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Cultural Life and Institutions

The diverse and vital cultural life of the United States is evidenced by the many concert halls and performing arts centers across the nation, the technical mastery and variety of contemporary dance companies, the creativity of American novelists, poets, sculptors, painters, and filmmakers, and modern American architecture's search for many bold new directions.

A number of trends in American cultural life seemed to be running side by side in the 1980s and early 1990s. Increased audiences and greater popularity for the arts led to a new level of energy and health; and perhaps also, as in the case of Broadway theater and of painting, to more pronounced commercialism, or, as in the case of dance, to some reluctance to experiment on the part of companies grown large and successful. Support of the arts by the federal and state governments, traditionally low in the United States, increased substantially during the 1970s. For instance, federal government support for theaters grew from $2.7 million in 1972 to $13.4 million in 1979; support for museums, from $4.1 million to $25.8 million in the same period. With the de-emphasis on federal government spending in the 1980s and 1990s, however, artists and cultural institutions turned more to private benefactors, foundations, and the marketplace. Corporate support for the arts through direct grants increased from $108.7 million in 1980 to $243.6 million in 1992. State arts agencies' budgets in 1990 totaled $292 million.

Performing Arts

The first European settlers in North America brought their native music with them. The first American symphony orchestra, the Philharmonic Society of New York, was established in 1842; the first classes in a music conservatory were held at Oberlin College in 1865. In the 20th century major American composers such as Charles Ives, Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and John Cage won international fame. Gospel music, the blues, and jazz were African-American creations. Jazz gained worldwide attention through performers such as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis. See American Music; Popular Music.

Major symphony orchestras in the 1990s included the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony. In addition to these large orchestral ensembles, a growing number of chamber groups such as the Juilliard String Quartet, Guarneri String Quartet, and Kronos Quartet were flourishing in universities and communities throughout the country. Major opera companies served dozens of cities. Leading organizations included the Metropolitan Opera of New York City, the New York City Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the San Francisco Opera, the Washington Opera, the Santa Fe Opera Company, and the Houston Grand Opera. See Opera.

The New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre, both founded in the 1930s, exert an important creative influence on contemporary American dance. Other major groups include the traveling companies of Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, the San Francisco Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet in New York City, Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Tulsa Ballet, the Boston Ballet, and the Pennsylvania Ballet in Philadelphia. Dance audiences have burgeoned in recent decades, and numerous smaller, experimental companies exist. Well-known choreographers in the United States within recent decades include George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Katherine Dunham, Alvin Ailey, and Mark Morris. See Dance; Popular and Social Dance.

Drama in the United States in the 1980s continued to experience an audience boom that began in the mid-1970s. Broadway shows in New York City relied heavily on revivals, long-running shows, and stage spectaculars in addition to new plays. Theaters are concentrated most heavily in America's largest cities, but professional as well as amateur companies are also active across the country. Prominent experimental groups included The New York Shakespeare Festival, founded in 1954 by Joseph Papp; La Mama, Etc., Experimental Theatre Club, founded in 1962 by Ellen Stewart; several companies in Los Angeles and San Francisco; and the Guthrie Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Neil Simon, John Guare, August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, Sam Shepard, and David Mamet are among the best-known contemporary playwrights. Musical comedies, although not uniquely an American invention, have flourished in the United States under the influence of a number of creative teams, including Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.


The first major American novelist was James Fenimore Cooper, with The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Prairie (1827), and other works about the frontier. The romantic period of American literature, from about 1830 to 1865, introduced important novelists such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851), in which he probed New England's Puritan heritage; and Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick (1851), a complex and poetic novel of the sea. Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe became a best-seller and a vehicle for anti-slavery sentiments.

Realism, prominent in American literature from the close of the Civil War until about the beginning of the 20th century, was the product of a new mass audience and the experience of industrialization. Major figures of this time included a diverse collection of writers, including the humorist Mark Twain, with his classic tales of boyhood Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1884); and Henry James, a stylistic innovator whose works, such as The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Ambassadors (1903), were landmarks in the development of the novel.

Theodore Dreiser, whose Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925) describe in an awkward but compelling style how spiritually empty industrial America had become, marked the new age of naturalism, which ran until about 1930. This was a rich period of American letters; important novelists of this period included Edith Wharton (Ethan Frome, 1911; The Age of Innocence, 1920); Willa Cather (O Pioneers!, 1913; My ntonia, 1918); F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, 1925); Sinclair Lewis (Main Street, 1920; Babbitt, 1922), the first American Nobel Prize winner in literature, 1930; Ernest Hemingway, also a Nobel Prize winner, 1954, noted for his terse, carefully crafted prose in works such as The Sun Also Rises (1926), and A Farewell to Arms (1929); Zora Neale Hurston, a novelist and folklorist (Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937); Richard Wright (Native Son, 1940; Black Boy, 1945); and William Faulkner, whose innovative techniques and thoughtful characterizations in such novels as The Sound and the Fury (1929), Light in August (1932), and Absalom, Absalom! (1936) won him the Nobel Prize in 1949. Modernist Gertrude Stein (The Making of Americans, 1925; Everybody's Autobiography, 1936) experimented radically with language, following the example of impressionist painters.

Hemingway and Faulkner remained leading writers into the 1950s; they were joined by John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath, 1939; Nobel Prize, 1962), Robert Penn Warren (All the King's Men, 1946), James Jones (From Here to Eternity, 1951), James Baldwin (Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1953), Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead, 1948; The Executioner's Song, 1979), and Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita, 1955; Pale Fire, 1962). Novelists of contemporary note include Flannery O'Connor (Wise Blood, 1952); Carson McCullers (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1940); Eudora Welty (The Ponder Heart, 1954; The Optimist's Daughter, 1969), well known also for her short stories; Saul Bellow (The Adventures of Augie March, 1953; Humboldt's Gift, 1975; Nobel Prize, 1976); Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (Slaughterhouse-Five, 1969); John Updike (Rabbit, Run, 1960); Maxine Hong Kingston (The Woman Warrior, 1976); Louise Erdrich (Love Medicine, 1984); Toni Morrison (Beloved, 1987; Nobel Prize, 1993); and Alice Walker (The Color Purple, 1982).

Distinctive American poetry first appeared in the 19th century, with the musical and highly rhythmic works of Edgar Allan Poe, the experimental democratic chant of Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass, 1855), and the tightly wrought lyrical verse of Emily Dickinson. Modern American poetry began in the early 20th century with the lyrics and dramatic poems of the New England poet Robert Frost; the Cantos of Ezra Pound, the founder of imagism; the prairie realism of Carl Sandburg; and The Waste Land (1922) and other revolutionary works by the American-born English poet T.S. Eliot, who won the Nobel Prize in 1948. Modern American poetry has continued to be enriched by such gifted poets as Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Louise Bogan, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ntozake Shange, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur, and Adrienne Rich.

Motion Pictures

Hollywood, an unincorporated district within Los Angeles, has been one of the most influential and productive international motion picture capitals. The article Motion Pictures, History of describes the many influential films, directors, and stars of American cinema.

Contemporary trends in motion pictures in the United States include a trend toward escapism, with movies bent on capturing mass audiences and emphasizing imaginative production techniques rather than content; and an opposing trend toward the use of film as a medium of social criticism or artistic expression for more sophisticated audiences. Recent film stars, such as Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, and Jodie Foster, have tended to be less glamorous (or less glamorously presented) and to portray characters more humanly flawed than their classic Hollywood predecessors, such as Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and Marilyn Monroe. Other recent trends are the upsurge in the production of American documentary films; films written, produced, and directed by women and people of color; and independent films.


During the colonial period and the early years of the United States, American architecture in the main followed the trends of British architecture. The first true American contribution to international architecture was the skyscraper, pioneered in Chicago in the late 19th century by architects such as Louis Henri Sullivan. Subsequent developments incorporated European modernism to produce the box-shaped, glass-curtain-wall skyscraper common in American cities from the 1950s into the 1980s, and first exemplified by the Secretariat Building of the United Nations in New York City. In the 1980s new forms emerged that borrowed stylistic elements freely and eclectically from various periods in the history of architecture, incorporating them into buildings that also made use of the newest technology. Examples of this so-called postmodern architecture included the AT&T Building in New York City, a skyscraper designed by Philip C. Johnson and topped with a pediment; and the Public Office Building by Michael Graves in Portland, Oregon, which incorporated romantic and classical elements.


Portraits were the first paintings to be produced in significant numbers in America, including those of famous historical figures by John Singleton Copley in the 18th century. Landscape paintings, such as those of Asher B. Durand of the Hudson River school and the dramatic seascapes of Winslow Homer, were prominent during the 19th century. Thomas Eakins achieved a striking realism in his portraits toward the end of that century.

European modernism was introduced into the United States at the Armory Show in 1913. This exposition of international art, which opened in New York City and traveled to Chicago and Boston, was seen by more than 250,000 Americans. Armory Show ideas influenced many American artists, such as John Marin and Georgia O'Keeffe, and became embodied in the collections and philosophy of the Museum of Modern Art, founded in 1929 in New York City. Following World War II (1939-1945), New York supplanted Paris as the leading center of the art world; innovative painting exhibited and often produced there has included works by the abstract expressionist painters Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell and the sculptor David Smith; and by the pop art painters Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and sculptor George Segal.


Many works by leading American artists can be viewed in major American art museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which has come to represent the establishment in modern art; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., which also houses modern art; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Museums that house extensive collections of art objects, paintings, and sculpture from all parts of the world from prehistory to the present include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the M. H. de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

The United States has more than 7000 museums, including many historical, science, and art museums. Among the more prominent U.S. museums of science are the American Museum of Natural History in New York City; the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry, both in Chicago; the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia; the Maryland Academy of Sciences in Baltimore; and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Although the states of New York, California, Massachusetts, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Ohio contain more than one-third of the museums in the United States, museums are nevertheless spread across the country, particularly historic buildings that have opened their doors. For more information on museums and historical sites contained in a particular state, see the articles on individual states.


In 1992 the United States had more than 31,850 libraries. Approximately 48 percent of these were public libraries and their branches, and 4620 were college and university libraries. Foremost among American libraries is the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Other libraries with vast collections include the public libraries of New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Portland, Oregon, and the libraries at academic institutions such as Harvard University, Stanford University, Yale University, the University of Michigan, Columbia University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Texas at Austin. Many of these libraries contain special and rare book collections, such as those of the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; other noted collections include those of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California; the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City; and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.