The twentieth century is often referred to as the “American Century.” During these years, the U.S. emerges as one of two global superpowers, alongside the Soviet Union. A number of factors contribute to the growth of U.S. political and economic domination in the world. First, like Canada to the north, the U.S. possesses an enormous territory and vast natural resources. Second, these resources, along with a large labor pool bolstered by immigrants, fuel the development of industry and the creation of a middle class of consumers who buy manufactured goods with their wages. The international political significance of the U.S. is confirmed by its decisive roles in the two world wars.
As the United States emerges as an important world economic and political power, it also becomes central to the international art scene, with New York usurping the preeminent role previously played by Paris. At the beginning of the century, many American painters continue to work in a style influenced by French Impressionism. By the nineteen-teens, greater realism prevails in the work of the Ashcan School artists. The industrial and urban landscape that emerges in twentieth-century North America is captured by many artists. Among those who celebrate factories and other industrial forms are the Precisionist artists, including Charles Demuth (1883–1935), Charles Sheeler (1883–1965), and Ralston Crawford (1906–1978). During the early decades of the twentieth century, American artists also become more interested in organic and geometric abstraction, and begin to embrace modernism, a tendency that continues as European artists emigrate to the U.S. around the time of World War II.
From the late 1960s, the Vietnam War and the protests it provokes, followed by the Watergate scandal, the Arab Oil Embargo and resulting energy crisis, rampant inflation and recession in the 1970s, and concerns about the environmental consequences of industrialization, all combine to shake American confidence. These events are paralleled in the arts by a growing skepticism about artistic modernism and the emergence of the postmodern movement by the 1970s.
The political climate of the 1980s is relatively conservative in comparison with the 1970s, and economic recovery begins in the middle of the decade. At the same time, innovations in computer technology fundamentally change American life, touching every aspect of daily existence, including work, communications, and leisure. Artists embrace new means of making and exchanging visual images, for instance with ever-smaller and less expensive computers, more efficient compact disks, and videotape. New media will offer an important field for artists through the end of the century. Emerging technologies also create a “Tech Bubble” in which shares in computer-related companies become the objects of stock market speculation. The inflated share prices begin to tumble in early 2000, spelling the end of a period of prosperity and low unemployment.