Sometimes, when I’m wandering in an art museum looking at the relics of an ancient civilization, I find myself wondering how a future society would represent a defunct American culture. What objects would be chosen—or would survive—to be placed on display? Would I agree with a curator’s choices? Were I to choose the items that some future American Museum of Art should exhibit to represent twentieth-century American culture, here are some I would name: an Elvis Presley record; a Currier & Ives print; a movie still from Casablanca. To put it a different way, my priority would not be to exhibit fragments of an urban cathedral, a painted landscape, or a formal costume. I wouldn’t deny such objects could be important artifacts of American culture, or that they belong in a gallery. But in my avowedly biased opinion, the most vivid documents of American life—the documents that embody its possibilities and limits—are typically found in its popular culture.
Popular culture, of course, is not an American invention, and it has a vibrant life in many contemporary societies. But in few, if any, of those societies has it been as central to a notion of national character at home as well as abroad. For better or worse, it is through icons like McDonald’s (the quintessential American cuisine), the Western (a uniquely American narrative genre), and Oprah Winfrey (a classic late-twentieth century embodiment of the American Dream) that this society is known—and is likely to be remembered.
It has sometimes been remarked that unlike nations whose identities are rooted in geography, religion, language, blood, or history, the United States was founded on a democratic ideal—a notion of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness elaborated in the Declaration of Independence. That ideal has been notoriously difficult to realize, and one need only take a cursory look at many aspects of American life—its justice system, electoral politics, residential patterns, labor force, et. al.—to see how far short it has fallen.