out by musicians, other parts of jazz are created spontaneously, based on the music the rest of the group is playing.

By 1920, jazz had spread from the South as black musicians moved to Chicago and New York City. The most influential of the early jazz musicians was Louis Armstrong (1900- 1971), a trumpeter. Born in New Orleans, one of the early centers of jazz, Armstrong was also the first well-known male jazz singer, and the originator of "scat" singing—in which nonsense syllables instead of words are sung much like an instrumental solo. Another major jazz leader of the same generation was Duke Ellington (1899-1974). A pianist, bandleader, composer and arranger, Ellington had a major impact on jazz composition and playing.

Each new jazz generation, however, has explored new directions. The early 1940s saw the rise of a complicated style known as "bebop," championed by trumpeter "Dizzy" Gillespie (1917- ) and saxophonist Charlie Parker (1920-1955) rated by many as jazz's greatest improviser.

In the 1960s, jazz musicians such as trumpeter Miles Davis (1926-1991) and saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-1967) were experimenting with a wide array of musical influences. Younger jazz musicians began to include the rhythms of rock and roll. Later, in the 1970s, many well-known jazz musicians experimented with electronic instruments and created a blend of rock and jazz called fusion.

Jazz has had an enormous influence on the entire range of American music. Nowhere can that influence be seen more clearly than in the work of George Gershwin (1898-1937), widely considered America's most influential composer in this century. A writer of popular songs, Gershwin also composed a series of musical comedies for the Broadway stage. His most famous works have become modern American classics, the first successfully to incorporate jazz into forms borrowed from the European tradition. They include the concerto "Rhapsody in Blue" (1924) and the opera "Porgy and Bess" (1935).

Few composers have identified their work so much with American themes and rhythms as Aaron Copland (1900-1991). His work exemplifies the trend of many modern American composers to write music for a wide range of uses—orchestra, movies, radio, recording sessions, schools, colleges. Some of Copland's most widely played concert pieces were written for ballet, such as the suite "Billy the Kid" (1938) and "Appalachian Spring" (1945)


Since the 1940s, America's composers have tended to move in very different directions. Some, drawing more directly on traditional influences and popular culture, have gained popularity through their scores for American musicals. Descended from earlier minstrel shows and light opera, the American musical has become a unique form of entertainment combining song, dance, comedy and drama. Among the most successful composer-lyricist teams was Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, writers of "Oklahoma!" (1943) and "Carousel" (1945).

Other American composers have experimented with radically anti-traditional music that most orchestra-going audiences have been slow to accept. Though largely unknown in his lifetime, Charles Ives (1874- 1954) is now recognized as an important early innovator. Many critics rank Elliot Carter (1908-) as the outstanding American composer of his generation. John Cage (1912-) is the most notable composer to leave some elements of his works to unplanned decisions, and also to combine the use of live performers with electronic devices. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Philip Glass (1937-) was among the younger "minimalist" composers who gained wide recognition. Typical of such works is Glass' unconventional opera "Einstein on the Beach."

For most people around the world, however, the sound of American music is the sound of rock and roll. First popularized in the 1950s by white musicians performing mixtures of southern gospel, "country music" and black rhythm and blues, rock-and-roll quickly became a second language for American youth. Elvis Presley (1935-1977) was the early "King of Rock'n'Roll," selling over 500 million records, and the first rock musician to be given near-mythological status by young enthusiasts around the world.

Bob Dylan (1941-) first emerged as the leading singer-songwriter of the folk music explosion in the United States in the early 1960s. His protest songs became anthems of social change, and had tremendous influence on other musicians and writers. The 1960s also saw the rise of the "Motown" sound— irresistible Detroit rhythm and blues. Among its greatest stars is Diana Ross (1944-). Still another southern style that began to gain wider popularity was country music, largely dominated by Nashville-based musicians such as Willie Nelson (1933-). And bluegrass music—a mixture of folk country and blues— also gained a broad audience through the music of Bill Monroe (1911-) and others.

Rock and roll seemed to lose its almost revolutionary momentum in the 1970s and 1980s. Still, some artists stood out, including guitarist-songwriter Bruce Springsteen (1949- ), singer-composer Stevie Wonder (1950-) and singer Michael Jackson (1958-). In 1985 millions of Americans contributed to Live Aid, an effort by top pop and rock musicians to raise money and supplies to combat widespread starvation in Africa.

Reggae, a trancelike variation of rock music with a Caribbean beat, was popularized by Jamaican Bob Marley (1945-1981). And rap music, in which someone talks on one sound track and rhythm is played on another sound track, also became popular in the 1980s. The first hit rap song, "The Message" talked about inner city decay.


Closely linked to the development of modern American music was a new art form—modern dance—that emerged in the early years of this century. Rejecting classical ballet techniques, its innovators sought to express the most basic and immediate expression of human feelings in new styles suited to the modern age.

Among the earliest American champions of this attitude was Isadora Duncan (1878- 1927). Duncan, who stressed pure, unstructured movement, sought to create a dance "that might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body's movement."

The main development of American modern dance, however, was to flow from the work of another early dancer and choreographer, Ruth St. Denis (1877-1968). St. Denis and her partner-husband Ted Shawn found inspiration in Eastern thought and philosophy.

St. Denis' company produced the dancers who would create the two dominant views of modern dance. Doris Humphrey (1895-1958) looked outward for inspiration, to society and human conflict. Martha Graham (1893-1991), whose New York-based company has become perhaps the best known in modern dance, stressed the guiding principles of inward-based passion, grounded in the act of breathing. Many of her best-known works, such as "Appalachian Spring" (1945), were produced in collaboration with prominent American composers and artists.

Younger choreographers kept searching for new movements and new methods. Among the leaders was Merce Cunningham (1919-), who introduced improvisation and random patterns in his work. Alvin Ailey (1931-) blazed new trails in his exploration of African dance elements and black music. And, in the 1970s and 1980s, a new generation of dancer- choreographers continued to seek out new ideas. Perhaps the most eclectic was Twyla Tharp (1941-), who has created dance in such varied forms as experimental video ballet, films and Broadway, for her own dance troupe and other companies.


In the United States there is considerable interplay among different art disciplines. This is in the tradition of the MacDowell Colony, where artists, composers and writers explore new ideas away from the everyday cares of the world. Based on a dream of Edward MacDowell, the colony was created by his widow.

Popular projects, programs and events in modern America frequently combine performing arts, music, visual arts and literature. Some of these explorations not only involve all art disciplines, they also draw heavily from science and technology. Lasers, holography (three-dimensional laser imagery), computer graphics, sound synthesis and fiber optics are considered potential tools and materials for a new flourishing of the arts in America.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Ashton, Dore. American Art Since 1945.

New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Brown, Milton W. and others. American Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Decorative Arts, Photography New York: Abrams, 1979.

DeMille, Agnes. America Dances.

New York: Macmillan, 1983.

Ewen, David.

All the Years of American Popular Music. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977.

Rockwell, John.

All American Music. Composition in the Late Twentieth Century. New York: Knopf, 1983.

Sherr, Arnold.

Black Popular Music in America. New York: Schirmer Books, 1986.

Date: 2015-02-28; view: 1159

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