‘Tár’ Has an Answer to Art’s Toughest Question

'Tár' Has an Answer to Art’s Toughest Question

This story contains major spoilers for Tár.

As someone who writes about art and artists for a living, I confess that I find no question more exhausting than “Can we separate the art from the artist?” The only good answer is a frustrating one: “It depends.” So I went into Tár, Todd Field’s acclaimed movie starring Cate Blanchett, with some dread. The film, which follows a fictional famed classical-music conductor who’s subjected to public shaming, has been hyped as asking difficult questions and celebrating ambiguity. The premise seems designed to win Oscar campaigns and ruin dinner parties, restarting old arguments without resolving them.

Yet Tár’s mostly riveting two-and-a-half-hour saga turned out to be oddly clarifying. The film does tell its story in an elliptical, at times confounding way, but that stylistic choice shouldn’t be mistaken for moral indecision. Field ends up making a fierce case that creator and creation usually can’t be separated—and has a sharp, surprising take on what happens when they are.

The accented anagram of the film’s title hints at Field’s first mission: getting inside the definitions of art and artist. When we meet Blanchett’s character, Lydia Tár, she is speaking at the New Yorker Festival and has reached the pinnacle of her profession. As her onstage interviewer points out, this means she does more than conduct: She’s also a teacher, writer, composer, philanthropist, boss, and, perhaps more than anything, living spectacle, commanding fascination simply by moving through a room. The Q&A audience didn’t come to hear music; they came to see her. And certainly, music isn’t the sole reason she’s attained money, glory, jet rides, and power over beautiful women. Artist, in both Tár’s life and in so many real-world examples, is synonymous with star (or stár?).

Art, however, did get her here. Although Field implies that Tár’s career ascent involved schemes and favor-trading, he never calls into question her conducting skills. Her ability to manipulate time, emotion, attention, and sound makes her formidable both behind the scenes and behind the music stand. Envious peers covet not just her status but also her creative insights. Perhaps most important, a coherent artistic philosophy underlies her work—as well as her eventual downfall.

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

However, this approach also makes Tár a hypocrite. She berates a Juilliard student who criticizes Johann Sebastian Bach for fathering 20 children. She raises no objection when her mentor muses that Arthur Schopenhauer’s violence against a woman was irrelevant to his work as a philosopher. But if conducting requires closely reading a composer’s life, why would some parts of that life be exempt? Tár abhors this question. In her Julliard lecture, she doesn’t make the case that Bach’s personal excesses should be incorporated into an understanding of his accomplishments. Rather, she launches a rhetorical barrage to shut down dissent.

That’s likely because the character herself has things to hide, and she, on some level, knows those things are baked into her own creative output. Field was smart to select conducting as the art form at the center of his movie’s investigation: Tár’s job is basically to exert power for aesthetic ends. The music her orchestra plays, the identity of each player, and the relative volume of instruments are theoretically creative choices—but the movie subtly demonstrates how each can be shaped by personal lust and pettiness. Were audiences to apply kavvanah to Tár’s work, they’d need to understand her attraction to a hot young cellist, her role in a former student’s suicide, and her talent for disguising her motives—even from herself.

Cognitive dissonance is a hard thing to portray, but the movie’s shadowy vibe does a good job of it. With creepy jogging scenes and tell-tale-heart sound effects, Field sketches a woman haunted by internal contradictions and simmering shame. Had Tár engaged with her former protegé’s distressing emails or leveled with her own wife, she might have been able to stymie the damage. Instead, she doubles down on silence and scheming as the movie unfolds. Her downfall begins in earnest once she denies her assistant a conducting job—a decision made out of paranoia. The resulting collapse of personal and public support has a satisfying symmetry: Tár’s manipulative abilities fail in the same way that a singer’s voice might after ill-advised overexertion.

What role does the culture play in Tár’s cancellation? Field doesn’t seem especially interested in that question, and thank goodness. Like Jean-Baptiste Lully (the 17th-century conductor referenced early in the movie), Tár has stabbed herself in the foot. Her demise is as predictable and ugly as Lully’s gangrene, and Field understandably wants to only glance at it—the conspiring text messages, the deceitful social-media video, the ferocious protesters. Besides, we’ve been locked in Tár’s subjectivity all along, and, as we’ve learned, she is an expert at ignoring anything that contradicts her own self-image.

Perhaps there’s something a little tidy and fantastical about the way Field makes Tár the author of her own demise. Harvey Weinstein, for example, didn’t so directly cause his own ruin per se—accusers and investigators (not to mention a cultural tide against abuse) should get the credit for that. But Field is right to hint that the very traits that turn artists into alleged villains often inform those artists’ work (see: one common interpretation of Woody Allen’s filmography). In many cases, cancellation is best understood not as some capricious social force, but as a system of cause-and-effect led primarily by the artist. (How long has Ye, formerly Kanye West, been driving his own recriminatory spiral?)

The logic behind Tár’s collapse, in the end, is ironclad. The penumbra of rigor and respectability that drew people to her in the first place has been ruined by her own actions. So has the basis for the personality cult that drew people to her book, Tár on Tár. If she had produced any artwork of lasting merit (For Petra, the composition she was working on, doesn’t quite sound like a future classic), it would surely have been studied in the context of her life. And as to whether she should retain the post and clout that she routinely abused: Of course not. Tár’s inseparability from her art made her career; it also, as in so many real-life cases, destroyed it.

But a different relationship between art and artist is possible—as the movie’s final act shows. Disgraced, Tár returns to the unglamorous home she grew up in, rifles through artifacts of her pre-fame identity (Linda Tarr), and rewatches Leonard Bernstein tapes. During a 1958 Young People’s Concert, Bernstein argued that the purpose of music lies not in its hidden meanings but in its invocation of “feelings [that] are so special and so deep, they can’t even be described in words.” Bernstein’s view 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. Yet art that satisfies Bernstein’s definition is all around us; it’s just often tagged as “decorative” or treated as mere entertainment. One great example: the video-game music Tár conducts somewhere in Asia in the final moments of the movie.

The closing image of a costumed crowd enraptured by Tár’s baby-faced orchestra might seem like a cheap shot at the gaming world, and a cruel, absurd end to Tár’s tale. But it is only either of those things if the viewer buys into the economy of prestige that enabled Tár all along. The audience for the Monster Hunter orchestra appears genuinely thrilled. Tár has committed herself to the gig with the same ferocity that defined her high-art career. Setting aside quality comparisons between Mahler and video-game soundtracks, what exactly makes Tár’s post-cancellation work different? The art matters more than the artist.

Field, to be clear, isn’t 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 really is better, more intense, with context. Just ask the gallerygoers who linger over explanatory wall text, or the listeners poring over the personal references in Taylor Swift’s new album. Or ask why Field placed Tár’s credits at the beginning of the movie, drawing attention to its makers. We worship creators for good reasons—the same reasons we sometimes must tear them down. The art may remain, but it does not remain what it was.

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