The Churchill “quote” about fighting for the arts seems to be enjoying a revival in interest these days. Many Buzzkillers have have sent it to me over Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Here’s the standard version:
At the height of World War II, the British people and British government finances were stretched to the limit. A journalist suggested to Winston Churchill that the government cut funding for the arts. The Prime Minister replied, “Then what are we fighting for?”
You know how we are about Churchill quotes, Buzzkillers, especially the ones that fly around the internet. He never said almost any of them. So, did he actually say this, essentially about the arts were worth fighting for even in the darkest days of World War II?
No, Buzzkillers. But the real story is more interesting, in many ways.
Like most elites of his time, Churchill was a strong supporter of the arts. Royal patronage, which had sustained artists for centuries, had been drying up for many decades. (The percentage of national income controlled by royal households in Europe had been dropping steadily since the 19th century.) Generally speaking, governments had stepped into make up the difference. In this regard, Churchill was right in the mainstream. When addressing the Royal Academy on April 30, 1938, he said:
The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.
But the war hadn’t started in the spring of 1938. How did Churchill respond to these types of issues as a war-time prime minister? His answer wasn’t as dramatic or as emotional as the “Then what are we fighting for” quote, but it certainly had backbone.
In 1940 the Battle of Britain was looking bleak. London suffered daily bombings from the Luftwaffe, and German invasion of the island seemed imminent. Kenneth Clark, the Director of the National Gallery in London, wrote to Churchill and suggested that their paintings and artworks be sent to Canada to keep them safe from damage or capture.
“No,” Churchill replied, “bury them in caves and cellars. None must go. We are going to beat them.”
And that’s what they did.