The Lincoln Center Film Society’s 87-seat auditorium on West 65th Street was completely full on Tuesday night. An old man stroked the wooden duck head of his walking stick and two young women in the front row whispered in Russian, while the light of the screen glinted off more than one pair of designer glasses. But the film on that screen was no blockbuster, and more than 30 years old: Michael Radford’s 1984, which screened at 200 theaters across 44 states on April 4, all in protest of proposed cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts, as outlined in the Trump administration’s proposed budget.
The date—April 4—is not a random choice: it marks the first day that Winston Smith, the protagonist of the movie and the George Orwell novel it came from, begins a forbidden diary in the face of a totalitarian regime.
In a statement, the organizers of the national screenings, Dylan Skolnick and Adam Birnbaum, who run independent cinemas in Long Island and Connecticut, had similar resistance in mind. They said they hoped the event would help “foster communication and resistance against current efforts to undermine the most basic tenets of our society.”
Since January of this year, the novel 1984 has been back in the public eye. The novel shot to sixth place on Amazon’s bestseller list in January amid comparisons between the current administration and Orwell’s imagined authoritarian world.
It is also a world without art: the film shows Smith wondering at the function of an antique coral paperweight, a solitary hint of purposeless beauty, later smashed to smithereens, and marvelling at the machine-written pop song he hears sung outside his window by a wide-hipped washerwoman.
As audience members settled into their spots, sitting thigh-to-thigh on the orange leather bleachers, a filmed preamble by Michael Radford, who directed the film in 1984, addressed them: “Watch this movie, and then think about the world you live in.”
In that world, in March, the Trump administration released its proposed federal budget blueprint, which suggested a slash-and-burn approach to public funded arts and culture organizations. The funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and for the Humanities would be axed; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps support NPR and NBS, would be scrapped altogether.
As these organizations don’t represent a huge dent in federal spending—around $300 million of a total of $1.1 trillion in annual discretionary spending—many read the proposal as an attack on arts and culture, rather than an effective cost-saving measure.
The question implicit in the evening’s screenings seemed to be: Would a world without the National Endowment for the Arts be like Winston’s— a world without art?
Though federal funding levels for the National Endowment for the Arts will ultimately be decided by Congress, the announcement sparked a flurry of statements from affected organizations themselves. Patricia Harrison, president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, called public media “one of America’s best investments. At approximately $1.35 per citizen per year, it pays huge dividends to every American,” she wrote, making reference to their impact on rural and urban Americans alike.
That same week, William D. Adams, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds humanities-based research and education at cultural institutions, said he was “greatly saddened” by the budget proposal. Meanwhile, Robert L. Lynch, CEO and president of Americans for the Arts, called on “parents, teachers, community leaders, arts advocates, government officials, and even economists” to reject the proposal.
Not everyone is as convinced that the elimination of the NEA would spell the end for the art—even if Bert and Ernie, NPR, and other American favorites were forced to scrounge around for funding elsewhere. Conservatives have long since criticized the way that NEA funding often seems to go to coastal projects, particularly in New York City, at the expense of deserving recipients elsewhere in the country. Laurence Jarvik, author of The National Endowment: A Critical Symposium, believes that the agency does not equally prioritize all Americans, instead benefiting the “museum-and-orchestra-going upper middle class” far more than poor or middle class Americans. Additionally, the arts, he says, are flourishing, and have been since long before the establishment of these Endowments. Thus, he argues, federal money is better spent elsewhere.
One place that does rely on that funding, however, is the Lincoln Center, and the 11 establishments under its umbrella. Yet in the panel discussion that followed the screening, conversation focused more on general comparisons of the Trump administration with the 1984 regime than the potential effects of NEA cuts.
Audience questions to the panel, which featured director Petra Epperlein and two film critics, Ashley Clark and Christian Lorentzen, focused on surveillance and the effects of constant social media barrage rather than on potential funding cuts. A man with a curly topknot wondered whether Big Brother would tweet as furiously and often as the current president does. “You can be enraptured by this catastrophe before you’ve even got up,” said Clark, shaking his head.
When pressed to make the connection between the film and the NEA funding cuts, panelists seemed stumped. What was more important, Clark said, was that people were speaking out about the administration by simply showing up to the free event. “It’s a good indicator people feel they have to do something,” he said.