Tár Money Grindset

The culture industry makes fun of classical music even while defending it.

Tár Money Grindset

Tár, the recent classical music-based drama starring Cate Blanchett, has been an unexpected critical success: it has been nominated for six Oscars and, since its opening, has generated a steady stream of reviews and think pieces from almost every possible corner (although the reviews definitely skew from liberal publications). The New York Times has published at least nine different articles about it. The reviews go in every direction, with each critic claiming that the others have misunderstood the film. This is a curious thing for a film that is not all that interesting; parts of it are remarkably bad. Despite being billed as a thriller, its most harrowing sequences could have been lifted from an Audi commercial.

The message of the film is all too obvious, and therefore almost impossible to grasp: that art is in thrall to money, and is thereby deformed. While many reviewers focus on the character and personal indiscretions of Lydia Tár herself, the film is better understood as a commentary on the fact that art’s survival under capitalism is not guaranteed, and thus as a source of insight into the pathologies of today’s art music world.

As the embodiment of this world, Lydia Tár draws together all its aspects—graceful virtuosity combined with crazed hyper-competitiveness, stony rigor and rapacious abusiveness. After the black screen of the opening credits, accompanied by Lydia’s ethnomusicological recording of an indigenous Amazon tribe, the film begins with a reading of her resume by Adam Gopnik, presiding over a New Yorker Live interview with the conductor. We learn that she is a graduate of the Curtis School of Music and Harvard. She directs the Berlin Philharmonic. She has a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon and is completing rehearsals to record Gustav Mahler’s Fifth symphony, the only symphony of Mahler’s she has yet to conduct and record.

From the very beginning of the film, something feels off. The pacing of the interview is stiff and awkward, and Gopnik, not a professional actor, appears more natural here than Blanchett. An uncomfortably false and theatrical tone also permeates another scene where, during a conducting master class, Lydia harshly criticizes a young pansexual BIPOC student who says he hates Bach. (Bach had twenty children, which is apparently bad enough to justify writing off his music.) After a tense interaction and some lofty rhetoric about the “magnitude” of composers like Beethoven and Bach, Tár goes over to the piano, opens the lid and begins to play.

What happens next begins to explain why much of the drama in the film does not ring true. The piece she plays, the first prelude of the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, is one of the first pieces any pianist might learn how to play. It is in C—no sharps or flats—and it is a constant stream of steady sixteenth notes with no difficult rhythms to worry about. It is easy to master. It’s also quite pretty. It is probably Bach’s second most well-known piece after the first movement of his first cello suite. It used to come pre-loaded as a ringtone on cell phones.

While playing, she references the piano-playing Charlie Brown character Schroeder as well as Glenn Gould. One might guess we’re watching a music theory class for precocious middle-schoolers rather than a graduate-level master class at an elite conservatory. Throughout the film, one gradually gets the sense that Lydia doesn’t exactly know what she’s talking about. Why is she portrayed as lacking a level of music literacy commensurate with the gravitas of her character?

The answer is that Tár is best understood not as a drama or a thriller but as an accidental satire. It is like an extended SNL skit, simultaneously ironic and sincere. It makes fun of the fact not only that we no longer know anything about this music, but that we can’t really even imagine anyone who does. Our society no longer has any Leonard Bernsteins or Glenn Goulds, no impresarios who perform and advocate for great works of music in the public sphere. There are only Társ: calculating, self-serving and psychopathically determined to hold on to power. It is perhaps this double character, both satire and thriller, that has motivated so many critics to puzzle over what the film actually means. Tár thinks itself to be an artwork. Its ending is voguishly open-ended and ambiguous; there are some references to the idea that Lydia is being haunted by sounds whose source she cannot discover. Are we in her head when we hear these sounds? Do they come from diegetic—i.e. “real”—sources, or are they hallucinations? We never find out, but the loose ends do not really seem to matter.

It is paradigmatic of artworks that they are not literal but illusory. They are a kind of trick, and the film’s director, Todd Field, is a trickster. He has spent the past several years since his last feature film working in advertising, and Tár reflects this. The film is visually pleasing and generically moody. Its look is a cross between Architectural Digest and A24. It is in love with luxury, all buttery leather and blond wood, textured concrete and dimly lit interiors.

The director, the ad man, may be aesthetically illiterate, but he is clever. Tár is an anagram for “art” as well as “rat.” Krista, the jilted ex-lover and former student who takes her own life, is an anagram for “at risk”, which we see Lydia doodling in her notebook at one point.

Within the film the shrewd appreciation of art is represented above all by Tár’s chief patron, Elliot Kaplan (played by Mark Strong), an amateur conductor and the main benefactor to her charitable foundation. Kaplan is the agent of the film’s real villain, capital. He loves art but also knows how much it costs. Although this character has gotten almost no attention in other reviews of the movie, he, and not the cancel culture twenty-somethings, are Tár’s real adversary. Lydia understands this, even if the film’s critics do not: it is his decision to withdraw funding that ultimately leads to her fall from grace.

Elliot Kaplan, it turns out, is based on the real life amateur conductor, patron of classical music and multi-millionaire, Gilbert Kaplan (1941-2016). The founder of the Wall Street publication Institutional Investor, which he eventually sold for $75 million, Kaplan was utterly devoted to Mahler. He established a foundation for the study of his works and the preservation of his collection of Mahler ephemera. He bought Mahler’s original handwritten score of the Second Symphony, a piece with which he was obsessed. He studied the score closely and acquired a detailed knowledge of the composer’s markings and intentions, despite the fact that he could barely read music. In 1982, he rented Avery Fisher Music Hall and hired the American Symphony to conduct the Second. Because of the unlikely success of this performance, the financial publisher turned Mahler aficionado went on to conduct the Second Symphony hundreds of times with some of the world’s greatest orchestras, becoming something of a recognized scholarly authority on the piece.

Kaplan’s presence in the film points to the fact that, as the middle class has abandoned classical music and ticket sales are no longer a viable revenue stream for most orchestras, the ruling class’s role as philanthropic patron looms ever larger. While Field has denied that Elliot Kaplan has anything to do with the real life Gilbert Kaplan (despite admitting to admiring Gilbert very much), Mark Strong’s Elliot Kaplan has the exact same look as Gilbert.

In one of the movie’s only scenes where the technical aspects of conductorly interpretation are discussed, Kaplan asks Lydia how she gets a certain sound from the strings during a particularly difficult passage of Mahler, and she eventually relents and divulges her secret to him. After her many indiscretions come to public attention, she learns that Elliot has somehow gotten ahold of her personal score, which contains her various interpretative decisions, and will be subbing for her for the premier of Mahler’s Fifth. The plot twist is shocking, but as the film seems to be telling us, nothing is beyond the reach of money.

At the same time that music of all genres has become simply one more investment opportunity, or at most a tax shelter, our capacity to experience it without distraction has decayed. Music has instead become apperceptive auditory wallpaper. A not insignificant portion of everyday experience in capitalist society is guided by music as a background layer of consciousness. There is music everywhere and all the time in America; elevator music has escaped elevators and colonizes parking lots, shopping malls, public sidewalks, bars, cars, trains and airports, but none of it is supposed to be listened to directly. Despite our immense aural-intellectual capacity, we are not taught by our culture to listen to music as an end in itself.

The experience of hearing Mahler is nothing like this. His music demands full attention; parts of his symphonies literally sound like a fire alarm. He was writing at the end of the 19th century, right at the point where the major/minor tonal schema, along with pretty much the entirety of traditional European art, was beginning to break down. Many have interpreted the intense anxiety with which his music is charged as a (futile) attempt to save tonality from disintegration. He was attempting, against the pull of history, to hold together high and low, classical and kitsch. His music serves as a reminder that large parts of art can simply die out.

If Tár can get us talking about the state of good art in a bad world, then it has done more than enough. The unfortunate thing about its positive critical reception is that most of the reviews treat the film reverentially as both art and social commentary, when it is more of a piece of high grade kitsch, unable to withstand multiple viewings. In comparison to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony which it uses as a prop, it is unable to deliver any real emotional intensity. Ultimately, the goal for art in any truly free society would not be activism, subjective recognition, or affirmative feelings. It would be the cultivation of an audience that knew and cared enough about art to criticize it correctly.

Catherine Liu is the author of Virtue Hoarders: the Case Against the Professional Managerial Class. She is Professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine and is at work on a book on trauma culture and the trauma industry.

Drake Tyler is a composer living in New York City.