Since seeing the film Tár a few weeks ago, I’ve been wrestling with the questions the film brought front and center for me. Especially, that of How Artistry in relation to Power plays out in your career.
In case you haven’t seen it yet, the film portrays the downfall of the fictional superstar conductor of the Berlin Phil, Lydia Tár, played by Cate Blanchett. Lydia’s wife Sharon (played by Nina Hoss) is the concertmaster of the orchestra, and they have an adopted daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). If you haven’t seen it yet, add it to your queue: it’s available on Amazon Prime.
The very model of a modern major genius/conductor
The film starts with Tár at the peak of her career. She’s about to record Mahler 5 which will crown her complete set of Mahler symphonies to be released on Deutsche Grammophon—and she’s just published her memoir.
Early on, we watch as Lydia is interviewed at the New Yorker Festival by journalist Adam Gopnik (playing himself). We witness Lydia’s authoritative charisma and get a glimpse of the powerful spell she casts from the artistic vision that holds her.
**Spoiler Alert** The film plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy with the hero’s fatal flaws (her unrelenting determination, hubris, and sexual appetite) leading inevitably to her undoing.
Tár uses her position in much the same way we’ve seen male conductors, as well as politicians, and CEOs operate. She displays her clout with colleagues and impels those around her to do her bidding. We see Lydia exerting undue influence and manipulating orchestral hiring, firings, and programming decisions, not to mention sabotage a former lover’s career. We watch Lydia browbeat a conducting student in a master class at Juilliard, and on the home front, we see her quietly threaten a child who’s been bullying her daughter. We also learn how Lydia has seduced young female conductors, as she mentored them through her academy. All without ever taking responsibility for the fallout.
It’s a sad commentary that in watching Tár, I wasn’t shocked by the behavior of the character Lydia, or that of her enablers. In stories—fictional and otherwise—connected with music institutions, nothing seems to surprise me anymore. Sad but true.
Crimes committed in the name of Art
Of course, these are the abuses we’ve all seen bring down male conductors in the wake of Me, Too. To my mind, Lydia has simply adopted the patriarchal playbook of the culture we all grew up in—and the conductors who taught her how.
But there’s more at work here than a simple morality lesson about power and corruption.
The difference between seeing such a story play out in the field of music (as opposed to finance, let’s say) is that Tár isn’t a ruthless power-hungry CEO fueled by greed. She’s a ruthless power-hungry artist fueled by her artistic vision.
That’s where it gets tricky.
Because it’s hard to separate great art from the sometimes very flawed artists who make it. So, we cut people slack. So people make allowances and excuses. Artist handlers call it “artistic temperament” and walk on eggshells around these “sensitive” geniuses who have such strong callings that they insist on having everything go their way.
Their institutions want to avoid going up against them so they put up with the abuse, ignoring or denying it. Why? Because the results the genius gets are so damn goooood.
Or are they?
Let’s face it, when we play along, we are encouraging what’s known as an “Art Monster.” The term, according to Jenny Offill, refers to “a lone genius willing to sacrifice anything and everyone in their lives for their art.”
Who is to blame here?
Art monsters start out as we all do, as young, idealistic musicians with teachers we idolize, performers we emulate, and stories we love about geniuses who sacrifice everything (and everyone) for their art.
- But once a musician has a position of power and influence, what is it that turns them monstrous? Perhaps it’s the fawning students, admiring colleagues, and the adoring public that begin to corrupt them.
- But then, is it solely the fault of the Art monsters we put in power over us who then play at being gods?
- What about those with the power to hire these monsters and the supposed power to set and enforce limits on them?
- And what about us, the “innocent bystanders” to these Art monsters? Those of us who didn’t speak up, giving up our own power because we didn’t believe we would be heard. Are we not culpable?
- And just how many of us can say we’ve never had our own monstrous moments?
These are some of the questions that Tár brought up for me.
But there was also this . . .
The Redemptive Power of Artistry
In the film, Lydia hears auditions for a cello opening in the orchestra, and then she influences the votes so that a young player she’s attracted to is hired. Lydia goes further and manipulates programming decisions to have this same young woman, Olga (played by cellist/actress Sophie Kauer) perform the Elgar concerto with the orchestra. (I know, damned unlikely, but this film is fiction, it’s not a documentary.)
To prepare for the concert, Lydia has Olga rehearse with her in Lydia’s private studio. Lydia is infatuated with Olga who seems oblivious to this, and unintimidated by her.
It’s as though Olga is simply following her own muse, her own voice. And that freedom and sense of direction she has—the uncorrupted Power of her Artistry—is alluring to Lydia.
In truth, aren’t we all mesmerized by the exuberance and inspired energy of Artistry? Isn’t that what we’re all attracted to and striving for ourselves?
In considering this, the film got me wondering . . .
Who actually has the Power?
Yes, there’s the structure of titles, salaries, and class privilege. There’s the power conductors have to shape a performance to their vision and manipulate those beneath them in the organization. Any conductor has the power—at least until the tide turns and all the allegiances they’ve built are eroded.
Because there’s also the power of the collective, of the press, and the sway of public opinion. There’s the power of the truth, of moral outrage, of speaking up and saying no.
And especially, there’s the power of Artistry itself.
As individuals we all yearn for it, many of us mistakenly looking outside ourselves instead of within.
It’s easy to be attracted to the flame of someone else’s Artistry, hoping to catch some of it ourselves. And in the process, it’s also easy to get burned. (Done that, Ouch.)
The truth is . . .
NO mentor, partner, teacher, coach, or muse can grant you the actual power of Artistry. It doesn’t work like that.
A good teacher or coach, though, can try their damndest to inspire and dare you to discover your strengths, giving you space so you can take your own lead, and find the power of your own Artistry.
In the wake of Me, Too, and Tár, isn’t it time we all stopped making gods of Art Monsters? Isn’t it time we cultivated a more diverse, inclusive, and collective approach to developing musician artist voices?
As a music career coach, I see too many musicians cowed by the supposed power of those around them. I see too many people fail to find their own power and their own Artistry. That’s why I’m dedicated to helping musicians get more of their best work out into the world, so they can find the power of their own artistic voices.
Are you ready? Get the details and let’s talk.
Here’s looking at you,
Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well
PS: Find more on musicians and power HERE.