Lydia Tár is dead

The internet is abuzz with fastpropagating Lydia Tár memes. She’s a lesbian icon girlboss. She’s flirting with the LA Philharmonic. And, of course, there’s the new film Tár, described by Universal as starring Cate Blanchett as the iconic musician Lydia Tár … widely considered one of the greatest composer/conductors.’ The film relishes in the specifics of her biography—Lydia is an EGOT winner. Lydia is the Berlin Philharmonic’s first female chief conductor. So much so, that some have been surprised to learn that she isn’t real. Whole articles have had to be written clarifying her non-existence. Aided by this confusion, fans relish in play-acting Lydia’s real-world exploits, forging Twitter discourse like kids playing at superheroes (she even has her own website). It’s a valiant effort to bring the movie’s high-class drama into our own duller reality, which seems otherwise disconnected from the cloistered world of classical music.

Why isn’t Lydia Tár real? It may seem a silly question, but part of the appeal of both the movie and its memes lies in this silliness—the idea that anyone in classical music today could be popular enough to define the zeitgeist. This wasn’t the case until relatively recently. Within living memory, composer-conductors André Previn and Leonard Bernstein enjoyed televised fame, while minimalist composers John Adams and Phillip Glass garnered wide appeal. Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland were household names. Stravinsky and Shostakovich only died in the 70s. Australia even had a Tár-style scandal in Eugene Goossens, who fled from Sydney in disgrace after an affair with an alleged witch. The new century, however, has failed to produce comparable figures in high culture. Classical music has never felt more, well, classical. The reason for the absence of a real Lydia Tár lies in the economy.

It’s no new observation to say that the neoliberal era hasn’t been kind to the arts. In the twentieth century there was an explosion in the Western arts, and even the conservative scene of classical music remained relevant. It’s a period that correlates with the rise of the Keynesian welfare state, in which growing industrial wealth was managed by the government and channelled towards the masses. Experimental and forward-thinking artistic movements flourished, and opportunities were offered to artists from middle and working-class backgrounds who previously wouldn’t have had the chance. Over the past few decades, the structures that allowed this have been carefully dismantled. Rising financial precarity and a hollowed-out education system means that an artistic career is now out-of-reach for the majority of people. The decline of the welfare state and the financialisation of everything has left our arts organisations increasingly abandoned as state funding is slashed, scrounging around for corporate sponsors who could use their air of prestige (Emirates and Credit Suisse are two current examples). Art isn’t usually profitable, an inherent tension with this system.

Symphony orchestras are both an exception and a case in point, as they are financially unviable without government support. In the 2000s, Australia’s large orchestras were fully divested from the ABC and became not-for-profit organisations, a symbol of the shift from state ownership to self-management and conditional funding. Though Australians generally agree on their importance, this hasn’t translated to sustainable ticket sales. Their audience was already getting older and smaller, and COVID delivered a near-fatal system shock to the industry. My workplace estimates current sales at 70 per cent of pre-pandemic numbers. Hamer Hall’s balcony section is often closed during Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s performances, to save on cost. During the COVID lockdowns the MSO’s musicians were voluntarily laid off, sacrificing their pay and benefits.

Blows to the arts of today also mean that future artists have fewer chances to experience them, sentencing art forms like classical music to an increasingly niche audience. Organisations in the sector are locked in a kind of death spiral—they court as much money as they can from wealthy donors and austere governments, who then dictate the organisation’s repertoire and behaviour, preventing any real change. I’ve read too many emails from this base decrying the now-standard Acknowledgement of Country, or calling out the supposed influence of ‘Chinese money’, or complaining that the dress code has become too informal (a ‘Hawaiian orchestra’ was the phrase). Meanwhile, the few attempts at new or innovative compositions go mostly unheard, or are pilloried by the Beethoven crowd.

But why should people my age care about the death of a long-dying art? I get free tickets and know music theory, and I still skip the concerts. Are we missing a real Lydia Tár (one without the abuse), an aggrandising public figure to whip us into cultural shape? Without one, I find myself longing for the twentieth century, a time in which classical music or visual arts or theatre or ballet had any meaningful cultural impact at all. It’s a lost era I can witness only in echoes. Or perhaps a sort of phantom pain, one that Mark Fisher popularised as ‘the slow cancellation of the future’—a yearning for cultural forward motion that has since been replaced by increasingly shallow cycles of pop-nostalgia. I’d take any kind of artistic vigour, but it’s not only highbrow arts, like classical music, that are disappearing. Even middlebrow mass culture has been flattened into irrelevance.

Tár itself is a part of this trend. Lydia is in her flop era, and despite Blanchett’s fame and glowing reviews, the film underperformed at the box office and lost all six of its Oscar nominations on Monday. Perhaps in an act of commiseration, the Real Lydia Tár Twitter account announced Lydia’s death at the event. It’s another example of cinema’s ‘missing middle’ (ie. adult dramas) disappearing in favour of increasingly shallow and juvenile high-budget retreads. The film itself comments on this, its arch drama giving way to horror and slapstick comedy. Blanchett’s Sydney Theatre Company, a bastion of the middlebrow, is one of many arts organisations producing fewer and fewer original works, instead relying on easily-marketable names and film adaptations. There is of course nothing wrong with enjoying popular mass media, and nothing necessarily incorrect in preferring the latest Marvel offering to whatever’s on at the arthouse. But when it feels like our broad cultural appetite is increasingly restricted to this diet, I can’t help but wonder what we’re losing.

In Tár, Lydia’s karmic punishment is to see out her days conducting video game scores instead of Mahler, but this is just standard fare for orchestras nowadays. The only concerts that do sell out with younger crowds are screenings of Star Wars or Harry Potter, and this is probably how most people think of the orchestra (that or André Rieu). I recently read a complaint sent in, regarding a member of parliament who attended a concert and stayed on their phone the whole time. It’s been old hat for millennia to complain about the vulgarity of the nouveau riche, but it remains striking that the elites of today have no interest in art at all. They skim self-help books and buy NFTs, and the market accommodates them. The lowbrow is triumphant. Lydia lost.

Tár’s director Todd Field drew inspiration from his time acting for Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut, creating a similarly stifling and dreamlike atmosphere.  Alongside the memes, fan theories have arisen, speculating that these uncanny qualities imply the whole thing takes place in Lydia’s head, a cancellation fantasy made real. ‘It was all a dream!’ is always a groan-worthy projection, but the theory’s pervasiveness speaks to the Lydia Tár-shaped hole in our hearts, the missing figures in our own world that prevent people taking this story at face value. The theories depend on ghostly elements scattered throughout the film, mysterious screams and visions that pierce the bubble of Lydia’s cosmopolitan life. Though this reflects a character haunted by her personal transgressions, it also lends the film the feeling of a ghost story, one in which a corporatised present-day setting is haunted by the spectre of old-European high culture. It doesn’t seem accidental that one paranormal encounter occurs in an abandoned remnant of old Berlin, a setting rich in the hauntological. Suffering an injury afterwards, Lydia is diagnosed with her own phantom pain, a burning itch called notalgia paresthetica. ‘Nostalgia?’ she asks the doctor.

The desire to return is something of a poison pill. What seems sophisticated in retrospect was often critiqued at the time as populist kitsch, and much of so-called high culture is not worth defending (after all, can one define ‘high culture’ separately from aesthetic ideals?). Classical music in particular is tied to aristocratic and Eurocentric ideals (even the term ‘highbrow’ stems from racist phrenology). It is certainly more accessible today to, for example, non-white people. But money is what matters most. Debating a student who shuns Bach for its white supremacist connotations, Tár defends the music with convincing passion, but can still comes across as bloviating and old-fashioned. She is an assimilationist, her taste reflecting how she positions herself as a queer woman and outsider in the scene. She’s from Staten Island, not Manhattan. And, as is demonstrated, her elite status can be revoked at any time. The arts will not be saved by assimilating into neoliberalism. That comes with its destruction.

To paraphrase a quote, I am less interested in Lydia Tár’s dreams than in the near certainty that the Társ of the real world don’t make it out of Staten Island. Art is the opposite of rent. Artists need money to live and time to create, as do audiences in order to attend. New grants are fine, but they won’t cultivate a widespread public artistry. That would require cheap housing, less work, and more access. Orchestra tickets are often well over $100, far too much for most people. In 2021, the MSO received $20 million in state funding, and less than $5 million in both private funding and ticket sales. Why can’t our government put in the extra $10 million to make the tickets free? It’s a laughable amount, a drop in the bucket. But the effect on our collective cultural development could be tremendous. Why not a fully state-backed theatre, or ballet? Why bother with this charade of profitability?

One runs the risk of being labelled a snob by claiming that the ‘high arts’ are worth defending for their own sake, despite their baggage. If they seem unimportant and unpopular today, surely that’s all the more reason to nurture them, to help them grow and adapt to the times, rather than let whole art forms languish as museum pieces. I first heard Elgar’s Cello Concerto last year, before I saw it featured in Tár, and I found its strident opening to be breath-taking.

I have spent the last few years working low-level casual jobs for some of Australia’s prestigious arts organisations, including our two largest symphony orchestras. I’ve heard the stories first-hand of similar abusers going unpunished due to their prestige, whether a conductor or theatre producer. My hours are cut due to lack of funding. I do still enjoy working for the orchestra, but it can feel quite macabre. At work, I occasionally get calls from the same woman. She starts out almost lucid, inquiring about buying an expensive violin. But soon enough she stops making sense and she tells me that she’s being followed, or asks me to afternoon tea. I assume she has Alzheimer’s, and wonder if she played the violin. Later, I learn that we’ve been mailing letters to a dead woman for over ten years. I click to her profile in our vintage-looking software, and go through the slow process of labelling her as deceased. In a grim little spectacle, the pixels all turn grey. That night, the musicians will go onstage once again to perform the music of long-dead men. At one point this music was alive, and brimming with possibility. It can happen again.

Fred Pryce

Fred Pryce is a writer based in Naarm/Melbourne. He has worked for multiple Australian symphony orchestras.

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