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Culture, Arts and Letters

American innovations, cultural discrimination, slave narratives, conceptual art, new visions

The arts, more than other features of culture, provide avenues for the expression of imagination and personal vision. They offer a range of emotional and intellectual pleasures to consumers of art and are an important way in which a culture represents itself. There has long been a Western tradition distinguishing those arts that appeal to the multitude, such as popular music, from those—such as classical orchestral music—normally available to the elite of learning and taste. Popular art forms are usually seen as more representative American products. In the United States in the recent past, there has been a blending of popular and elite art forms, as all the arts experienced a period of remarkable cross-fertilization. Because popular art forms are so widely distributed, arts of all kinds have prospered.

The arts in the United States express the many faces and the enormous creative range of the American people. Especially since World War II, American innovations and the immense energy displayed in literature, dance, and music have made American cultural works world famous. Arts in the United States have become internationally prominent in ways that are unparalleled in history. American art forms during the second half of the 20th century often defined the styles and qualities that the rest of the world emulated. At the end of the 20th century, American art was considered equal in quality and vitality to art produced in the rest of the world.

Throughout the 20th century, American arts have grown to incorporate new visions and voices. Much of this new artistic energy came in the wake of America’s emergence as a superpower after World War II. But it was also due to the growth of New York City as an important center for publishing and the arts, and the immigration of artists and intellectuals fleeing fascism in Europe before and during the war. An outpouring of talent also followed the civil rights and protest movements of the 1960s, as cultural discrimination against blacks, women, and other groups diminished.

American arts flourish in many places and receive support from private foundations, large corporations, local governments, federal agencies, museums, galleries, and individuals. What is considered worthy of support often depends on definitions of quality and of what constitutes art. This is a tricky subject when the popular arts are increasingly incorporated into the domain of the fine arts and new forms such as performance art and conceptual art appear. As a result, defining what is art affects what students are taught about past traditions (for example, Native American tent paintings, oral traditions, and slave narratives) and what is produced in the future. While some practitioners, such as studio artists, are more vulnerable to these definitions because they depend on financial support to exercise their talents, others, such as poets and photographers, are less immediately constrained.

Artists operate in a world where those who theorize and critique their work have taken on an increasingly important role. Audiences are influenced by a variety of intermediaries—critics, the schools, foundations that offer grants, the National Endowment for the Arts, gallery owners, publishers, and theater producers. In some areas, such as the performing arts, popular audiences may ultimately define success. In other arts, such as painting and sculpture, success is far more dependent on critics and a few, often wealthy, art collectors. Writers depend on publishers and on the public for their success.

Unlike their predecessors, who relied on formal criteria and appealed to aesthetic judgments, critics at the end of the 20th century leaned more toward popular tastes, taking into account groups previously ignored and valuing the merger of popular and elite forms. These critics often relied less on aesthetic judgments than on social measures and were eager to place artistic productions in the context of the time and social conditions in which they were created. Whereas earlier critics attempted to create an American tradition of high art, later critics used art as a means to give power and approval to nonelite groups who were previously not considered worthy of including in the nation’s artistic heritage.

Not so long ago, culture and the arts were assumed to be an unalterable inheritance—the accumulated wisdom and highest forms of achievement that were established in the past. In the 20th century generally, and certainly since World War II, artists have been boldly destroying older traditions in sculpture, painting, dance, music, and literature. The arts have changed rapidly, with one movement replacing another in quick succession.

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