Why is the President So Afraid of the Arts?

Actress and writer Halley Feiffer tries to get to the bottom of why the new leader of the free world is taking aim at the creative community.

As we found out recently, the President is indeed following through on his proposal to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. As many of us also heard, these cuts will save the government a mere 0.001 percent of the federal budget. The administration argues that by rolling back expenses in minuscule margins in myriad areas, they will save taxpayers a considerable amount of money.

Really? So weird, because the President’s three visits to his “Winter White House” at the Mar-a-Lago Resort in Florida have cost taxpayers approximately $10 million in just the past month. The annual budget for the NEA is $146.2 million — so that means that if the President just maybe didn’t go to Florida for the next 14 months (hey, I haven’t been in years — I’m doing OK!), we could have our arts back.

I kid. But do I really?

I am an artist. I have been an artist for almost as long as I have been a human — whether I realized it or not when I was five years old and running around my backyard talking and singing to myself while I invented epic stories about a fictional family whose travails I would outline in my mind over the next seven or so years, after which point I picked up a pen and started actually writing and got on a stage and started actually acting. I haven’t stopped. I haven’t wanted to. Not because it’s fun. Not because it gives me joy, even — which it does, more than anything in this world. But because I need to. If I don’t make work, I start to wilt. I start to forget why I’m alive. I start to hate being alive. This all happens very quickly. I don’t know what’s happening, exactly — but I just run out of juice. At a certain point, I just want to lie down and be forgotten.

This is because art is the way I connect with the world. When I do not create art — and when I do not consume art — I am isolated. I then become engaged in a vicious cycle which further deepens my isolation — making and partaking in art starts to feel increasingly challenging, dangerous and ultimately futile. “What’s the point?” I think. “Who’s going to see this? What’s it going to change?”

There is no way to be sure, but I believe that the President and his advisors also think, “What is the point of art?” If you are using pure logic, there is no point. It does seem silly. It’s utterly frivolous. We certainly don’t need it. I completely understand why the President’s cabinet might think that the arts would be a place to save funds — yes, the amount saved by slashing arts funding is negligible, but it’s something. And isn’t something better than nothing? And don’t all those little somethings add up? And, furthermore, no one is going to starve from lack of art, right?

Well, yes and no. First of all, I would starve. Not physically, of course (though, actually, I might, since I make my living as an artist). I would starve spiritually. And I know how this last sentence may sound to the President and the members of his inner circle and his supporters. I know “starve spiritually” is an expression that people who criticize the “liberal” elite would likely laugh at. (“Wah, wah — you ran out of spiritual food! Poor baby!”) And, to be totally honest, I think I would have laughed at this expression too just a few years ago. But not anymore. Because I’ve lived on both sides of this reality. I’ve lived in the juicy, rich world of creating and consuming art — of waking up each day feeling like I truly have a purpose and I know what it is and I can’t wait to get out there and be useful (and P.S., my purpose has nothing to do with becoming famous and rich). And I’ve also lived in that other reality — the one in which I am stifled, in which I cannot create, in which seeing others’ art is too painful. In which I am isolated.

We have all read the articles about how the President likes to spend his time. How he enjoys googling himself. Engaging in epic Twitter battles. Scanning the news — mostly television, because he doesn’t like reading — to determine what the general zeitgeist has to say about him that day. And I have to say: I get it. I’ve been that person. My spiritual sickness hasn’t taken me to quite such an extreme (knock wood), but there was a period in my life where I was likely as isolated as him — not in a golden tower with my name on it, but rather a one-bedroom apartment in Boston, buying a bottle of wine that I would consume alone every night as I chain-smoked cigarettes and played Flash games on the internet and dreamed of one day being a writer while I wrote nothing and slowly drank myself to death.

Unlike the President, I had an awakening. I got sober. The President is not an active alcoholic, it seems; he doesn’t need to get sober. But, if he wants to break free of his isolation, he does need to engage in a world outside himself — even in some small way. The President has said he does not read books because he has no time. There is a chilling photo that was circulating on the internet several weeks ago of a bookshelf in the White House: it is nearly empty, its voluminous shelves filled only with a few copies of the several books (ghost)written by — guess who — the President.

And again: I get it. When you are this isolated — when your spirit has festered so much to the point of nearly no return — it is too scary to read. It is too scary to engage with the world. It is certainly too scary to support and interact with the work of anyone who isn’t you, especially artists. Because what art does is challenge you. Some of the pieces that have stayed with me the most are the ones I’ve hated. But I’ve never felt that my time has been wasted — because it is in being challenged that I grow.

I don’t think the President wants to grow. And that’s OK. He doesn’t have to. But does he have to stunt our growth as well? If funding is cut from the NEA and the NEH and the CPB, arts organizations across the country — not just for the “coastal elites,” but for everyone — will be drastically hurt. And these arts organizations are what help us grow. Who could argue with growth? Well, the President. Because growth is scary if you are small. And growth is extra scary if you are a person who tries to make yourself less small by controlling and snuffing out and dismantling the power of others.

But here’s the thing: we won’t stop making art. We can’t. I don’t mean “we can’t” as in “let’s not” — I mean it’s impossible. If you are an artist, it’s how you breathe. You just don’t stop. In the way I made art without even knowing it when I was five, I’ll keep making art in whatever way I can until I likely die. Because the opposite of creation and engagement is isolation. And this is death.

Halley Feiffer is a writer and actor. Her plays include I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard and A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She co-wrote and starred in the film He’s Way More Famous Than You and recently starred in the Broadway revival of The Front Page.