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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Lydia Tar, Inishirin Banshees, And Artistic License

Does creative genius exempt artists from having to follow the moral law? If not, then, how much leeway should they be granted?
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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.

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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.

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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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Fran Macadam
Fran Macadam
It would be stupid to declare the theory of relativity wrong because Einstein mistreated his wife. Yet the Woke of the Mennonite Church no longer allow publishing John Howard Yoder's groundbreaking insights into the causes of war and the real meaning of peace because of accusations of impropriety in personal behavior. That has been consequential, because the Mennonites are now much less committed to the theological traditions of historical anabaptism, now resembling more the general left which has muted its own antiwar past.
You cannot dismiss the truth due to the failings of any messenger. O. Henry produced valued writings despite being an embezzler. Yet that is precisely how insidious this misapplication of morality is, to mimic The Accuser whose mission is to stamp out goodness altogether.
schedule 12 months ago
Eusebius Pamphilus
Eusebius Pamphilus
Drinking in moderation has been shown to increase creativity Rod. You bring up an important question though, several maybe. Besides impulse control, the question of patience, forgiveness, imperfections and their beauty. Abraham wasn't perfect, nor were most of the patriarchs. Einstein is said to have been distant to his wife and where would we be without so many incomplete people and their contributions to society? On the other hand how many failed artist have failed also to be descent people? Marcus Aurelius says:

"The words which were formerly familiar are now antiquated: so also the names of those who were famed of old, are now in a manner antiquated, Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Leonnatus, and a little after also Scipio and Cato, then Augustus, then also Hadrian and Antoninus. For all things soon pass away and become a mere tale, and complete oblivion soon buries them. And I say this of those who have shone in a wondrous way. For the rest, as soon as they have breathed out their breath, they are gone, and no man speaks of them. And, to conclude the matter, what is even an eternal remembrance? A mere nothing. What then is that about which we ought to employ our serious pains? This one thing, thoughts just, and acts social, and words which never lie, and a disposition which gladly accepts all that happens, as necessary, as usual, as flowing from a principle and source of the same kind."

This should stand in stark contrast to the impulse to create.

"Everything which is in any way beautiful is beautiful in itself, and terminates in itself, not having praise as part of itself. Neither worse then nor better is a thing made by being praised. I affirm this also of the things which are called beautiful by the vulgar, for example, material things and works of art. That which is really beautiful has no need of anything; not more than law, not more than truth, not more than benevolence or modesty. Which of these things is beautiful because it is praised, or spoiled by being blamed? Is such a thing as an emerald made worse than it was, if it is not praised? Or gold, ivory, purple, a lyre, a little knife, a flower, a shrub?

If souls continue to exist, how does the air contain them from eternity?- But how does the earth contain the bodies of those who have been buried from time so remote? For as here the mutation of these bodies after a certain continuance, whatever it may be, and their dissolution make room for other dead bodies; so the souls which are removed into the air after subsisting for some time are transmuted and diffused, and assume a fiery nature by being received into the seminal intelligence of the universe, and in this way make room for the fresh souls which come to dwell there. And this is the answer which a man might give on the hypothesis of souls continuing to exist. But we must not only think of the number of bodies which are thus buried, but also of the number of animals which are daily eaten by us and the other animals. For what a number is consumed, and thus in a manner buried in the bodies of those who feed on them! And nevertheless this earth receives them by reason of the changes of these bodies into blood, and the transformations into the aerial or the fiery element.

What is the investigation into the truth in this matter? The division into that which is material and that which is the cause of form, the formal.

Do not be whirled about, but in every movement have respect to justice, and on the occasion of every impression maintain the faculty of comprehension or understanding.

Everything harmonizes with me, which is harmonious to thee, O Universe. Nothing for me is too early nor too late, which is in due time for thee. Everything is fruit to me which thy seasons bring, O Nature: from thee are all things, in thee are all things, to thee all things return. The poet says, Dear city of Cecrops; and wilt not thou say, Dear city of Zeus?

Occupy thyself with few things, says the philosopher, if thou wouldst be tranquil.- But consider if it would not be better to say, Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of the animal which is naturally social requires, and as it requires. For this brings not only the tranquility which comes from doing well, but also that which comes from doing few things. For the greatest part of what we say and do being unnecessary, if a man takes this away, he will have more leisure and less uneasiness. Accordingly on every occasion a man should ask himself, Is this one of the unnecessary things? Now a man should take away not only unnecessary acts, but also, unnecessary thoughts, for thus superfluous acts will not follow after.

Try how the life of the good man suits thee, the life of him who is satisfied with his portion out of the whole, and satisfied with his own just acts and benevolent disposition. "

I know what you mean Rod, the passion to create. I once went into my college library at 6am and got so immersed in the books that it was dark by the time I left and I could not imagine the entire day had past. It was like a blink of the eye. It's why I do the type of programming I do, object oriented programming. You have to visualize the objects and integrate math and art as well as design. The ergonomics of the user and his instruments interacting with the tool and the language below it. But this too is nothing. It will never be seen or appreciated for what it is beneath its surface. George Sand's said, "Art for art's sake is an empty phrase. Art for the sake of truth, art for the sake of the good and the beautiful, that is the faith I am searching for." Yet this art, this romance turned into bloodshed. How often is the writer misunderstood Rod? How often are we all? What simple affection then should be our aim, our load star? Read Marcus Aurelius Meditations until they've been internalized and then throw them away. Have want of nothing, desire nothing, passion for nothing and think not of the petty squabbles and grievances of children. Be always in the eternal present and give fully of your soul for the matter at hand.

http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.html
schedule 12 months ago
    Bogdán Emil
    Bogdán Emil
    Marcus is a Stoic, and those guys are pantheists. Their philosophy is only useful for Christians up to a certain point, after which it goes against the fundamental division between creator and created. Otherwise, I totally dig what you're saying. There is a fine line called madness that all of us creative freaks creep up against, and try not to cross. But being in that groove is functional madness, like that of a holy fool.

    My former brother-in-law was an alcoholic writer who drank to the point where he literally hallucinated zombies.
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    Fran Macadam
    Fran Macadam
    But on what foundation does all that rest?
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      Eusebius Pamphilus
      Eusebius Pamphilus
      Regarding Marcus Aurelius, he refers often to God and gods in his meditations. It does seem their is a panentheism to his writing that intersects many of the thoughts of the Hindu, Jew and Greek. Good advise, wisdom and Truth have a source which may find expression within any vessel. I wasn't sure who you were responding too btw Fran but I do enjoy your comments when you make them.
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        Fran Macadam
        Fran Macadam
        It seems to me Marcus is levitating, because his assertions seem to stand on nothing other than assertion.
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Bogdán Emil
Bogdán Emil
It's better to live like Patton, because everyone falls from grace. The man was an example, a two-pistoled giant. And yes, I agree, sublime art does not soften a heinous crime, in any way. Nor should art by "the guilty" be banned.

Based on your review, I will watch Tar eventually. Speaking of movies you recommend, I finally watched A Hidden Life, and didn't really like it. Sorry. It was very slow and not much happened. But I don't like hardly any movies these days.

Therefore, I just re-watched one of my all-time favorites:

Dreams, by Akira Kurosawa
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    Fran Macadam
    Fran Macadam
    I've got copies of all Kurosawa's films. Oddly it was Japanese anime that rekindled my interest.
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Theodore Iacobuzio
Theodore Iacobuzio
"Bernstein was one of the greatest artistic figures of the 20th century."

Up to a point, Lord Copper.
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LFM
LFM
Woody Allen's distasteful qualities have infected his art as well as his life. I found the movie Manhattan so offensive I could hardly bear to watch it, although it had its beauties. In general, I found the portrayal of women offensive in his films long before that idea became a feminist Thing. It was an artistic shortcoming of his, not only a personal one. Other artists are able to conceal their worst impulses in the greatness of their art, because it is there that they unleash their most profound insights.
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CaroWalk22
CaroWalk22
“So let me put it another way: does artistic greatness make your sins more forgivable?”
Yes.
The output of creative genius demands a level of selfishness that few people can live with, for it always comes with a high price to pay.
Let me amend that: I might even extend that to those who achieve greatness in any endeavor. They are few and far between because most of us cannot endure the disciplined self focus for years on end. You have to choose yourself, your needs, over all else, all the time. To cope with the trail of destruction this tends to leave behind with loved ones, they drink and carouse.
The rest of us prioritize a happy, balanced life.
I say this as someone who was granted many creative gifts, now simply lavished on family, having decided long ago I was not willing to pay the price of a consuming career.
The creative genius is like the rest of us in an important way— whether he is conscious of it or not, — he seeks to touch the divine. Like the rest of us, he is given the choice of fire or water, to whichever he would stretch out his hand— and the fire summons from the deep. For many of these, they will find their way to God through the gifts God has given them, but it is the way of fire. I don’t think it’s for us to “forgive” their character lapses— we have no idea how their fire is consuming them, and wouldn’t wish it on ourselves.
It would be a real challenge to come up with a canonical list of creative geniuses who were not cancellable by today’s cultural revolutionaries. Frank Lloyd Wright, Norman Mailer, Martin Luther King— the list is looong of talented womanizers. Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso….SOBs. Oskar Schindler was not all unicorns and rainbows, I understand, but God bless him…and that’s the ultimate point— greatness can be used to draw a soul to the path to the kingdom— often at the moment death beckons.
Only Yoko cannot be forgiven.
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Fran Macadam
Fran Macadam
All those who self identify among the great and the good, consider themselves unbound from God's law, let alone man's laws, and that /considered to be applied only to control lessers.
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