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Finn McRedmond: Do you have to be cruel to be brilliant?

The film Tár raises fascinating questions about how we think about geniuses – and ourselves

We want our politicians to be relatable; our philanthropists to be uncomplicated do-gooders; our business leaders to be staid and honest; perhaps we even want our run-of-the-mill celebrities to have a disposition for petty scandal. But our artists? Those few visionaries we have burdened with the title of ‘genius’? Secretly, we want them to be jerks.

This, at least, is what I learned from Tár, the Oscar season’s most talked about film. It follows the eponymous composer – Lydia Tár – whose troublesome past catches up with her at the height of fame, seeing her reckon with the full force of the #MeToo movement. (Don’t worry, it’s not a spoiler). She is a cruel narcissist with a reputation for grooming ambitious young women in the industry. She is also supposedly the greatest living maestro, at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic.

By showing that her unpleasantness is also the source of her sublime talent, Tár exposes the endemic intellectual insecurity of the 21st century. It seems we do not just want the leading lights of contemporary art to be bad people. For the sake of our self esteem, we need them to be. Doesn’t it feel better to explain away Lydia Tár’s virtuosity as a product of her corrupt soul? I may not be able to conduct Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, but at least I am a nicer person (I reassure myself).

For a fictional character Tár feels very real. Because this anxiety – that moral badness must accompany brilliance – does not just exist in this cinematic universe. When Philip Roth died – a man hardly known for his private loveliness – focus was not drawn to his outstanding oeuvre but instead we asked whether the merits of his novels were compromised by his personal reputation. Kanye West has long been considered the paragon of contemporary artistic genius. His abilities are not cast as incidental to his troubles, but thanks to them.


Picasso, Norman Mailer, Caravaggio – all members of the so-called visionary class whose bad reputations precede them. No serious person questions their excellence. But they might stop to ask: Why can’t we think about any of these people without reminding ourselves that they were malicious and cruel too? Perhaps we really are that insecure. Sure, cubism was cool but Picasso was a total jackass. I feel better already.

The film is obsessed with the question of how to separate the beautiful work from the nasty people who made it. Even as it makes the case for the universality of good art it still dwells entirely on the badness of its source. Bach may have been a misogynist who sired 20 children, but his music transcends his personal failings; the fact that Schopenhauer pushed his wife down the stairs has little bearing on his abilities as a composer, one character suggests.

In fact, moral corruption is positioned as so central to the production of good art the film accidentally poses a different question altogether: Can a good person make beautiful things? Is malice a condition of brilliance? We are, at the very least, addicted to tales of the horrible genius. I have read so many listicles in my life titled something along the lines of “10 Artists who were terrible people” and “the writers who are somehow even worse.” But why?

That is the self-regarding anxiety of the modern day. It is okay that some people have achieved a level of such greatness that most of us have otherwise failed to – at least we are not disagreeable like Mailer or cruel like Caravaggio. And if my art suffers? So be it!

The world is probably better off for this attitude. But, taken to its logical end point, it can’t help but argue that good art depends on bad people to make it. Better people just don’t have it in them. Selena Gomez didn’t compose The Calling of St Matthew, after all. It’s not like Graham Norton ever wrote The Plot Against America. When Lydia Tár meets her long overdue cancellation the man who replaces her is perfectly nice but is also the film’s shorthand metaphor for crushingly banal adequacy.

The plot demands us to accept that nice can only ever mean average. And the inverse? That only the very worst of us can achieve the very best. Maybe that is right. But I am unconvinced.

All of it ignores the reality that most people are a mixture of good and bad and only few get so far up the ladder that they can be totally corrupted by their worst instincts. Incidentally, equally as few are conditioned to allow their inherent virtue to take over and guide all of their behaviour. We are a product of circumstance ... and it is clear from Tár that being the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic might be a rather trying one.

Nevertheless, the film makes a good case for the enduring quality of great art. But it draws our attention to something else too: maybe geniuses don’t have to be all bad, maybe the rest of us aren’t all good.