America's Cultural Role in the World Today
American + culture. Many people in the world believe these two words do not really belong together. The stereotype of the clueless and uncultured American runs deep – and not just abroad. It is part of American culture itself – a kind of “in your face” pride at being down-to-earth and everyday. The common man and woman with common tastes have been celebrated in America since its independence. At the same time, the sophisticated and “highfalutin” tastes of the upper classes have been viewed with satire and disdain. That is why it is a bit of a paradox that American culture has become the world’s most widespread and influential today. Indeed, it has become so powerful and ever-present that some fear it may actually damage their own national cultures.
Guggenheim Museum, New York (Copyright: Scanpix)
The basis for the impact is, of course, America’s position as the world’s dominant superpower. Not only does the USA have “hard power” – the ability to get people to do what it wants. It also has enormous “soft power” – the ability to get people to want what it does. It was not always so. Before the 20th century, America was viewed as a cultural backwater. At that time the “American Dream” was the USA’s greatest cultural export to the world – an open-ended inspiration into which millions poured their own dreams and hopes for a better life. It was around the time of the First World War that things began to change, that America first began to export some of its home grown culture abroad through films and music. Charlie Chaplin and “Westerns,” ragtime and jazz became familiar to millions outside the country. It was not until after the Second World War, however, that the flood gates really burst. The rise of the consumer economy and the “American lifestyle” in the 1950s had a terrific impact on the world when American popular culture went global.
The English language
In the 1800s the American author Mark Twain once remarked, “There is no such thing as the “Queen’s English”. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company and we own the bulk of the shares.” Today, close to 70% of all native English speakers are American, dwarfing all other groups. A constant stream of American TV, films, songs, computer games and websites have spread American words and expressions far beyond its borders. Perhaps the most obvious example is the expression “OK”, adopted by languages everywhere. Through sheer volume American English has gradually replaced the British variety as the accepted international standard. In fact, it has even made inroads into British English itself, replacing words like “stupid” with “dumb”, “angry” with “mad”.
Turn on the radio, check the TV listings, look what’s playing at the local cinema, pull out a computer game or just go online and search for a nice chat room – do any of these things and within a short time you will run into American cultural influence. Why does America have such reach in these media? One answer is market. The United States has a domestic market of over 300 million people in addition to a potential global market of more than two billion English speakers. That means Americans can profitably produce a great many TV programs, films, songs, computer games and other products for use at home and then export the same programs abroad at very low prices. No other country has this advantage in both numbers and language.
America’s cultural influence through movies has been particularly strong. Just the word “Hollywood” itself conjures up visions of movie stars and Oscar nights and Western gunslingers getting ready for the shootout. Motion pictures may not have been invented in the US, but modern movies were perfected there. The figures are imposing. For example, in 2006, 64 % of all movies shown in the European Union were American. In comparison, only 3% of the movies shown in the USA were from Europe. In addition, all the twenty movies earning the most money world wide in 2006 were American or were made in partnership with an American film company. This included the year’s number one hit, Walt Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest which raked in over one billion dollars, most of it from an international audience. This is what led former President Jacques Chirac to support putting a limit on the number of American films that could be shown in French cinemas because he did not want to see “European culture sterilized or obliterated by American culture for economic reasons that have nothing to do with real culture.”
American literature spans too great a range to be quickly summed up, but American authors are certainly well-liked in popular literature today. Names like Stephen King, Anne Tyler, Michael Crichton, Jacqueline Susann, John Grisham, Toni Morrison, Dan Brown and Alice Walker dot paperback book stalls the world over, both in English and in translation. Here, however, Americans must share the limelight with authors from many other nationalities, not least the British.
It is no exaggeration to say that American popular music conquered the world in the 20th century. The list is impressive – ragtime, blues, jazz, big band “Swing”, country western, rhythm & blues, rock & roll, hip-hop & rap. All these forms of music have swept across the globe, most recently through international systems of music distribution established by MTV stations and internet downloads. There is little point in reeling off a list of internationally famous American music stars. There wouldn’t be room for all of them on this page. The really interesting thing about this phenomenon is that it long ago grew beyond it roots and became international in scope.
As in literature, American influence came late to the international art scene. It wasn’t until the disasters of the Second World War had thrown artists and impulses across the Atlantic that the United States became a center – some would say, the center – for modern art. New York City came to rival Paris as a hub of new artists and art forms. In the 1950s and early 1960s American painters like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol were at the forefront of the Pop Art movement – short for Popular Art, a fitting name for America’s entrance onto the international art scene. Lichtenstein’s enormous reconstructions of cartoon images and Warhol’s endless lines of Marilyn Monroe portraits and Campbell Soup cans became icons of American art. Jackson Pollock’s wildly experimental work inspired abstract expressionist painters around the world. Susan Rothenberg’s return to figurative imagery added yet another voice to the mix.
Oddly, for a country that loves spectator sports and spends enormous amounts of money on games, the United States has not made all that great an impact on the world of international sports. Of course, it regularly dominates track and field events at the Olympics and puts in a good show in winter sports, as well. But when it comes to international sports contests, the US is often a world to itself.
There are two reasons for this. First, two of the most popular games in the country are played almost nowhere else – baseball and American football. Both share common roots with the more international British games of cricket, rugby and football (excuse me, soccer) – but they have developed in their own separate ways in North America. The second reason was just mentioned – soccer. Americans do not play it much. Up to now, the world’s most popular sport has been a no-starter in the US. Yes, a new Major League Soccer confederation was set up in 1996. Yes, David Beckham is playing for the Los Angeles Galaxy as this is written. But it is not the first time this has been tried in the States. Two soccer leagues have come and gone since 1921, leading one wit to remark that “Soccer is America’s coming sport, and always will be.” So, it remains to be seen if America will now join the rest of the world in the “beautiful game”.