Art, culture, and even great-tasting foods like hamburgers have always been an important part of American life. The US enjoys its pre-eminent position among Western nations at least in part due to its cultural output. Films, music and TV were crucial in conveying the imagery and ideas of the American way of life around the world, and for those living under dictatorships historically American culture has always represented an ideal of freedom.
In this way American art often reflects the best in American values even when it appears to be criticizing the society that produced it. The freedom to question, critique and challenge both established conventions and public figures is a part of what makes American art so vital. At the same time, even counter-cultural and politically-charged works of art can often contribute significantly towards the national economy and the global cultural standing of the US.
According to a recent report by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts, arts and culture contributes over $800bn every year to the overall US economy. That equals nearly half the overall GDP of Canada, and is bigger than the entire economic output of either Sweden or Switzerland. It adds up to over 4% of the United States’ total GDP.
The arts sector is the third biggest contributor to the national economy, after retail and healthcare. This means that it makes a greater contribution than either the construction, transport or travel industries. That’s not bad for a sector still seen by some as an inessential luxury. Over five million Americans are employed in the arts, where 200,000 new jobs were created between 2009 and 2016, as the country recovered from recession.
The arts and culture industry is primarily based on the East and West Coasts of North America, with New York and Los Angeles being the primary hubs of the nation’s creative industries. In economic terms, the sector is largely expert-based, much more so than just 15 years ago. In 2016 the US had a $25bn trade surplus for artistic and cultural goods and services, whereas in 2006 this was just $2bn. The primary drivers of overseas trade in cultural terms are movies, TV shows and video games.
One of the most traditional of US art forms, the Broadway show, has enjoyed a surprising revival in recent years. This reflects the premium value of the live experience in the digital age. People want the immediate thrill of seeing a performance unfold in real time in front of their eyes, and the fact that it can’t be downloaded or rewound to be watched later adds to its value.
The credit must also go to Broadway producers like Louise Gund who have brought contemporary storytelling to the Broadway stage. With productions like Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, and this year’s The Great Society, today’s Broadway plays are reflections of contemporary society and how we got there, as well as re-evaluations of our shared public history. While musicals like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen have tapped into a younger and more diverse audience, great storytelling and performances are breaking box office records on a regular basis.
Today’s visual artists are also not afraid to ask questions about contemporary American life. The Pittsburgh-born photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier documents the lives of working-class Afro-Americans and combines art with activism in an intersectional fashion. Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death (2016) by video artist Arthur Jaffa is a film montage of black life in America over his lifetime.
Another important artist working today is Cameron Rowland, whose politically-charged installation pieces raise more questions than they answer, and sculptor Kara Walker, who caused controversy with a vast polystyrene sphinx coated in white sugar. The 2014 piece was entitled “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby: an homage to the unpaid and overworked artisans who have refined our sweet tastes from the cane fields to the kitchens of the New World, on the occasion of the demolition of the Domino sugar refining plant.”
American art continues to be most widely experienced via the mediums of film, television and popular music, especially worldwide. The rise of digital television providers such as Amazon and Netflix has provided a new global audience for high production value US TV shows like True Detective and A Game Of Thrones. In the cinema, critically-acclaimed art-house films like The Lighthouse and Marriage Story sit comfortably alongside ground-breaking blockbusters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It’s fair to say that in 2019 US art and culture remains in rude health. Adapting to the possibilities of the latest technology and reinvigorating traditional forms, the culture sector is reaching more people, providing more jobs and generating more income than ever before. At the same time it continues to move forward, reflecting society and asking the difficult questions that we need to hear.