Don’t Hang Back With the Brutes: 10 Quotes On the Value of the Arts

Rembrandt’s “Artist in His Studio,” 1629, Netherlands

Editor's Note:

If you’re stirred by these quotes on the value of the arts, amble down our author quotes archive for more.

Never mind that the United States already spends a fraction as much on arts funding as countries like Germany (even Uzbekistan, Mexico, and Australia all leave us in the dust). Never mind that cultural exports such as movies and music are a particular point of American pride. By all means, let’s go ahead and completely defund the National Endowment for the Arts — our nation’s best attempt to make sure that opportunities to learn train, and create are accessible to all.

That’s the current plan. According to President Trump’s transition team, the NEA will be one of the first bits to be flensed from the national budget. However, as Pitchfork reports: “According to NEA data, the endowment’s budget for fiscal 2015 was $146 million. That represents 0.004 percent of the overall federal budget, or 46 cents per American per year. It’s also almost one-third what the U.S. budget allocated last year for military bands.”

Below are quotes by thinkers and artists throughout history who observed the tremendous power of the arts to shape our minds, enhance our freedoms, and imbue our time together with meaning. If anything, the United States’ current arts spending seems woefully pessimistic — it betrays a dismal lack of faith in the potential of our people, their dreams, and the hard work they’re willing to put into sharing their gifts with the world.

Surely there is no path to making us “great again” without investing much more in them?

Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–82
“If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.”

Maya Angelou, Paris Review interview, 1990
“When I’m writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness.”

Albert Einstein, “Moral Decay,” 1937
“All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.”

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929
“Women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed, so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics.”

Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire, 1947
“Maybe we are a long way from being made in God’s image, but Stella – my sister – there has been some progress since then! Such things as art – as poetry and music – such kinds of new light have come into the world since then! In some kinds of people some tenderer feelings have had some little beginning! That we have got to make grow! And cling to, and hold as our flag! In this dark march towards whatever it is we’re approaching…Don’t – don’t hang back with the brutes!

Francisco de Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799
“Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”

Charles Baudelaire, Selected Writings on Art and Literature, 1993
“How convenient it is to declare that everything is totally ugly within the habit of the époque, rather than applying oneself to extract from it the dark and cryptic beauty, however faint and invisible it is.”

Camille Paglia, Glittering Images, 2012
“The only road to freedom is self-education in art. Art is not a luxury for any advanced civilization; it is a necessity, without which creative intelligence will wither and die. Even in economically troubled times, support for the arts should be a national imperative. Dance, for example, requires funding not only to secure safe, roomy rehearsal space but to preserve the indispensible continuity of the teacher-student link. American culture has become unbalanced by its obsession with the blood sport of politics, a voracious vortex consuming everything in its path. History shows that, for both individuals and nations, political power is transient. America’s true legacy is its ideal of liberty, which has inspired insurgencies around the world. Politicians and partisans of both the Right and the Left must recognize that art too is a voice of liberty, requiring nurture without intrusion. Art unites the spiritual and material realms. In an age of alluring, magical machines, the society that forgets art risks losing its soul.”

Susan Sontag, New York Times interview, 1992
“To me, literature is a calling, even a kind of salvation. It connects me with an enterprise that is over 2,000 years old. What do we have from the past? Art and thought. That’s what lasts. That’s what continues to feed people and give them an idea of something better. A better state of one’s feelings or simply the idea of a silence in one’s self that allows one to think or to feel. Which to me is the same.”

Alan Watts, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, 1966
“We seldom realize, for example that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.”