Arts, Creativity Are Huge U.S. Exports

Some of the pop culture America exports is cringe-worthy but it’s lucrative.

Back in 1984 when I was living in Ireland for several months, I was asked by a teacher friend to speak to his class of inner-city Dublin kids.

The students were middle-school age and came from poor families whose parents had limited education. When you asked these children about America, there were two places they knew without fail: New York City and Hollywood.

They recognized New York because half their relatives lived there and they knew Hollywood because of all the American movies and TV shows they watched. 

Now as then, pop culture is one of our biggest exports. The movies, television and music industries make billions of dollars every year, which is one of the reasons intellectual property and piracy issues are so important to the United States.

Film director James Cameron alone could be considered one of the titans of American industry based on two movies. His film  “Avatar” made more than $1 billion worldwide, including about $220 million in China, and “Titanic” made upwards of $1.8 billion.

Likewise, Steven Spielberg’s movies are estimated to have made more than $8 billion while employing or helping to employ thousands of people.

Of course, some of the arts and culture the U.S. exports are truly cringe-worthy.  The reality show “Jersey Shore” with foul-mouthed women and men wallowing in drunken brawls and decadent self-absorption must be a great recruiting tool for Jihadist U. It's depressing to think that Snooki is one of our cultural ambassadors to the world.

I bring all this up because some commenters on two previous implied that college students who are have only themselves to blame if they study subjects, such as the performing arts or journalism, that won’t make them a lot of money when they graduate.

And recently, The Daily Beast, a news and opinion web site, ran a feature headlined “The 13 Most Useless Majors,” which included theater, music, graphic design and fine arts. I majored in two of the 13 – English and political science – and work in a third, journalism. Count on me to specialize in worthless knowledge and skills. 

And yet. Though my career has had ups and downs, I’ve never regretted that I didn’t become, say, a nurse – which would have made me infinitely more employable. Patients throughout the land should thank their lucky stars that I’m not at the foot of their hospital bed saying, “Now where the heck did I put that chart?”

American manufacturing, which was on the ropes for so long, appears to be making a comeback and that’s great news. And Patch commenters are right that students going into the fields of science, technology, engineering and math have a better shot at making a lucrative living than most fine arts majors or actors or writers. It's telling that the term “starving artist” has its own Wikipedia page; “starving computer scientist” does not. 

But as someone whose family prefers to spend money on experiences – movies, travel, books, meals and plays – than on clothes or home furnishings or other “stuff,” I’d hate for artists and authors to be dismissed as somehow less valuable Americans than those people who make material things for a living. I could live a happy life if I never bought another set of dishes or pair of high-heel shoes; I’d be inconsolable if I never got to read another book. 

Arthur Joel Katz June 07, 2012 at 12:51 PM
Beware the know nothings. The Arts are as vital to our lives as agriculture. And as a faithful reader, I know that you would have been great at whatever you chose. You could be my nurse anytime. Joel
Tracy Weaver June 07, 2012 at 01:39 PM
I, too, had a worthless major in college and achieved my supposedly useless bachelors in English. Yet, I've always had a professional job because I know how to communicate and use the English language properly in verbal and written formats. You can be trained to do the rest if you can read, write and understand the language.
Lanya June 07, 2012 at 04:02 PM
It makes me very sad to know that Graphic Design was among the 13 most useless majors. Apparently whoever wrote that article does not have eyes. Most commercial objects have been touched by a designer at some point. Books, magazines, logos, food packaging (and all other product packaging). Menus, billboards, posters, store signage, any kind of branding you see driving down the street, including the street signs. In fact, this very website was probably arranged by a web designer with a background in design. So as a professional designer myself, I am sad that my trade is valued so lowly in this country. That being said, while pop culture and art in the form of digital visual and auditory entertainment is a main export from the US, the opposite is happening in the graphic design field. In order to cut costs, companies are importing cheap design services from other countries (or asking for free 'spec' work from young naive freelancers), and the entire industry is being brought down by these unfortunate practices. Meanwhile there are more and more of us artists who are unemployed. I see no end to this cycle within my lifetime. While the arts are indeed vital, it seems the world of commerce does not think so.
Tim Killimaji June 07, 2012 at 04:28 PM
American manufacturing making a comeback is laughable
Liberalism is a mental disorder June 07, 2012 at 05:45 PM
The arts are vital, the arts created by the 1% of artists that have real talent. For every REALLY talented artist, there are 99 who think they are artists, but actually are not. You don't need to go to college and take on $150,000 in debt to learn art. Buy a book and read. Play with paints... in your spare time after you get off from work at McDonalds. We have college educated art and poly sci majors to blame for all the math challenged democratic twits who think we can just pay for everything to make the world all "nicey and just". Good grief.
Carl W June 07, 2012 at 06:13 PM
I'm a graduate of Ringling School of Art, (Sarasota, FL), Commercial Design-Illustration. Arts not important? Who do you think designs the ads that sell products & services? Recent grads. were the main artists for "Avantar," and another starting "REELZ" cable network. Clothing, cars, and websites, all involved in moving (selling) products & services, are designed by artists. Like a magazine layout, or the design of a page or ad? Thank an artist! Like that music on your ride or walk? Thank another field of the arts!
Carl W June 07, 2012 at 06:15 PM
God love you! A little know secret, and a special pet pieve of mine!
Lanya June 07, 2012 at 08:56 PM
I agree that most people who think they are artists, are not. But for those of us with actual inborn talent, there is still something to be said for instruction and a complete college education. I could not have taken my raw creative abilities and turned into what I am today without the benefit of an instructor. "Playing with paints" only gets you so far. Also, maybe it is the 99% of fake artists who are giving my kind a bad name with their $150,000 in student debt, but I chose a state school program close to home and incurred no debt. It's all about making good decisions.
Jonathan Gerard June 08, 2012 at 03:56 AM
It turns out that manufacturing is thriving in the U.S. Read, for example, "Indiana Steel Mill Revived With Lessons From Abroad," by John W. Miller in the WSJ. The article documents the return of healthy factories to America, albeit with fewer workers and more robotics than in the past.
Jonathan Gerard June 08, 2012 at 04:05 AM
Of course there is a spectrum of talent among artists--as there is among doctors--but "visual literacy" is very important for everyone to pursue. Also, the arts provide an important way to teach us to think critically. Remember, as well, Maxine Greene's admonition that, "of all the human faculties, the imagination is the most important, because it is through the imagination that we learn empathy." And finally, the arts distinguish us from other animals. The arts are among the highest form of human creativity. I can imagine some people not being interested in the arts but I cannot imagine why anyone would criticize another person for devoting him or herself to such a pursuit. It may be a choice that guarantees poverty but it is also a choice that promises a unique kind of human fulfillment. Art is redeeming. Making art brings a satisfaction and a sense of meaning to life that making money does not.
Liberalism is a mental disorder June 08, 2012 at 04:00 PM
Always with the art drivel. I'm far more impressed with an engineer who can understand the laws of physics, and create a bridge, or NMR machine, or pacemaker than I am by somebody throwing paint on a canvas and calling it abstract art, or writing down some nonsensical drivel and calling it a poem. Art separates us from the animals? No, even monkeys paint with their feces. What separates us from the animals has been our ability to CREATE real world things like housing and electricity and medicine that differentiate us. It's our thumb that makes us different in the end. REAL imagination is finding a way to cure a disease, not scribbling with charcol. The arts are the highest form of human creativity? Only because you obviously don't understand science or engineering.
Liberalism is a mental disorder June 08, 2012 at 04:02 PM
Ya, but we won't have any factories like this popping up with Obamas absurd EPA and other regulations that choke out business.
Jonathan Gerard June 08, 2012 at 05:29 PM
It is a typical fallacy of logic to compare the best of one thing with the worst of something else--say, for example, the best Republican initiative in the last 50 years with the worst Democratic one, and then conclude that Republicans are better. It would be like saying "Catholics did the Spanish Inquisition but Israelis set up the best hospitals in Haiti after the earthquake, so Judaism cares more about human life." You could just as easily have compared the value of Picasso's "Guernica" to the creation of Thalidomide and concluded that artists do more to save human life than drug manufacturers and doctors. We'll all get along better when we look for the best in each field, in each profession, each person. Someone who calls him- or herself "Incredibly Wise" is most likely not. Why did you publish what you are "more impressed with"? Why should anyone but your mother care what "impresses" you? Readers deserve reasonable discussions--not false or unfounded assertions and silly logic. Study what you want, where you want--especially the public library. But don't tell other people they should act or think like you--incredibly wise, indeed.
Jonathan Gerard June 08, 2012 at 05:43 PM
Another undocumented and unfounded opinion. Protecting the environment saves lives as well as jobs. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/05/business/economy/a-debate-arises-on-job-creation-vs-environmental-regulation.html?pagewanted=all And also, from MIT: Environmental degradation kills people, especially babies who are more sensitive to toxic waste. The cancer epidemic is related to the unregulated polluting of our environment. These are not assertions; they are documented facts which many choose to ignore. But it is a false assertion to state that protecting the environment costs jobs. It creates jobs. It saves lives. And industry has almost never done this voluntarily.
Liberalism is a mental disorder June 12, 2012 at 06:21 PM
Jonathan... a bunch of bunk... people live longer now then ever. Cancer up? Ya, when everybody lives to 90, that will happen. We have one of the highest infant mortality rates around, and the highest number of environmental regulations. So much for you toxic waste theory.
Liberalism is a mental disorder June 12, 2012 at 06:25 PM
Virtually everything you post is liberal drivel. To suppor your facts, you post liberal trash websites. At to Guernica... humm... that did a great job stopping the Nazis, didn't it? No, what stopped them was good old fashioned engineering and production. Your arguments are so hilarious. As to why anybody but my mother should care, why should anybody but your mother care? Again, total stupidity on your part.... you ramble on about how art is the highest form of human expression (your opinion) then suggest my opinion should only matter to my mother. Good grief, you crack me up.
Liberalism is a mental disorder June 12, 2012 at 06:28 PM
No, all doctors make a living being a doctor, and pay off their school loans being a doctor. 1% of people who study art make their living in art, and the rest work at Wendy's and bitch about their student loans, and how unfair they are. That's the difference. "Art is redeeming. Making art brings a satisfaction and a sense of meaning to life that making money does not." Speaking for yourself? Is this your opinion? Why should anybody care about your opinion? See how stupid that sounds... see your post below. Argghhhhhh.


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