‘Tár’ has an answer to art’s toughest question

This story contains major spoilers for Tar.

As someone who writes about art and artists for a living, I confess that there is no more exhausting question than “Can you separate the art from the artist?” The only correct answer is frustratingly: “It depends.” So I walked in Tar, Todd Field’s acclaimed film starring Cate Blanchett, with a certain dread. The film, which follows a famous fictional classical music conductor who is the subject of public shame, has been hyped as ask tough questions and celebrate ambiguity. The premise seems designed to win Oscar campaigns and ruin dinner parties, reigniting old arguments without resolving them.

Still TarThe engrossing two-and-a-half-hour saga proved oddly clarifying. The film tells its story in an elliptical, sometimes confusing way, but this stylistic choice should not be confused with moral indecision. Field ends up emphatically asserting that creator and creation generally cannot be separated – and has a stark and startling view of what happens when they are.

The accented anagram of the film’s title alludes to Field’s first mission: to enter the definitions of art and artist. When we meet Blanchett’s character, Lydia Tár, she talks to the New Yorker Festival and reached the pinnacle of his profession. As her on-stage interviewer points out, that means she does more than direct: she’s also a teacher, writer, composer, philanthropist, patron and, perhaps most of all, a performing artist, creating fascination simply by moving in a play. The Q&A audience didn’t come to listen to music; they came to see his. And certainly, music isn’t the only reason she’s achieved money, fame, jet rides, and power over beautiful women. Artistboth in Tár’s life and in so many real life examples, is synonymous with star (Where star?).

Art, however, brought her here. Although Field implies that Tár’s career rise involved schemes and trading favors, he never questions his talents as a bandleader. Her ability to manipulate time, emotion, attention and sound makes her formidable both behind the scenes and behind the desk. Envious peers not only covet his status, but also his creative ideas. Perhaps most importantly, a cohesive artistic philosophy underlies his work, as well as his eventual downfall.

According to this philosophy, leading 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”. To be faithful to a work, she argues, means entering into the intentions, the biography and even the soul of its creator. (Does Lydia Tár read Lydia Goehr, the music scholar who wrote influentially on the principle of work hoist?) This is not a universal point of view – beware of intentional errorbut it is a municipality. That’s why we turn 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 blames Johann Sebastian Bach for fathering 20 children. She raises no objections when her mentor thinks that Arthur Schopenhauer’s violence against a woman was unrelated to his work as a philosopher. But if conducting requires a careful reading of a composer’s life, why should 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 the understanding of his achievements. Instead, she launches a rhetorical barrage to silence dissent.

It’s probably because the character herself has things to hide, and she knows, on some level, that those things are built into her own creative output. Field was smart in choosing conducting as the art form central to his film’s inquiry: Tár’s work is essentially about wielding power for aesthetic purposes. The music played by its orchestra, the identity of each performer and the relative volume of the instruments are theoretically Creative choice, but the film subtly shows how each can be shaped by personal greed and pettiness. If the audience were to apply kavvanah at Tár’s work, they would need to understand her attraction to a sexy young cellist, her role in the suicide of a former student, and her talent for disguising her motives, even from herself.

Cognitive dissonance is a hard thing to describe, but the film’s dark vibe does a good job of it. With chilling jogging scenes and heart-telling sound effects, Field sketches a woman haunted by internal contradictions and quivering shame. Had Tár engaged with her former protege’s distressing emails or leveled up with her own wife, she might have been able to reverse the damage. Instead, she doubles down on silence and storylines as the film unfolds. Her downfall begins in earnest when she refuses her assistant a position as conductor, a decision made out of paranoia. The resulting collapse of personal and public support exhibits a satisfying symmetry: Tár’s manipulative abilities fail the same way a singer’s voice might fail after misguided overexertion.

What role does culture play in the cancellation of Tár? Field doesn’t seem particularly interested in this question, and thank goodness. Like Jean-Baptiste Lully (the 17th-century conductor mentioned at the start of the film), Tár stabbed herself in the foot. His demise is as predictable and ugly as Lully’s gangrene, and Field understandably wants to take a look at it — the conspiratorial text messages, the misleading social media video, the fierce protesters. Plus, we’ve always been locked into Tár’s subjectivity, and as we’ve learned, she’s adept at ignoring anything that contradicts her own self-image.

There is perhaps something a little neat and fantastical about the way Field makes Tár the author of his own demise. Harvey Weinstein, for example, did not so directly cause his own downfall per se – accusers and investigators (not to mention a cultural tide against abuse) should take credit. But Field is right to suggest that the very traits that turn artists into would-be villains often inform those artists’ work (see: A Common Interpretation of Woody Allen’s Filmography). In many cases, cancellation is best understood not as a capricious social force, but as a system of cause and effect driven primarily by the artist. (How long has Ye, formerly Kanye West, been driving his own self-deprecating spiral?)

The logic behind Tár’s collapse, ultimately, is ironclad. The penumbra of rigor and respectability that drew people to her in the first place was ruined by her own actions. The same goes for the basis of the personality cult that drew people to his book, Tar on Tar. If it had produced a work of art of enduring merit (To 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 position and influence she regularly abused: of course not. Tár’s inseparability from his art made his career; he also, as in so many real cases, destroyed it.

But a different relationship between art and artist is possible, as shown in the last act of the film. Disgraced, Tár returns to the unglamorous home she grew up in, delves into artifacts of her pre-fame identity (Linda Tarr), and revisits Leonard Bernstein’s 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] are so special and deep that they cannot even be described in words. Bernstein’s point of 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 leader classical orchestra is becoming a household name. Yet art that satisfies Bernstein’s definition is all around us; it’s just often labeled as “decorative” or treated as mere entertainment. A good example: the video game music that Tár directs somewhere in Asia in the film’s final moments.

The final image of a costumed crowd thrilled by Tár’s baby-faced orchestra may seem like a low blow to the gaming world and a cruel and absurd end to Tár’s story. But it’s only one or the other of those things if the viewer buys into the economy of prestige that has enabled Tár all along. The Monster Hunter Orchestra audience seems genuinely thrilled. Tár committed herself to the gig with the same ferocity that defined her artistic career. Quality comparisons between Mahler and video game soundtracks aside, what exactly sets Tár’s post-cancellation work apart? Art matters more than the artist.

Field, to be clear, does not argue that a more naive, less star-focused culture is purer or better. People can enjoy art without knowing anything about who created it, but in many cases the experience is truly better, more intense, with context. Just ask the gallery visitors who linger over the explanatory text on the wall, or the listeners who ponder the personal references from Taylor Swift’s new album. Or ask why Field placed Tarat the start of the film, drawing attention to its creators. We revere creators for good reasons, the same reasons we sometimes have to put them down. Art can stay, but it doesn’t stay what it was.

Christopher S. Washington