The last two movies I watched were “Tar” and “The Banshees of Inishirin”. I recommend both, though “Tar” is by far the better film. That said, I would pay cash money to watch a movie in which Brendan Gleeson just sat at a table in a pub, reading.
Anyway, both movies raise important questions around the moral license we give to artistic geniuses, and whether they deserve it. I’m going to discuss this below without spoilers.
In “Banshees,” Gleeson plays Colm, an aging Irish fiddle player living on a remote island, who abruptly cuts off his friendship with his longtime pal Padraig (Colin Farrell). Padraig is a simple man, and can’t understand what he’s done wrong. Nothing, says Colm; I just don’t like you any more. It emerges that Colm believes that he will never be able to write memorable music if he keeps hanging out with trifling Padraig, who is a sweet soul, but limited. Colm says he’s tired of sitting around with Padraig, shooting the breeze, and getting nothing accomplished. Colm can’t make Padraig understand how serious he is about ending their friendship, so he tells Padraig that if he keeps coming around, he (Colm) will start chopping off his own fingers.
You sympathize with poor Padraig, who feels so cast off by his old friend, and for what? I found it difficult to sympathize with Colm. On the other hand, as a writer, I do understand how tormented one can be by the urge to create, and how being possessed by that spirit can make you do things that seem inhuman to others — or if not inhuman, then at least callous and weird. Once, back in 2012, I sat at a Starbucks for four hours and wrote a nearly 7,000-word blog post about Dante, in one long furious session. I hardly noticed the passage of time. My wife and a couple of our friends saw that, and worried that something had snapped inside of me. Nope — that’s just how writers are sometimes.
In the case of Colm and Padraig, I can’t see how Colm’s cruelty to his friend is justified in any way, but it’s at least worth asking: if it really was the case that Colm, in his last decade, had some eternal music in him that needed to come out, and the only way he could write it was to end his friendship with Padraig, would his behavior then be justified? In other words, does being an artist relieve you of the duty to behave with humanity towards others? I think most of us would say no, it does not. So let me put it another way: does artistic greatness make your sins more forgivable?
That’s the question at the heart of “Tar,” starring Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tar, an imperious musical conductor who has risen to the very top of her field. When the movie opens, she is the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, and has a reputation as a harsh and demanding genius. The central moral question of the film is set up in an early scene, in which Tar teaches a master class at Juilliard. She clashes with a music student who declares that because he is a “pansexual BIPOC,” he doesn’t care about the music of dead white cis European white guys. Tar, who is an out lesbian, rips into him for judging the quality of music by the personal characteristics of the composer. Just before he storms out of the classroom, she warns him that the same criteria he uses to dismiss great composers of the past will one day be used to judge his musical work — and he’s not going to like it.
She’s right, of course. But it’s not that simple. We learn that Tar was a student of the great Leonard Bernstein, and according to her, part of his greatness was the way he poured himself into his interpretations of the pieces he conducted. Even Tar recognizes that it’s not easy to separate the art from the artist. She discusses Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and how the conductor composed it in the blush of new love with his wife Alma. We are given to understand that Tar’s greatness is her uncompromising dedication to the quality of music above everything else. It’s totally understandable that cultural conservatives like me have taken Tar as a culture war hero.
But again — it’s not so simple. As the film progresses — and here I’m going to be careful not to spoil anything — we see that Tar is more of a subjective self-creation than she would have you believe. And that she may have used her power and exalted status in the music world to behave badly, in a sexual way, towards a young admirer, with devastating consequences for that musician. This puts Tar’s worshipful admiration for Bernstein in a new light. Bernstein was one of the greatest artistic figures of the 20th century. He was married, but also openly gay, and rather promiscuous. As far as I know, there was never any talk of him using his position to sexually exploit subordinates, but it is certainly the case that in Bernstein’s heyday, gays and lesbians were expected to be closeted, but the music world indulged his behavior because of his undeniable genius.
More relevant to the story in “Tar” is the case of James Levine, who was fired in 2018 as conductor of the Metropolitan Opera. Levine was at the pinnacle of the classical music world when it emerged that he had a long and sordid history of sexually exploiting young musicians at vulnerable stages in their careers. He lost everything in disgrace. Given what Levine did, and how often he did it, it’s hard to deny that justice found him at last. But how can it be just that the Metropolitan Opera withdrew all of Levine’s recordings from its channel?
It’s like what happened to Garrison Keillor of A Prairie Home Companion fame. After he was force into retirement in 2017 over allegations of sexual harassment, public radio treated him as a non-person. Even if Keillor was guilty of serious transgressions, how did that terminally taint his work? (Happily, if you’re a Prairie Home fan, you can listen to old Keillor shows here.) Keillor was clearly not the avuncular storyteller of his on stage persona. In fact, it was a shock to me as a Keillor fan to read back in 2004 his non-fiction book Homegrown Democrat, and to discover how vicious he was about politics. It was no secret that Keillor is a big ol’ liberal, but I expected him to approach politics with the same humanity that infused his radio show and his writing about Lake Wobegon. Oh no, not even close. There is a deep vein of rage in that man. Even so, I judged PHC on its own merits, which were considerable. If Garrison Keillor really was guilty of sexual misconduct, and even if he was justifiably let go from public radio, that does not retroactively taint his stage work.
I do not want to live in such a world. If we did, very little art would survive. The speech Lydia Tar gives in the Juilliard class about the bad behavior of great composers of the past, and how none of that should have anything to do with our judgment of the quality of their music, is absolutely true. And not only true, but important to say. It’s part of a small jeremiad she makes against the idea of programming certain music because of the personal characteristics (female, BIPOC, whatever) of the composer, with the quality of the work a secondary issue, if an issue at all. Many of us have worked in fields in which mediocre people were advanced in their careers, and mediocre work was prized, because the people who administered the institutions bought into the corrupt ideology that says a person’s personal characteristics are a component of the quality of their work. You who have been reading me for years know that I was badly burned by the Austin American Statesman back in 1997, when I was led to believe that they were going to hire me as a film critic on the strength of my work, but then the publisher intervened and ordered the editor to do a nationwide search for a woman or a person of color for that job — to see if they could find one whose work was equal to mine. The search turned up no one, and as fate would have it, I received a phone call inviting me to Texas for a job interview just hours after I had accepted an incomparably better offer to be the chief film critic at the New York Post.
So it all worked out great for me, thank God, but I will never, ever forget the humiliation of being told that my work was good enough to merit hiring, but that the fact that I am a white guy and a man were being held against me by my potential employer. It was wrong when it was done to women and people of color, and it’s wrong to do it to white men. However, if I had applied for that job with a history hanging over my head of misconduct, that would be a different thing. I don’t think it necessarily should be, depending on the nature of the misconduct, but the culture really has changed. None of my kids, for example, will watch Woody Allen movies, because they think he’s a dirty old man. I find this to be frustrating, because in his prime, Woody Allen made some great movies; the fact that he might well be a dirty old man is beside the point. But that’s not how people think now.
I can say without offering any spoilers that Lydia Tar faces a wave of social media-driven calls for cancellation. Does she survive the attempt at comeuppance, or do her enemies take her down? I won’t tell you how “Tar” ends, but one thing I appreciated about it is that it leaves open the question as to whether the new culture in which we live is just. It’s the kind of story, this film, that should have audiences discussing the ending for a long time afterward.
My take, as a Christian, is that nothing justifies sin. What Tar is accused of may or may not be criminal, but it is beyond a doubt sinful. All of us are equal before the law. Were she Catholic or Orthodox, Lydia Tar could not get away with telling her priest, much less Almighty God, that she should be granted absolution without confession, on the grounds that she’s an artistic genius. We learn over the course of the film that Lydia Tar has not been kind to others on her climb to the top. In the professional crisis she faces over allegations of serious misconduct, Lydia Tar is being judged by what the “Longhouse” essayist would consider to be feminine standards (it is a delicious irony that Lydia Tar is a lesbian). If an extremely accomplished person like Lydia Tar can potentially be ruined and exiled because of personal fault, this stands to discourage excellence. People are not robots. Often the same impulses that drive them to greatness in their professional lives can cause havoc and destruction in their personal lives. Within the orchestra she runs, Tar makes tough decisions to fire certain figures, for the sake of improving quality. Yet there is some question about whether or not she’s doing so with pure motives, or impure ones — and whether Tar really understands this about herself.
Nothing like that, or anything close, happened in my own life as a writer, but I do recognize that being married to a creative person could not have been easy for my wife. Writing is not like making widgets; you can’t just turn the instinct off. I feel lucky that I have avoided alcoholism or drug abuse, and probably chalk up the avoidance of alcoholism to the fact that my body just does not tolerate heavy drinking. So often I have wanted to turn the damn thing in my head off. I can’t stop writing. When we were together, my wife would have to come up to me at social gatherings sometimes and whisper in my ear, “stop writing,” because she could tell that I had disengaged from my surroundings, despite being superficially there, and was writing something about it in my head. I bet most writers, artists, or other creative people reading this know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s hard to explain it to people who don’t have this problem.
Walker Percy said this is why writers drink:
He is marooned in his cortex. Therefore it is his cortex he must assault. Worse, actually. He, his self, is marooned in his left cortex, locus of consciousness according to Eccles. Yet his work, if he is any good, comes from listening to his right brain, locus of the unconscious knowledge of the fit and form of things. So, unlike the artist who can fool and cajole his right brain and get it going by messing in paints and clay and stone, the natural playground of the dreaming child self, there sits the poor writer, rigid as a stick, pencil poised, with no choice but to wait in fear and trembling until the spark jumps the commissure. Hence his notorious penchant for superstition* and small obsessive and compulsive acts such as lining up paper exactly foursquare with desk. Then, failing in these frantic invocations and after the right brain falls as silent as the sphinx—what else can it do?—nothing remains, if the right won’t talk, but to assault the left with alcohol, which of course is a depressant and which does of course knock out that grim angel guarding the gate of Paradise and let the poor half-brained writer in and a good deal else besides. But by now the writer is drunk, his presiding left-brained craftsman-consciousness laid out flat, trampled by the rampant imagery from the right and a horde of reptilian demons from below.
Maybe some writers drink for that reason, but if I could stand it, I would drink to flood out the creative engine, to make it stop so I could have some relief. Kierkegaard once said that the artist is like a person being tortured in the public square, whose howls of torment sound beautiful to the crowd, which demands more. That’s pretty melodramatic, but I get it. It’s hard for me to reconcile Garrison Keillor’s deep anger and personal nastiness with his lovely, humane creative output, but that’s part of the mystery of creativity. Not every writer or artist is like that, thank God, but the point is that creative people are often weird, and can’t explain why they do what they do.
Back to “Tar”. I think that creative genius does not grant one a license to behave inhumanely, but I also think that a wise society will be more merciful to its artists and to all those within it who create and build. Genius, unfortunately, does not apportion itself only to saints (think of the film Amadeus) and some people who are given the gift of extraordinary talent — artists, athletes, performers, professors, et alia — also suffer from it, and make those around them suffer. But what is the alternative? There has to be some sort of balance, don’t you think? Sure, Harvey Weinstein — a creative genius of the film world — did things so egregious that it is impossible to see how the professional good he did can ever compensate for his personal cruelty. But Garrison Keillor? Really?
Take it out of the art world. Think of the military. Consider the film Patton, one of my favorites. I’m not sure how truthful the movie is to the life of Gen. George Patton, but George C. Scott’s terrific performance presents Patton as a strategic genius who was brought down by his own personal vanity and cruelty — or, depending on your point of view, by the jealousy of lessers. Similarly in “Tar,” a case could be made that some of those who go after the conductor are doing so out of professional and personal jealousy. And see, there we are again faced with the challenge of disentangling personal motivation from questions of objective deeds, including the pursuit of justice, of artistic greatness, and so forth. I bring up Patton because a nation fighting against a tyrant cannot afford to be too prim about the behavior of its greatest warriors. At the same time, it cannot give those warriors carte blanche to do whatever they want to do. Where do we draw the line? I don’t think it’s ever possible to come up with a clear set of standards that apply in every case.
I know this, though: that our culture has massively overcorrected in the Great Awokening. It’s why so much of our culture is crap. Strident left-wing moralism has made it too dangerous to take the kinds of risks required to achieve great things.
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