Arts Aren’t Great Because Great Men Say They Are

Since the news started going around last week that the Trump administration was looking to de-fund the NEA, NEH and PBS, there have been a ton of memes circulating quoting Winston Churchill refusing to defund the arts during the Second World War saying, “…then what are we fighting for?”

Except, as I wrote four years ago, that story is completely apocryphal. He never said that. He said some things close to that and the precursor of the Arts Council of England was formed in 1940 ““to show publicly and unmistakably that the Government cares about the cultural life of the country. This country is supposed to be fighting for civilisation.”

Yes, it may be a little pedantic to call out the error, but given that fake news is a topic of frequent discussion these days, I think accuracy may be the best policy.

As I was re-reading that post of four years ago, I noticed that included a story about how Lincoln insisted on completing the dome of the Capitol during the Civil War so that people could see the government would continue. And how Roosevelt cited that story when he was dedicating the National Gallery. And how Kennedy cited both Lincoln and Roosevelt when asking for public support of the arts saying they,

“‘understood that the life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of the nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose- and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.”

I was left hoping that the Lincoln story was true because it was the foundation of rationales made by subsequent presidents.

But the real question is, are the arts only great because important people have said they are? Do the arts become less worthwhile if we can’t find important people to vindicate their value? If Lin-Manuel Miranda decides next week it is all about fly fishing, will arts, culture and creative expression be abandoned in droves? (More likely than not hordes of people would track Miranda down to a stream in Montana and serenade him.)

Famous people can be the focus or public face for will and effort, but they are not the will. Often that famous face is not required. What famous people did all the marches of this past weekend coalesce around?

Creative expression doesn’t need a famous face behind it to matter. It doesn’t need a million people to march before it matters. Though those numbers certainly make a cause compelling and something you ignore at your own peril.

I don’t look at the folder of supportive comments I collect for grant reports and think wistfully it would be great to have a quote from a famous person instead of these 50 comments from nobodies.

I am pretty cynical about this perennial threat of defunding arts and culture. I see it akin to an older kid holding a toy over a toilet bowl and threatening to drop it in. Whether they ultimately drop it in or not, the kid seems to revel in the reaction the threat elicits.

I don’t think an argument accompanying a picture of Winston Churchill is any more compelling to decision makers than a picture of any one of us saying the same thing so we might as well get in the practice of standing behind our own sentiments.

In terms of getting people to act to support the arts, I suspect for a large percentage of people on your social media feed, your picture and statement of support is going to be a lot more compelling than Winston Churchill’s.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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