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<nettime> The Next Idea of the Artist - essay
Rana Dasgupta on Thu, 18 Sep 2008 15:26:44 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The Next Idea of the Artist - essay

This is an essay I wrote for the catalogue of the Liverpool Biennial 
(www.biennial.com), which begins this weekend.  It looks at the lives of 
Ludwig van Beethoven and Jacqueline du Pre, and considers the 
irrational, unproductive and destructive aspects of their artistic 
production.  It asks how we are to think about these more unsavoury 
elements of their artistic legacy, particularly in the light of the 
current swathe of Hollywood biopics, which seem to imagine an entirely 
sanitised and efficient creativity, of the sort that will not rely on 
unstable people and can therefore be globally rationalised.


Rana Dasgupta


At the grand funeral of Ludwig van Beethoven in Vienna in 1827, the 
actor Heinrich Anschütz delivered an oration by the poet Franz 
Grillparzer, Austria’s foremost man of letters.

"The harp that is hushed!  Let me call him so!  For he was an artist, 
and all that was his, was his through art alone.  The thorns of life had 
wounded him deeply, and as the cast-away clings to the shore, so did he 
seek refuge in your arms, O you glorious sister and peer of the Good and 
the True, you balm of wounded hearts – heaven-born Art!

"He was an artist, but a man as well.  A man in every sense—in the 
highest.  Because he withdrew from the world, they called him a 
man-hater, and because he held aloof from sentimentality, unfeeling … 
He withdrew from mankind after he had given them his all and received 
nothing in return.  He dwelt alone, because he found no second Self. 
But to the end his heart beat warm for all men, in fatherly affection 
for his kindred, for the world his all and his heart’s blood."

This was the Romantic idea of Beethoven: the great and suffering Soul 
whose sensitivity and spiritual awareness exceeded those even of Goethe 
and Shakespeare.  This image was so persistent that a century later an 
English writer could still affirm similar thoughts, blended with the 
evolutionism of the time, and tempered by a cooler, more “scientific” tone:

"Beethoven’s work will live because of the permanent value, to the human 
race, of the experiences it communicates.  These experiences are 
valuable because they are in the line of human development; they are 
experiences to which the race, in its evolutionary march, aspires ... 
They correspond to a spiritual synthesis which the race has not achieved 
but which, we may suppose, it is on the way to achieving.  It is only 
the very greatest kind of artist who presents us with experiences that 
we recognize both us fundamental and as in advance of anything we have 
hitherto known.  With such art we make contact, for a moment, with

"The prophetic soul of the wide world
Dreaming on things to come

"It is to this kind of art that Beethoven’s greatest music belongs and 
it is, perhaps, the greatest in that kind."

J.W.N. Sullivan is referring in this last line to the startling music 
written by Beethoven in the last ten years of his life, and it is on 
this “late period” that the most sublime aspects of the composer’s 
reputation generally rest.  In an age not much given to gravity, music 
companies still give grave packaging to recordings of the late string 
quartets and piano sonatas.  The brusque, experimental ugliness of late 
works such the Grosse Fuge or the Diabelli Variations still inspires 
bewilderment, almost two centuries after they were written.  The Ninth 
Symphony, of course, has become legendary, and its astonishing power 
remains undiminished by contemporary bureaucratic assaults – such as its 
adoption as the official anthem of the European Union.

The inception of Beethoven’s radical and introspective late style was 
not only a fantastic departure from the previous three decades of the 
composer’s own work, it was one of the most significant and monumental 
moments of innovation in the history of Western art music.  The question 
of how the late style came into being is therefore a general question 
about the nature of artistic originality in modern Western culture. 
How did Beethoven break himself down and reconstruct himself in this 
way?  How great were the energies that passed through him in this 
moment, enabling him to surpass what was familiar and burst into the 
unknown?  What was the source of these energies, and how were they 
manifested in his body, his rhythms, his relationships?

In his biography of 2003, Lewis Lockwood sees the genesis of the late 
style in Beethoven’s “fallow” phase of 1813-17, which most previous 
commentators saw as a period of exhaustion.

"The basic facts compel us to see this period as a major break in the 
larger continuity of his career, a time of psychological distress and of 
diminished creative energy after the extraordinary ten years that had 
culminated in 1812 with the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies.  But it is 
far more fruitful to focus less on what was ending, and more on what was 
beginning; less on his loss of productivity and more on the progressive 
features of the few significant works that he completed.  […]  Along 
with the personal factors, what accounts for [these supposedly arid 
years] is his evolution towards the transcendental.  […]  Accordingly, 
what has been seen as a “fallow” period might be reconceived as a period 
of self-reconstruction, a necessary questioning of previous approaches 
and the gestation of new ones, in which a new composing personality 
within him was in the process of emerging."

What were the “personal factors” that plagued this gestation period?  To 
begin with, in 1812, Beethoven wrote a stoic letter to an unnamed 
“Immortal Beloved,” a letter that suggests he was at that time finally 
renouncing any prospect of a lived relationship with a woman.  Though 
Beethoven had had several love affairs, “the essential character of 
[these relations] seems to have combined perpetual quest for love and 
perpetual avoidance of any long-term commitment that might change his 
life and rob him of the time and energy he needed for his work”  – and 
now, forty-two years old and entirely deaf, he accepted that his 
solitude was not provisional, but absolute.

But the “fallow period” was dominated by the issue of Beethoven’s 
nephew, Karl.  When, in 1815, Beethoven’s brother Caspar died, leaving a 
wife and a young son, there arose in Beethoven a mania for paternity 
that lasted most of the rest of his life.  In his will, Caspar named 
Beethoven as Karl’s co-guardian, along with the boy’s mother, Johanna – 
but Beethoven wanted her to have nothing to do with her son, and 
denounced her moral character in the courts in order to overturn her 
custody.  Having secured sole control of Karl, he tried to turn him into 
a great musician, ignoring his lack of musical talent and his obvious 
attraction for guns and all things military.  The boy suffered greatly 
from Beethoven’s violent temper and unbearable demands, and from his 
enforced separation from his mother.  In 1826, after hinting several 
times to his uncle that he would commit suicide – with no effect – Karl 
bought two pistols and shot himself.  He survived, but the drama was 
enough to shatter Beethoven’s fancies.  “My hopes have vanished,” he 
wrote in a letter, “my hopes of having near me someone who would 
resemble me, at least in my better qualities.”   He now allowed Karl to 
enter military service where he remained until 1832, then taking a job 
in an Austrian government office and living quietly until his death in 1858.

The gestation and flowering of Beethoven’s late style was accompanied in 
his personal life, then, by a sustained assault on the two surviving 
members of his immediate family.  Interrupting his work, the deaf and 
unkempt Beethoven must have got up from his desk with the ink of the 
Ninth Symphony still wet on the page to throw things at Karl as 
punishment for his gambling or his “unfaithful” visits to his mother.  A 
biographer is forced to ask: what is the relationship between these 
simultaneous outpourings of destruction and creation?  Was Beethoven in 
fact consuming the energies of those around him in order to fuel a task 
for which his own resources would not suffice?

This is J.W.N. Sullivan’s version:

"The wife was undoubtedly a woman of loose character, and Beethoven was 
firmly convinced that she was a merely evil and corrupting influence … 
Karl appears to have been a perfectly average young man, fond of 
billiards and associating a good deal with prostitutes.  Beethoven, 
putting a good deal down to the account of the mother, seems to have 
regarded him as a brand to be plucked from the burning … Beethoven’s 
relations with his nephew caused him, almost continually, great anxiety. 
  On one occasion, owing to a trifling escapade of his nephew’s, he was 
almost out of his mind for a few days … Although he was now at the very 
height of his creative power, producing his greatest music, he worked 
very slowly.  What he now had to express was much more difficult than 
anything he had previously expressed … The task of creation necessitated 
an unequalled degree of absorption and withdrawal.  The regions within 
which Beethoven the composer now worked were, to an unprecedented 
degree, withdrawn and sheltered from his outward life.  His deafness and 
solitariness are almost symbolic of his complete retreat into his inner 
self.  No “external storms” could now influence his work; at most they 
could interrupt it.  The music of the last quartets comes from the 
profoundest depths of the human soul that any artist has ever sounded."

It is clear that, for Sullivan, the emergence of the late style happens 
in spite of the Karl episode, and has no connection to it.  This episode 
is insignificant except as another annoying distraction in Beethoven’s 
heroic life, and the only reason to mention Karl at all is to explain 
Beethoven’s fallow period (“he worked very slowly”) – and after that the 
nephew is left behind.  In this account, the greatness of Beethoven’s 
late music arises precisely from his “complete retreat” from the world, 
and therefore the events of the world have no place in an explanation of 
that music.  Like Grillparzer a century before, Sullivan thinks that the 
artist and his art are above life, and have no responsibilities towards 
it.  This is why he is able to say about a man who all but destroyed the 
lives of the two people closest to him,

What we may call his emotional nature was sensitive, discriminating and 
profound, and his circumstances brought him an intimate acquaintance 
with the chief characteristics of life.  His realisation of the 
character of life was not hindered by insensitiveness, as was Wagner’s, 
nor by religion, as was Bach’s.  There was nothing in this man, either 
natural or acquired, to blunt his perceptions.

In 1957, two psychoanalysts published a very different version of this 
period of Beethoven’s life, one so iconoclastic that it has generally 
been rejected by Beethoven scholars, who wish to preserve as much of the 
Romantic genius as possible (Lewis Lockwood’s book makes no mention of 
it).  Beethoven and his Nephew: A Study in Human Relations  presented 
Karl, not as the frivolous playboy of traditional accounts, chafing 
continually at the long-suffering composer, but as the innocent victim 
of a tyrannical uncle who was driven to violence and depression by his 
latent homosexual desire.  The authors, Editha and Richard Sterba, saw 
the repeated failure of Beethoven’s relationships with women as 
programmatic: his initial erotic interest seemed to collapse in every 
case into quarrels and bitterness, and finally into total evasion on 
Beethoven’s part (his famous “Immortal Beloved” letter, the basis of his 
reputation as a much-suffering lover, was, according to the Sterbas, 
never sent).  They saw Beethoven not as a lover of women but as a 
misogynist, and the relentless fury with which he tried to destroy 
Johanna, his sister-in-law, was further expression of this.  They saw 
homosexual significance in the courteous, obsequious manner adopted by 
Beethoven towards certain attractive young men – in marked contrast to 
his conduct with the generality of people – and they gave a convincing 
account of the explosive accumulation of sexual desire and parental 
longing that he brought to bear on his hapless nephew.  For the Sterbas, 
Beethoven’s fixed determination to turn the talentless Karl into a great 
musician, despite the boy’s resultant misery, was an attempt both to 
produce an ideal version of his “ungrateful” brothers, and an attempt to 
recycle the disgust he felt for his own deafness and social exile into 
something better than himself.  And the late music was the sublimation 
of all these ferocious and contradictory impulses, which could never be 
resolved in the sphere of reality.

To my taste, the Sterbas’ account sacrifices too much of the 
other-worldly qualities of artistic inspiration, so well expressed by 
Romantic commentators.  By making music nothing more than a sublimation 
of psychological conflicts, the autonomy and specificity of the musical 
realm is entirely lost, and its intrigue disappears.  After all, it is 
possible to imagine men with precisely Beethoven’s psychological 
situation who would not write his Ninth Symphony.  But what the 
psychoanalytical approach loses in grandeur it gains in robustness. 
Where Romantic biographers flinched, evaded and stuttered, the Sterbas 
find their richest material.  They are not content, for instance, with 
the childish moralising by which other biographers sideline “loose” 
Johanna, and justify Beethoven’s violence towards her.  Most 
importantly, by bringing the music back together with the rest of life, 
they are able to give a rich picture of what was happening to the 
composer during the period of 1813-17, and to show the connections 
between the battles over Karl and the gestation of the late style. 
Their portrait of a complex and contradictory human being, packed with 
powerful drives that were, variously, antisocial, inadmissible, violent, 
destructive, frustrated, nurturing, creative, generous and 
transcendental – is faithful both to his relationship with Karl and to 
his music.  Beethoven’s relentless, violent and futile attempts to force 
perfection out of an uncooperative world – to turn Karl into something 
that the poor boy did not desire and was incapable of achieving – are 
mirrored in the late music, but also resolved there, as – unlike in real 
life – the curtains of fury, despair and chaos part, and what is 
revealed is the breathtaking lyricism of transcendence.  What the 
Sterbas tell us is that this musical achievement comes charged with 
enormous threat and somehow, if we are to accept its legacy of beauty 
and greatness, we have also to work out what to do with its attendant 
destructiveness – for the two are one and the same.

In 1995, four decades after the Sterbas’ work, Mel Gibson’s production 
company, Icon Productions, released a movie entitled Immortal Beloved, 
which gave yet another version of Beethoven’s relations with Karl and 
Johanna.  Directed by Bernard Rose and starring Gary Oldman, the film 
began with the composer’s death and proceeded to follow his secretary on 
a tour of Europe’s grandes dames while he tried to identify the intended 
recipient of Beethoven’s famous letter.  Astonishingly, his quest 
eventually led him back to the woman who had been under his nose all 
along.  Johanna, the sister-in-law whom Beethoven had publicly attacked 
and humiliated, the film pretended, was in fact the love of his life. 
Immortal Beloved went further: Karl was not Beethoven’s nephew but his 
own son, conceived during a brief and tumultuous liaison between the 
composer and his brother’s wife.  This relationship was brought to an 
end by a bungled rendezvous which convinced each of the lovers that the 
other was not committed, and even after Beethoven’s brother died and all 
obstacles to their love were removed, they spent the rest of their lives 
mourning it – a regret which on Beethoven’s side was expressed as 
violence towards Johanna.  As this solution to the emotional mystery is 
explained to us, we flash back to Beethoven as a young boy, and while 
the euphoric strains of the Ninth Symphony play, we see him running away 
from his drunk and abusive father to admire the light of a million stars 
– and we finally understood that all his life he has been looking for a 
normal family.

Immortal Beloved drastically reorganises the material of the previous 
accounts we have seen.  The music is of no particular interest to this 
narrative except as something Beethoven happens to do, a means to the 
celebrity for which we remember him, a better-than-average soundtrack. 
Beethoven does not talk about music – for this film is essentially a 
romantic drama, and it makes no organic connection between this drama 
and music.  It is a simple drama, moreover, which has one clear solution 
and does not require any more complex explanation: the reason for 
Beethoven’s unhappiness is that he is prevented from settling down.  In 
fact the film seems to be stalked by another possible Beethoven – one 
who did not bungle the meeting with Johanna, who managed successfully to 
assemble a family around him, and who lived out his life in peace and 
social respectability, writing his music without any of the chaotic 
inefficiency of the man in this story.  This, then, is the opposite of 
the Sterbas’ account: far from a Beethoven whose extraordinary music is 
wrought in the cauldron of ferocious, centrifugal impulses, Immortal 
Beloved shows a Beethoven whose music is like a desk job and who, if 
things had gone differently, could have been a great composer and a 
normal family guy.  It seems to say that the stormy, antisocial persona 
of the Romantic artist was simply contingent, the effect of unnecessary 
personal accidents, and that the artistic product did not have to emerge 
from all that disorder.  It imagines an efficient form of creative work 
from which the threat and the chaos have been removed.

As biography, Immortal Beloved seems to be the least forceful of all the 
accounts we have seen here.  In order to produce its fable of the 
nuclear household it is forced to segregate the artistic and personal 
aspects of Beethoven’s life that had been so powerfully brought together 
in previous accounts, and indeed to ignore much of what is known about 
the composer.  But if Immortal Beloved is unsatisfying biography, this 
does not mean it is insignificant.  Quite the opposite.  Along with 
other similar films emerging from Hollywood in the last twenty years, 
Immortal Beloved is a symptom of a grand contemporary reconfiguration of 
the idea of creativity and its relationship to social order.


The last great period of Western culture, the two centuries from about 
1750, whose production is now taught to Western school children in the 
hope that it will direct them to live lives of sanity, moderation and 
productivity, often strayed very far from such values.  For many of the 
writers, artists, composers and philosophers of that period, there was 
something fanatical and irredeemably anti-social to what they did. 
Their work was part of a tumult that also prominently featured murder, 
suicide, terminal illness, madness, addiction, prostitution, 
imprisonment, war, political oppression, self-mutilation, starvation and 
vagrancy – and left behind a great human wreckage of the failed, 
disillusioned and abandoned.  This was not merely a “style.”  When we 
look at the suicide of Heinrich von Kleist, the self-mutilation of 
Vincent Van Gogh or, at the end of the period, the death-dances of Jim 
Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that 
their chosen artistic terrains were full of peril, and that the enduring 
intensity of their work is at least partially dependent on this 
enormous, and potentially fatal, risk.

Somewhere around 1990, Hollywood began to accelerate its production of 
the ever-popular biographical film (or “biopic”).  Since that date, 
feature films have been produced about: Vincent Van Gogh, Andy Warhol, 
Charlie Chaplin, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Pablo Picasso, 
Oscar Wilde, Jackson Pollock, the Marquis de Sade, James Dean, Iris 
Murdoch, Sylvia Plath, Cole Porter, Ray Charles, Frida Kahlo, Truman 
Capote, Francisco Goya, Bob Dylan, Edith Piaf, Marvin Gaye, Salvador 
Dalí, James Brown, Diane Arbus, Amedeo Modigliani, Ludwig van Beethoven, 
Jim Morrison – and the love affairs of Frédéric Chopin and George Sand, 
Alfred de Musset and George Sand, Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden, T.S. 
Eliot and Vivienne Haigh-Wood, and Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. 
This is a list only of the films about cultural figures, and it is far 
from complete.

It will be apparent that these are among the more turbulent of artistic 
lives.  Most of them are characterised by drugs, disaster or suicide. 
These are the lives that make the most dramatic films, of course: 
Hollywood likes to cash in on the exotic danger presented by this 
period’s great artists.  But these lives of excess that end in misery 
and early death are also the ones that provide the best caution against 
the artistic existence and point us, therefore, towards the possibility 
of a cleaner way of doing things.


British cellist Jacqueline du Pré (1945-87) rose to international fame 
in her teens, and by her early twenties was a superstar of classical 
music, married to another superstar, pianist and conductor Daniel 
Barenboim.  Her career lasted until she was twenty-eight years old, when 
it was cut off by the onset of multiple sclerosis.  After this her 
appearances naturally decreased and in the public mind she became a 
tragic figure, particularly in her home country, and particularly when 
it became known that Barenboim had begun a relationship with another 
women, who had given him two children.  Du Pré died of pneumonia 
connected to her disease.

Ten years after her death, her brother and sister, Piers and Hilary, 
published a book about her.   Consisting largely of Hilary’s 
reminiscences, it offered a portrait of a home-loving English girl whose 
talent exploded beyond her own control, or that of her parents and 
siblings – and it described the measures that all five – and their 
partners – were forced to take in order to accommodate its most 
devastating consequences.

Everyone in the family, including Jacqueline, made almost unbearable 
sacrifices to her cello playing, but it is Hilary’s sacrifices that were 
perhaps the most sensational.  Three years older than Jacqueline, 
Hilary’s musical talent blossomed earlier, and she became a talented 
flautist.  But her flute playing ebbed and flowed in mysterious inverse 
proportion to Jacqueline’s cello: she began to fumble and lose 
confidence and, by the time of Jacqueline’s fame, she had almost 
completely ceased to play as a soloist.  Later on, burned out from 
travel, marriage and fame, and full of anti-depressants, Jacqueline left 
Barenboim and the stage and came to stay in Hilary’s home in the English 
countryside, where she usurped much of her sister’s existence.  She even 
asked Hilary to surrender to her the favours of her husband, Kiffer 
Finzi, a conductor, and for some time Jacqueline lived with her sister 
in a fantasy of the settled life she had given up: sleeping with Kiffer 
at night, playing with the children by day, and not touching her cello. 
  Afterwards she packed up and returned to her husband and her career.

Genius in the Family is an extraordinarily dignified account of a 
painful and taxing set of events.  It makes clear that Jacqueline’s 
prodigious musical talent was also a fierce and antisocial power that 
ripped apart the norms of the prudish English background from which she 
came.  But it is written by two people who understand and care for the 
musical force that extracts so much from them, and who understand that 
their sister cannot shoulder it alone.  It is generous and forgiving 
towards the most rapacious of Jacqueline’s excesses, and it is vivid and 
passionate in its description of her energy at its brightest and most 

"Jackie’s bid for independence was a time of exciting exploration for 
her and she challenged life with explosive energy.  The full power of 
her womanhood speedily emerged.  Great company, a brilliant mimic, with 
a huge repertoire of crude jokes, she was by now electrifyingly sexy. 
It appeared that every man she met fell in love with her.  She had 
irresistible magnetism. […]  In London [she] was quickly drawn into [a] 
circle of musical friends, playing chamber music at [the home of Hugh 
Maguire, leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra].  Jackie adored these 
evenings of spontaneous music-making and her insatiable appetite and 
energy for performing meant that she would often drag Stephen Kovacevich 
[a pianist, and her lover at the time] round to Hugh’s house to play 
through the night."

Piers and Hilary end their book with the quotation that supplies their 
title, which they found in an unnamed book:

"No family should have less than three children.  If there is one genius 
among them, there should be two to support him."

A year after Genius in the Family came out, a British film was released 
with the title Hilary and Jackie, based loosely on the book.  Directed 
by Anand Tucker, and starring Emily Watson as Jacqueline and Rachel 
Griffiths as Hilary, the film’s tagline – “The true story of two sisters 
who shared a passion, a madness and a man” – is a good indication of its 
prurient intent.  The book’s moving account of love and solidarity, 
whose characters are incomplete and complex but not “mad,” is rejected 
in favour of a salacious account of social deviance – in which terminal 
disease comes as a solemn punishment.

With the exception of one scene of frenzied cello practice when she is a 
child (when her motive is not to play music so much as to outshine her 
more advanced, and more congratulated, sister) we do not see Jacqueline 
alone with her music, and, as in Immortal Beloved, there is no earnest 
attempt in the film to engage with this central current of the artist’s 
life.  Music seems to be of no interest, even to her, except as an asset 
with which other things can be acquired.  The Jacqueline of this film is 
primarily a woman of excessive appetites whose talent is like a pair of 
nice breasts that she flashes in order to get what she really wants: 
men, fame and the surprising ability to generate applause and adoration 
simply by walking into a room.  She and Barenboim play music together 
with calculating suggestiveness, as if music were not its own end but 
merely a corridor to the bedroom.  We see nothing of Jacqueline’s stage 
performances except their last exhibitionistic note, after which she 
basks like a self-satisfied toddler in the wave of applause.  If she had 
been a famous tennis player it could have been exactly the same film.

Since we are given no understanding of the grinding intensity of musical 
work, since we are offered no sense of its slow and uncertain 
development over hours, months and years, since fame is simply another 
inevitable and light-hearted acquisition that turns up in Du Pré’s life 
with a few newspaper headlines – it is entirely bewildering why, 
suddenly, she is taking drugs, running naked and hysterical through the 
countryside and threatening suicide.  With the power of the musical 
terrain subtracted from her life and from that of her sister, they 
appear to be deranged – they do indeed seem to “share a madness” – and 
we are left with a bewildering film about celebrity bed-hopping, with 
all the characters’ motivations removed.  Without music, Jacqueline du 
Pré is a superficial narcissist who has unwisely chosen to pursue a life 
of glamour with a cosmopolitan Jewish jetsetter who does not understand 
the meaning of home; she is a voracious psychopath who tries to steal a 
home from her sister since she cannot make one herself.  Multiple 
sclerosis, when it comes, seems to be the gods’ fitting punishment for a 
woman who wants everything and gives nothing.  A gory gloating replaces 
what in Hilary and Piers’ book was a sensitive and profound reflection 
on infirmity and decline: it is only when Jacqueline is finally turned 
into useless wreckage that the moral balance is restored and the film 
can celebrate the abstractions she leaves behind – the celebrity, the 
sound track – the commodities that will now circulate with greater 
velocity because of this very film.

Hilary and Jackie is a parable of the ill-advisedness of the artist’s 
life: it sees only self-indulgence in the extravagances of those who 
would call themselves “artists.”  Like Immortal Beloved, the film seems 
to view the artist’s life from the perspective of rationalised, 
twenty-first century cultural production: approving of the mobile 
commodity, and disapproving of the social and moral disorder with which 
it is produced.  Further than this, it is a rejection of the informal 
networks through which artists have traditionally sustained themselves 
and their creativity.  Hilary and Jackie, unlike A Genius in the Family, 
cannot express the dignity of the relationships between Jacqueline and 
her siblings.  The book shows Hilary and Jacqueline united almost as a 
single organism, where the economy of forces that is usually internal to 
one human being is so magnified that it must be spread out over two and 
more.  It shows that the music that flows ultimately from the strings of 
Jacqueline’s cello is in fact driven by a large, communal human engine 
in which Hilary, Piers and Kiffer are all essential components.  But the 
deep relations between all these individuals – of unacceptable demands 
and unconditional generosity – are too troubling and unconventional for 
the film to represent.  The figure of Kiffer Finzi, who supplies a 
powerful spiritual force to the book, becomes in the film a pathetic 
figure, trapped between two perverted sisters and driven against his 
will to social and sexual trespass:

Jackie: [Discovered naked, muddy and raving in the woods by Hilary, 
trying to open her wrists with a stick] All I want is a fucking fuck for 
fuck’s sake!

[Cut to Hilary and Kiffer drinking wine at home.]

Kiffer:	No.  No.
Hilary:	We have to.
K:	No we don’t have to.  Why would we have to?  Why would anyone have to?
H:	Because she’s my sister.
K:	[Pouring himself another drink] Yes well I think you’ll find that 
this is not the kind of thing sisters normally ask one another.
H:	Because I’m scared.
K:	Yes well she doesn’t scare me.
H:	I’m sure it would just be the once.
K: 	[Spluttering into drink] Just the once, uh?  [Sarcastic] Any 
particular position?
H:	She just needs proof.
K:	[Very agitated] Proof of what, for God’s sake Hills?
H:	Proof that somebody loves her.

The unconventional communities that so many artists have created around 
themselves as the necessary condition for their art have no place in a 
biopic like Hilary and Jackie, and they can only be rendered as insanity 
and perversion.

Hilary and Jackie’s story of a warped artist and her dysfunctional 
community reads like a kind of myth – by historical counter-example – of 
the corporation.  Such old-fashioned artists’ communities, it seems to 
say, are destructive, antisocial and difficult to understand, and 
Jacqueline’s death-relief provides a vacant space into which the 
corporation can move – a better, more efficient and less perverted form 
of production that will neither require nor tolerate her 
irrationalities.   Just as the film holds out the hope of a more 
disciplined and dependable cultural worker, therefore, it also points 
towards a better mode of cultural production, where the unwholesome 
artist’s community is replaced by a rationalised, global system.


That the great artists of modern Western culture managed to produce what 
they did, despite the danger and intensity of their effort, was due in 
large part to improvised social forms built around close-knit networks 
where thought and affect circulated with high velocity, and where it was 
possible to try out forms of non-conventional human relationships that 
would not destroy, nor be destroyed by, a life of art.  Beethoven, Van 
Gogh, James Joyce, the young Picasso – the list of those whose work was 
only made possible by the uncalculating financial assistance of 
relatives or patrons would be long, while the intellectual and spiritual 
contribution made by friends, family, associates and lovers – as we have 
seen in the case of Jacqueline du Pré – would be impossible to overstate.

In the second half of the twentieth century, many of the functions of 
these networks were taken over in Europe by institutions (government 
funding bodies, universities, museums, etc) and much of their excessive 
feeling was neutralised.  This was only a small part of a general 
process of the time: the absorption of human emotion into bureaucratic 
channels, and the emergence of a social coolness, an efficiency of 
feeling.  For this new era, the memory of the earlier period of artistic 
rapture and despair was a little embarrassing, and it could only be 
acknowledged as pastiche or irony.  Keats or Byron became melodramatic 
poseurs, the Dadaists under-employed pranksters, and so on.  Through 
grants and residencies the new artist was integrated into the processes 
of mass society, and these old, excessive communities were largely 
broken up.

At this stage in the twenty-first century, we are in the middle of 
another large-scale restructuring of ideas of creativity and culture. 
As one of the most significant generators of image and value, 
“creativity” now has become a critical resource for the global economic 
engine.  What creativity is, and how it can be systematised and 
circulated, are therefore urgent questions of contemporary capitalist 
organisation.  As cultural producers are thrust into the full intensity 
of globally dispersed, just-in-time production, new images of creative 
inspiration and output are required that sit tidily within the 
systematised processes of the global market.  These processes give no 
space for “blind” support for artists – investment without any knowledge 
of the ultimate returns – or for the unpredictable energy of artistic 
“inspiration”, which may result in “fallow periods” of months or even 
years.  Even the model of public funding, which allowed some of these 
inefficiencies, is therefore inadequate, and the entire field must be 
reviewed and re-formed.  Creativity must be rendered comprehensible, 
transparent and rational: there can be none of the destructive excesses 
evident in the lives of many of the greatest artists of European 
history, and none of the ad hoc, non-replicable personal situations – a 
lover here, a sister there.  Creativity must circulate cleanly and 
quickly, and it should leave no dirty remainder.

A recent biography of a brilliant and unruly writer, declared in its 
introduction, “Vidia Naipaul, born in rural poverty in colonial Trinidad 
in 1932, would rise from this unpromising setting to become one of the 
great writers of the twentieth century.  This achievement does not mean 
that all his writing was good, or that his behaviour was exemplary…” 
Traditionally, as we have seen in this essay, biographers of great 
artists have not been too concerned if their subjects were guilty of 
less-than-exemplary behaviour; in fact such behaviour has often been a 
guarantee of the artist’s merit.  The embarrassment that this biographer 
displays about the antisocial behaviour of his chosen subject is a 
product of the sterner, more impatient attitude towards artistic 
excesses that is emerging in our era of corporate creativity.  The 
Romantic idea of the artistic genius who has responsibility to nothing 
except his or her art has exhausted its usefulness and another, far more 
disciplined character has come into play.  The artist’s biopic is 
possibly the most prominent form by which this revision of previous 
ideas of the artist is taking place.  Fundamental to its approach is the 
separation of what, in the lives of Ludwig van Beethoven and Jacqueline 
du Pré, were inseparable: the greatness of their art, and its 
destructive effects in their lives.  For what interests Hollywood, and 
the market in general, is not creativity as a complex human process, 
weighed down in bodies and relationships and empty days, but creativity 
as an abstraction, free of irrationality and pain, and light enough to 
hover like a great logo above the continents.

In order to arrive at such a standardised, manageable conception of 
creativity, much previous knowledge about this field of human activity 
must be sacrificed.  Immortal Beloved is a less good version of 
Beethoven’s late music than most of the versions that preceded it, and 
Hilary and Jackie preserves none of the complexity or insight of A 
Genius in the Family.  Perhaps, as the logic of systematised production 
occupies the terrain of human creativity more completely, we will reach 
a stage where we surrender all knowledge about this troubling domain, 
and it will become entirely alien to us.  Creativity will be like 
nature, which once we knew, before it was subjected to systems of 
control and we lost hold of that knowledge.  Now we look at nature with 
anxiety and bewilderment, and we fear what terrible assaults might erupt 
from it tomorrow.  Perhaps one day we will be terrified of what 
explosive dangers might rise up from the creativity of human beings.

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