Art and Beauty

Basic sociological facts about art in America are insufficient and incomplete. It is rather idle to ask how many works of lasting beauty are created in America. However, every day some 180 new musical compositions and 45 books of fiction are copyrighted. Paintings are not subject to this kind of numeration, but it is perhaps not unreasonable to assume that the United States in recent years has been the birthplace for the largest number of the world’s abstract paintings.

We have some information about the number of people who report an artistic pursuit as a full-time occupation. The 1950 Census records 3 actors, 14 artists (or art teachers), 3 dancers (or dance teachers), and 27 musicians (or music teachers) per 10,000 persons in the experienced civilian labor force.1) These may seem modest figures, but they are increasing faster than the labor force. Between 1940 and 1950 the number of people employed in artistic occupations grew one-third, while the total employed portion of the labor force grew one-quarter. Later figures are not available, but there is every reason to assume that this accelerated growth of the number of persons engaged in art is continuing.

New York is a great center for all forms of fine art. It is the American Mecca for publishing, music, dance, and theatre. It has probably more art galleries than Paris. Chicago and San Francisco also maintain a significant share in the nation’s artistic life. Most big American cities have an art museum there are over 200 all told and about a dozen cities have symphony orchestras in residence, but there are many big cities without a permanent stage company.

Information is largely lacking about how many Americans enjoy these facilities. How many American homes feature original oil paintings, sculptures, or even books of poetry and fiction, how many Americans have ever been to the opera, the ballet, the concert hall, the legitimate theater or, for that matter, to an art museum, are not on record.

Serious American artists normally have great difficulties in securing a decent livelihood from their art. For example, a study of fairly well established painters showed that the majority earned less than $500 a year from their art.2) Nor do the artists have much control of decisions affecting art on the national or community level. No artist is likely to be on the board of directors of a museum or of an art center. Decisions affecting these art organizations are usually made by benefactors or professional art directors. Nor do the serious artists have much say in the design of consumer goods. The close relation and overlap found in, say, the Scandinavian countries between serious artists and industrial designers is unknown in America. A decisive influence on industrial design of consumer goods is instead exercised by market researchers who tend to recommend designs according to their often vulgar understanding of psychology, and who operate in an economic environment in which it is safer to underestimate than to overestimate popular taste.

Television has supplanted the radio and the film as the most popular medium of popular culture. As mentioned, it reaches most every home, and in 1959 the average TV-set was turned on for 5 hours and 16 minutes per day.3) An American over twelve years of age spent an average of 120 minutes a day in 1958 watching television. This compares with 72 minutes of listening to the radio, 28 minutes reading the newspaper, and 14 minutes reading magazines.4) Since the artistic quality of TV-programs is generally low, the many hours spent by Americans watching television is a source of concern (and challenge) to many intellectuals. Perhaps these figures should also be a source of concern to some of the makers of consumer goods whose advertising pays for the programs: the many hours of TV-watching often equals hours in which their goods and services are unused. One may doubt that, in the long run, sales of automobiles, gasoline, cosmetics, et cetera, is promoted by keeping people idle in front of their TV-sets.

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1) Infra, Table 79

2) Infra, Table 80

3) Information furnished by A. C. Nielsen Co., New York, and based on the Nielsen Television Index.

4) Information furnished by Sindlinger and Co., Philadelphia.