By Vijay Ramanathan
Todd Field’s excellent Tár is fundamentally a pseudo-message movie nestled within a character study that’s masked as a biopic of a fictional artist (phew!… that was a mouthful). Lydia Tár, brilliantly portrayed by Cate Blanchett, is a vehicle for Field to question what we see happening around us with art and artists. While he uses the world of Western Classical Music as his backdrop, one could easily transpose the narrative to any other artistic platform – from standup comedy and cinema to visual art and even Indian Classical Music. The issues of misogyny, identity, access and acceptance are universal in that sense.
Tár presents a portrait of Lydia Tár, a famed classical music conductor, who is at once both infuriating and amazing. She has risen to the pinnacle of an art world dominated by men but she is also intensely self-centered, manipulative and, quite often, brutal. This allows us to experience a whole range of issues through her, and her work. There are obvious matters like the role of social media in making or breaking a person, about cancel-culture, and about the inherent narcissism in any creative individual. But there are more nuanced and controversial issues at hand as well.
Separating art from the artist
One of the most complex issues presented in the movie has to do with whether art can (and should) be viewed separately from the artist. This is explored overtly early on when Tár is conducting a class. She debates a student who doesn’t listen to Bach’s music because of Bach’s misogynistic views. Tár tries, and ultimately fails, to convince the student that a true artist, or one who wishes to become a great artist, must be able to consume and reflect on art regardless of the failings of the artist. Without that mindset, one cannot learn and grow. If you live and operate within the confines of an echo chamber, then that will be the bounds of your greatness. Your true potential will never be met. The issue is also presented to us implicitly in the movie. Tár is uncompromising in her work. She tackles each project with the same, intense commitment regardless of whether it is with a famous orchestra in Berlin, or with a youth orchestra performing video game music in the Philippines (as we see in the end). That is one of the key elements of her success as a world famous music conductor. It’s what enables her to create or present classical music at its finest. But then, how should we as consumers of her art react to her failings as a human? She has been too harsh (maybe unfairly) on a past student with whom she may have had some sort of a failed relationship – resulting in a terrible tragedy. She treats almost every relationship in her life – personal and professional – in an entirely transactional manner. Her wife even says so. She has most certainly “used” people to get ahead in her career. What about her need to appear “global”, betraying her middle-America roots? Her English accent seems to be a weird blend of American and some uncertain European origin. The Lydia Tár we see is almost entirely a facade. But does that – should that – diminish the value of her music or her art? In the film, Tár is essentially “canceled” for her misdeeds and has to start all over. Without a doubt, this “art vs. artist” issue is not an easy one for many of us – primarily because it’s hard for us to judge someone’s “creation” as something distinct and more elevated than their mere “action,” or their “work.” So what if you’re a great artist? If your ethics are compromised, or if your morals are weak, then is there any real honesty in your art? Isn’t it just an artifice? Doesn’t great art need to reflect the humanity of the artist? Or does it? Regardless of which side you’re on, where should you draw the line? Each of us will have an innate sense of when someone has “crossed the line.” The movie isn’t asking us to (necessarily) be forgiving of every artist’s frailties – but it does question the need for us to shun the art along with the artist. And prompts us to question where our “line” is. It asks us to not be in a rush to judge.
Identity, art, and access
Should one’s identity define their art, or their access to art? Does it? Does, or should, an artist’s identity afford them special considerations? Should Tár’s gender identity or her sexual orientation entitle her any special accommodations? Tár herself doesn’t think so. While she acknowledges that breaking out into classical music hasn’t been easy for women, the real hard work was done by women who blazed the trail before her. She’s merely reaping the benefits of their struggle and hard work. She is implying, in effect, that at present anyone can get to the top so long as they have the talent, and are willing to do what it takes to get there – regardless of their gender. And that’s what she demonstrates to us, and to the world of the movie, in how she operates. She is narcissistic. She manipulates her coworkers and musicians. She lies and tries to cover up past sins. She doesn’t mind stepping on others to get ahead. Or to suppress people whom she sees as potential competition. That is what happens in the male-dominated world she wants to survive in. That’s what anyone who wishes to reach the pinnacle of their field has to be willing to do. The game may be rigged but you have to play it within the established rules in order to win. You can’t change the rules unless you win first – and stay at the top. And who hasn’t done that as they grow in their career? That’s her pitch. But then, doesn’t that attitude belie the realities faced by so many minorities and underrepresented people? For every Tár, there may be a hundred or a thousand failed conductors whose careers were unjustly suppressed because of who they are. Tár’s humanity doesn’t give her the wisdom to appreciate this alternate reality. The argument the film makes, in some ways, is that the single-minded desire to get ahead is what causes people to be inhibitors of others’ success. Identity politics is, perhaps, a secondary issue. But on the flip side, the movie cleverly shows us a world of classical music composed mainly of white people. We hardly see any people of color – one of the few we see is the student who debated Tár early on in one of her classes which delves into the topic of art and identity (among others)!! That is an implicit acknowledgement that Tár is, perhaps willfully, ignoring the realities around identity and access in order to fit into the world around her. She can only succeed if she conforms, and that’s what she’s doing.
Tár shines light on these issues without making any of them the primary focus. That’s the brilliance of the screenplay and the movie. And Blanchett’s portrayal of Lydia Tár keeps us invested in the proceedings. Tár is a definite must-watch.