‘Tár’ has an answer to the most difficult question in art

This story contains major spoilers for Deposit.

As someone who writes about art and artists for a living, I confess that I find no more exhausting question than “Can we separate the art from the artist?” The only good answer is the frustrating one: “It depends.” so i went in Deposit, Todd Field’s acclaimed film starring Cate Blanchett, with some dread. The film, which follows a famous fictional classical music director who is the subject of public shaming, has been promoted What asking hard questions Y celebrating ambiguity. The premise seems designed to win Oscar campaigns and ruin dinner parties, restarting old arguments without resolving them.

Even DepositThe riveting two and a half hour saga turned out to be strangely illuminating. The film tells its story in an elliptical, sometimes confusing way, but that stylistic choice shouldn’t be confused with moral indecision. Field ends up making a ferocious case that creator and creation generally can’t be separated, and he has sharp and surprising insight into what happens when they are.

The accented anagram in the film’s title hints at Field’s first mission: to delve into the definitions of Art Y artist. When we meet Blanchett’s character, Lydia Tár, she is speaking in the New Yorker Festival and has reached the top of his profession. As her onstage interviewer points out, this means that she does more than direct: she is also a teacher, a writer, a composer, a philanthropist, a boss, and perhaps most of all, a living spectacle, mesmerizing just by moving across a room. The Q&A audience didn’t come to listen to music; they came to see its. And certainly, music isn’t the only reason she’s gotten money, glory, jet travel, and power over beautiful women. Artistboth in Tár’s life and in so many real world examples, it is synonymous with star (either star?).

Art, however, brought her here. Although Field hints that Tár’s career rise involved schemes and favor-trading, he never doubts his directing skills. Her ability to manipulate her time, emotion, attention and sound makes her formidable both behind the scenes and behind the lectern. Envious peers covet not only her status but also her creative ideas. Perhaps most important, a coherent artistic philosophy underlies her work, as well as her eventual downfall.

According to that philosophy, directing is an act of empathy. Tar uses the Hebrew term kavvanah—referring to the divination of the sacred meaning— to explain, for example, why understanding Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony requires understanding his “very complex marriage”. Being faithful to a work, he argues, means delving into the intentions, the biography and even the soul of its creator. (Is Lydia Tár reading Lydia Goehr, the music scholar who has written influentially on the beginning of faithful?) This is not a universally accepted point of view—careful the intentional fallacybut it is common. That’s why we make artists celebrities in the first place: loving art can mean loving people.

However, this approach also makes Tár a hypocrite. He berates a Juilliard student who criticizes Johann Sebastian Bach for fathering 20 children. She does not object when her mentor reflects that Arthur Schopenhauer’s violence against a woman was irrelevant to her work as a philosopher. But if conducting requires perusal of a composer’s life, why would parts of that life be exempt? Tár hates this question. In her Julliard lecture, she does not argue that Bach’s personal excesses should be incorporated into an understanding of his achievement. Rather, she launches a rhetorical barrage to stamp out dissent.

That’s probably because the character himself has things to hide, and he knows in a way that those things are built into his own creative output. Field was smart to select directing as the art form at the center of his film’s research: Tár’s job is basically to wield power for aesthetic purposes. The music he plays his orchestra, the identity of each player and the relative volume of the instruments are theoretically creative choices, but the film subtly demonstrates how each can be shaped by personal lust and pettiness. If audiences applied kavvanah For Tár’s work, they would have to understand her attraction to an attractive young cellist, her role in the suicide of a former student, and her talent for hiding her motives, even from herself.

Cognitive dissonance is a difficult thing to depict, but the film’s somber setting does a good job of it. With eerie jogging scenes and telltale sound effects, Field depicts a woman tormented by inner contradictions and simmering shame. If Tár had compromised on the harrowing emails from his ex-protégé or had come clean with his own wife, he might have averted the damage. Instead, he doubles down on silence and scheming as the movie unfolds. His downfall begins in earnest once he denies his assistant a directing job, a decision made out of paranoia. The resulting collapse of public and personal support has a satisfying symmetry: Tár’s manipulation skills falter in the same way as a singer’s voice after ill-advised overexertion.

What role does culture play in the cancellation of Tár? Field doesn’t seem particularly interested in that question, and thank goodness. Like Jean-Baptiste Lully (the 17th-century conductor referred to at the beginning of the film), Tár stabbed herself in the foot. Her disappearance is as predictable and ugly as Lully’s gangrene, and it’s understandable that Field just wants to take a look at it: the conspiratorial text messages, the misleading social media video, the ferocious protesters. Also, we’ve been locked into Tár’s subjectivity all along, and as we’ve learned, she’s an expert at ignoring anything that contradicts her own image.

Perhaps there’s something a little neat and fantastic about the way Field makes Tár the author of her own death. Harvey Weinstein, for example, didn’t so directly cause his own undoing: accusers and investigators (not to mention a cultural tide against abuse) should take credit for that. But Field is right to suggest that the very traits that turn artists into would-be villains often inform the work of those artists (see: one common interpretation of Woody Allen’s filmography). In many cases, cancellation is best understood not as a whimsical social force, but as a cause-and-effect system run primarily by the artist. (How long Ye, formerly Kanye West, has been driving his own recrimination spiral?)

The logic behind Tár’s collapse, in the end, is ironclad. The gloom of strictness and respectability that drew people to her in the first place has been ruined by her own actions. She has also made it the basis of the personality cult that drew people to her book, storage in storage. If she had produced any work of art of lasting merit (for petra, the composition he was working on, doesn’t sound like a future classical), it would surely have been studied in the context of his life. And as to whether he should retain the position and influence he routinely abused: Of course not. The inseparability of Tár from his art made his career; also, as in so many real life cases, he destroyed it.

But a different relationship between art and artist is possible, as the final act of the film shows. Disgraced, Tár returns to the unglamorous home she grew up in, searches for artifacts of her pre-fame identity (Linda Tarr) and rewatches the Leonard Bernstein tapes. During a 1958 Youth Concert, Bernstein argued that the purpose of music lies not in its hidden meanings but in its invocation of “feelings”. [that] they are so special and so profound that they cannot even be described with words.” Bernstein’s vision makes the artist’s life incidental: what matters is what comes out of a composition, not what goes into it.

This is a dangerous definition of art for the Tár we once knew: a culture in which art matters only for the sensation it produces is probably not one in which a classical conductor becomes a household name. However, the art that satisfies Bernstein’s definition is all around us; it is often labeled “decorative” or treated as mere entertainment. A great example: the video game music that Tár conducts somewhere in Asia in the final moments of the film.

The final image of a costumed crowd entranced by Tár’s baby-faced orchestra may seem like a cheap shot in the gaming world and a cruel and absurd ending to Tár’s story. But it’s only one of those things if the viewer buys the prestige economy that allowed Tár all along. The Monster Hunter orchestra audience seems genuinely excited. Tár has committed to the concert with the same ferocity that it defined his artistic career. Quality comparisons between Mahler and video game soundtracks aside, what exactly makes Tár’s post-cancellation work different? The art matters more than the artist.

Field, to be clear, is not arguing that a more naive, less star-driven culture is purer or better. People can enjoy art without knowing anything about who made it, but in many cases, the experience is actually better, more intense, with context. Ask gallery-goers who are amused by the explanatory text on the wall, or listeners who pore over the personal references in Taylor Swift’s new album. Or ask why Field placed DepositThe credits at the beginning of the film, drawing attention to its creators. We adore creators for good reasons, the same reasons we sometimes have to tear them down. Art may remain, but it does not remain what it was.

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