LONDON—Within hours of moving into the White House, Donald Trump returned a bust of Winston Churchill to its former position in the Oval Office, it having been removed by President Obama. Since then there has been no evidence whatsoever that Trump has anything in common with the great British war leader—least of all the other side of Churchill’s character, his artistic sensibility.
Ironically, though, in one episode involving art, Churchill himself did briefly reveal a touch of Trump by throwing a spiteful tantrum when he felt disrespected.
Churchill was a competent painter but had little tolerance for painters he didn’t like. Viewers of the Netflix series The Crown saw a version of this behavior. In 1954 Parliament commissioned a portrait of Churchill by Graham Sutherland to mark his 80th birthday. Churchill hated the result and it was disappeared on the orders of his wife Clementine.
Sutherland himself learned in 1978 that it had been destroyed but there were no details of how or where until, in 2015, it was revealed that the painting had been taken to Churchill’s country home, Chartwell, and eventually spirited away in the middle of the night by Lady Churchill’s secretary and burned in the garden of her brother’s house. (In The Crown the deed is done at Chartwell.)
How could anyone claiming any artistic sensibility commit an act of such vandalism? Speaking with his back to the painting when it was unveiled Churchill said it was “a remarkable example of modern art” but in the same tone that he might have used when saying Hitler was a remarkable example of a modern leader (with much the same consequences).
Sutherland had prepared by making a series of sketches and, as he always did for a portrait, he was probing not just the outer man but the inner one. The finished work caught both the titanic resolution in Churchill’s presentation of himself but also a sense of his exhaustion. That was probably what Churchill could not forgive. The destruction of the canvas was a cruel blow to Sutherland, an artist of considerable standing, alongside whose skills Churchill was nothing more than a gifted amateur.
One of Churchill’s favorite places at Chartwell was a goldfish pond that he had designed himself. A painting of this pond, made by him in 1932 vaguely in the impressionist style, sold in 2014 for more than $2 million. This price would be nuts as a measure of artistic value rather than of its provenance. Churchill might have been thinking of Claude Monet’s lily ponds at Giverny but compared to Monet his work was a joke.
This story demonstrates that while Churchill was one of the most monumental talents of his age he could respond like a narrow-minded philistine when faced with art that didn’t conform to his own taste. Of course, his reaction was typical of his own class and generation, whose tastes remained preserved in the aspic of the late 19th century. To them Picasso, Braque, and Miro were perversions, signs of a world gone mad.
This is not to say that Churchill, of all people, would have gone to the lengths of Hitler and the Nazis by branding all modern art as degenerate. His act of spite was a private affair, not public policy. Part of his aversion to Sutherland’s portrait was the injury to pure ego. He wanted his place in Valhalla to be treated with the same respect and artistic conformity as accorded to illustrious national saviors like the Duke of Blenheim, Admiral Lord Nelson, and the Duke of Wellington.
And, after all, Churchill had an eye. He had a sense of beauty and, even if his skills fell short of realizing his feelings on canvas, he made the effort. Painting for him was cathartic, part of an inner life often in turmoil with demons, what he called his “black dog.” The goldfish pond represented a peaceful harbor for the soul. In this, as in so many other ways, Churchill is not typical of the political class—in his own time and, even more so, in ours.
A political leader searching to capture a sense of beauty? You have to be kidding.
Expecting today’s politicians to step outside the armor required for their daily combat is like expecting a bull to turn into a butterfly. The gods they serve are Mammon and Mars, not Apollo. Nonetheless it’s reasonable to expect them to be civilized enough to see the arts as an expression of national cultural attainment, and therefore for them to appear at least sympathetic to that mission.
They don’t actually have to convert themselves or their own behavior in order to do this. What they promote as art and what they actually themselves enjoy can be very different. In the modern history of Washington, D.C., Camelot was the most conspicuous example of this.
The Kennedys managed the trick of making the capital seem to be both Athens and Sparta at the same time. For a barely measurable fraction of the defense and space budgets President Kennedy, greatly assisted by Jackie Kennedy, inspired a cultural renaissance in the capital. Never mind that behind the high taste and sophistication there was hidden a more vulgar reality.
Kennedy might quote Robert Frost in a speech and invite Pablo Casals to give a White House recital but the more quintessential cultural moment of his presidency was when Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” huskily to him in 1962 at Madison Square Garden.
The Kennedy brothers were at their lustful happiest hanging out with the Rat Pack of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Peter Lawford. Like his father Joe before him, Jack Kennedy chased Hollywood skirt with more enthusiasm than he listened to Bach’s cello suites.
Enduring this, Jackie was the redeeming face of the Camelot productions and a fluent curator of the White House in its role as a national shrine opened up for the people’s pleasure. She was at ease among the great artists of the time and they with her. As Kennedy’s Sparta was sucked into the Vietnam charnel house, his Athens shone on the banks of the Potomac. Above all, it was a triumph of tone while at the same time it was as skilled a piece of spin as ever seen.
Trump and the Republicans have no understanding of spin as sophisticated as this and no interest in practicing it. Anything to do with the arts is immediately dismissed as elitist. They are as determined to defund the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities as they are to destroy Planned Parenthood: These are all targets to be destroyed in the great minesweeping operation to defend the nation against the spread of liberal culture.
Set against all the other harm being done to the Republic by this White House does this stuff really matter?
What they don’t see—or perhaps don’t even care about—is how effective American culture can be as soft power in projecting the American narrative to the world. There’s a timely example of this here in London. An exhibition has just opened at the British Museum showing the past six decades of American history through the work of artists from Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to Kara Walker and Julie Mehretu. It’s called The American Dream, Pop to the Present.
The irony of that title wasn’t apparent as the show was being planned, pre-Trump, when the American Dream still felt credible as a benign force. One of the show’s curators, Stephen Coppel, tried to valiantly dance around this sudden change of mood. Introducing the show in the museum’s magazine he says that it covers “some of the most dynamic and turbulent years in US history when the country’s wealth, power and cultural influence had never been greater.” Later comes the mid-course correction: “The confidence and assertiveness of America in the post-war boom years has given way to a gradual disintegration of the American Dream.”
This is the pain of art adjusting to a new reality, and it echoes the despair in many voices here and throughout Europe at the careless debasement of American values coming from the White House. Trump himself is so culturally barren that he could not be more perfect as the figurehead of this new philistinism. Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago are completely reflective of the man to whom self-worth is measured in the application of gold to everything from drapes to faucets.
One frequently heard question is where did this execrable vulgarity come from? A superficial explanation is the one offered by pop-psychology, that deep down Trump has always been very insecure and needs displays of wealth more than he needs the actual wealth. And yet he grew up in one of the most culturally dynamic and architecturally innovative cities in the world, New York. But as a real-estate developer he showed no awareness of this context. He competed with a gang of other developers who were less interested in architectural style and innovation than in getting the maximum square footage out of any site.
There is a lot more bad new architecture in New York than there is good. Big opportunities for inspired urban renewal at Times Square and Ground Zero were squandered. Given such a background, there was no reason why Trump should be an outlier, sensitive to a higher mission. The challenge was to outbid the competition in bling and glitz, two things he really understood and for which he knew there was a strong market.
And so Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago are as exact in their expression of his taste and power as Versailles was to the Sun King. His changes to White House décor can only be transient, like any president’s. But his tone is that of the belligerent philistine sustained by the unflinching support of his base who, like him, regard an interest in the arts as effete. Moreover, when he speaks he’s often the ventriloquist for Stephen K. Bannon whose strategic thinking is, on his own admission, driven by his worship of the Spartan model. Trump came to office with no idea of what the nuclear triad is and he is equally ignorant of the Enlightenment triad emphasizing a dedication to truth, beauty, and liberty. Likewise, apparently, the invertebrate leaders of the Republican Party riding in the chariot with him.
There’s another president doing the talk show circuit at the moment who is also, like Churchill, trying to wrangle his demons by taking to painting. George W. Bush, author and artist of the book Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Trbute to America’s Warriors, is using art as a kind of cathartic therapy for the greatest disaster of his presidency, the Iraq War. As a painter W. falls as far short of Churchill as he did as a commander in chief. But he is not, like Trump, destitute of feelings. In his pain he is reaching to find from art what nothing else can provide, something bigger than himself.