By Laurence Vittes
In early December, a Los Angeles violinist, educator, and entrepreneur named Maia Jasper White raised serious questions about art, artists, and morality in a 2,000-word post in the wake of sexual abuse allegations against classical-music conductor James Levine. White called it “Rude Awakenings” and pointed out how having the freedom to share her personal #MeToo experiences in the classical-music industry has given her a way to address the broader subject of terrible people making great music and how to stop institutions from harboring them.
Despite being harassed by both a studio concertmaster in his 70s and the married first violinist of a string quartet, White wants to believe in music’s spiritual core even though it may not always elevate character. I reached out to White to ask about her thoughts on the #MeToo movement and its impact on the classical-music world.
What is one basic message you want to send?
I think it’s time to look with fresh eyes at the idea that art ennobles. We think of this as one of its greatest virtues. But this presumption has come at a cost. We need to take a closer, sober look at when, how, and why art transforms—and when, how, and why it does not.
How does this affect the music world?
Great talents of dubious character are treated like exotic zoo animals. They’re often given a free pass for bad behavior. It’s as if they aren’t replaceable. Orchestras include high-profile conductors like Levine and Charles Dutoit—never mind the rumors of inappropriate conduct. Behind the assumption that artists aren’t replaceable is a deeper one: that artistry is all that matters. I think it’s time to reconsider this as well. It’s a point of view that’s fundamentally incompatible with music as a pro-social art.
How does the music world address this conflict?
Perhaps by remembering that music began as a way to consecrate the sacred in everyday life. Music has its roots in weddings, funerals, religious services and rites, and a wide range of cultural needs and traditions all of which have something crucial in common: people. Music originated as a pro-social, interpersonal communion and I think art music would do well to consider the responsibility inherent to its ancestral DNA. Prohibitively high ticket prices, excluding women and people of color from positions of creative power, and covering up abuses by powerful artists could hardly be described as pro-social.
You refer to novelist Claire Dederer’s recent article in the Paris Review, “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” How can they be held accountable in the present musical community moving forward?
What society hungers for through #MeToo is repenting and reckoning . . . [The great musical institutions] need to apologize for putting ticket sales ahead of a safe workplace. They need to hold artists to a standard of personal integrity befitting the art they serve.
What advice would you offer players grappling with these issues?
Examine your discomfort. Ask yourself similar questions. Why do you believe great music is spiritually ennobling? Would you entertain alternatives to your beliefs? Why or why not? Why might you be attached to your beliefs in the way that you are? What might be some of the implications of adjusting them? How much, why, and when does it matter to you if an artist happens to be a terrible person?
What I think is most important to keep in mind is that nothing is black and white. This will allow you the possibility of more nuanced, real-world answers. In their grayness, they may not even feel like answers to you. But I do believe that accepting that, and where it leads, makes for a great way forward.
Why did you decide to write “Rude Awakenings”?
The disappointing lack of a correlation between a musician’s skill and his or her character had bothered me for most of my adult life. When #MeToo hit classical music, it felt like the time to write about that. I was hopeful that writing would help me make sense of my own thoughts and feelings. And it did so by helping me examine the expectations I have of my colleagues and the composers alive and dead whose music I play. Where do these expectations come from? Why do I have them? What evidence do I have that art is spiritually ennobling—or isn’t?
How has it been received?
Other musicians chimed in to share their feelings of disillusionment. Some shared moments of great discomfort and harassment from their own careers. I was delighted by the many conversations it started. I hadn’t verbalized my feelings on the subject to many musicians before and it was validating to see how many people could completely relate. Readers thanked me for my suggestions for illuminating their own paths forward. I hadn’t set out to offer any solutions for the future. I sought to share what I see, and have seen, around me. I wanted people to know they have options for taking control.
Others were less sympathetic?
Others essentially yawned, saying something to the effect of, “Are we still talking about Wagner?” I infer from their irritation that they have given themselves permission to fully separate the art from the artist—and then resent it when others call that choice into question. The irritation itself betrays a deeper discomfort that is worth thinking about. Perhaps that kind of person could benefit from questioning their own beliefs and assumptions. I would ask this kind of person to consider the social cost of clinging to this belief.