Art Is Worth Fighting For

Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577 - 1640 ), The Fall of Phaeton, c. 1604/1605, probably reworked c. 1606/1608, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art.

Science, we march for. The humanities, however, have not fared well lately. That is, the way we talk about the humanities has not been much in the way of appreciative. Call it utilitarian, or neoliberal, or just the way the world works these days. We do not value sitting down to philosophize. We do not value art for art’s sake, finding it somehow frilly and extra, not central and worthy of celebration. We therefore do not value the people who study art, who look at it in detail, and try to explain what it means and what it can do.

I’ll back up a stretch. This is not a typical post. It is not about historic events and how they relate to today’s world. It’s not about events in the present that have ties in events in the past. Well, it is in the sense that everything is, because everything does in fact have a history. This post does not wear that association on its sleeves, though. Here are, instead, a few thoughts about art.

Edward Hopper, Haskell's House, American, 1882 - 1967, 1924, watercolor over graphite on paperboard, Gift of Herbert A. Goldstone. National Gallery of Art.
Edward Hopper, Haskell’s House, 1924. National Gallery of Art.

There appears to be a notion floating about the thoughtsphere in Western societies that art is somehow something we can do without. That art is somehow not valuabe and not hard work. Let’s leave aside for the minute that out fetishization of “hard work” for its own sake is a decidedly fraught concept. There is necessary work and there is hard work, and they are not automatically commensurate. There is no logical reason why necessary work must always be hard. Dedication matters. Getting it right matters, whatever your definition of right is. But if that comes easily it is not less valuable. The fetishization of hard work also perpetuates a nobility of plight: it’s character-building to struggle to make ends meet. This is valued. Why it is valued at the same time that so many of those who have the most never have to do it is not explained.

But I digress. Art. Art matters.

Recently, I have been moving my life into and out of boxes. There are many tedious tasks to be performed when you are on either side of a move. Sometimes you just sit and sort things. When I have to do this I often sit in front of a playing radio or television. I have used these times to watch a few documentaries lately. If your interest – or even degree – is in American Studies and cultural history as is mine, many of these documentaries turn out to be documentaries about art, and about the people who make, like, and appropriate art.

There are documentaries about those who make food and drink and put craft and thought and love into it. It gives them meaning and it gives us things that enrich life. There are movies about the devotees of this movie or that series, of comic books and video games. All this is culture. All this is art. All of these things are the things that make life worthwhile for a huge number of people. On some level, art and culture are at the basis of everything humans do. The mistake, all too often, is again to separate the necessary from the hard, though the knife cuts differently here: we have trouble telling what is necessary for survival and what is not. Survival even just a nudge above the basic needs pyramid is bound to mental health, and mental health needs relationships and things to live for. It needs art to inspire. It always, anywhere, needs art.

At the Water's Edge – Piegan. Edward Curtis. Library of Congress.
Edward Curtis, At the Water’s Edge – Piegan. Library of Congress.

Art is human. Nothing is more human than art.

A quotation about this has been making the rounds, attributed to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Asked to cut arts funding to aid the war effort in World War II, the meme goes, Churchill supposedly responded: “Then, what are we fighting for?” This, as most any quotation that appears to good to be true, is not true.

There is, however, a passage Churchill actually wrote which may have given rise to the myth. It was both more stilted and less quotable, but the sentiment remains: ”Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.” (And yes, ill fares the mid-twentieth-century writing that casually employs the word “race” in a non-critical manner). Churchill wrote this in 1938, so he wasn’t yet fighting any wars. His words should matter at any time. Ill we fare, all of us, indeed, if art is derided and made fun of. This is not the controversial bit.

Art Supplies.
Art Supplies. Image by Khara Woods.

What is controversial is that societies should make room for art that many people don’t care for or don’t understand. What is controversial is that governments should collect and distribute money in the service of the arts. It’s fine to argue whether you like this artist or that painting, the installation over there, that photo or that movie. That’s a level of discourse we should be engaging in. What we shouldn’t question is the existence of art for art’s sake as useless. In fact, the whole phrase may be a misnomer. If there is no art for art’s sake, there is no one who can build on it with other art. There is no one who can question its motives and its quality, and its execution.

Those who attack one of the most human, most fundamental efforts as something that does not improve the bottom line are sadly ascendant, and they are very unfortunately not able to see the whole of the picture: that if you think of a society worth living in and worth fighting for, you always, always think of a society in which a culture is venerated and upheld. There is no culture without art.

Those, then, who study the products of these cultures, the accidental and purposeful works of art they create, have something incredibly valuable to contribute to that society. They keep alive the old and they support the new in art. They tell us who we were and who we might be and may become. They, in a fundamental sense, are us.

And we are something worth fighting for.

Torsten Kathke
Torsten Kathke is a historian specializing in the United States and Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. His book "Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920" is available from Transcript publishers in Europe, and from Columbia University Press elsewhere. Torsten earned his doctorate in American Cultural History from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany in 2013. He subsequently worked at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC and at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. He is a lecturer in American Studies at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz.

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