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The Next Idea of the Artist
Art, music and the present threat of creativity (1)
Essay : Ludwig van Beethoven, Jacqueline du Pré, Hollywood, cinema, creativity, globalisation, capitalism, corporations, workers, music, composers, cellists, deafness, family, violence, sacrifice
Sunday, September 21, 2008 20:48 GMT


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.

Beethoven's funeral as depicted by Franz Stober

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 (3). 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. (4)

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” (5) – and now, forty-two years old and entirely deaf, he accepted that his solitude was not provisional, but absolute.

Beethoven in 1814. Portrait by Louis-René Létronne.

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.” (6) 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. (7)

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. (8)

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 (9) 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.

Karl van Beethoven

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.

Immortal Beloved

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.

Jacqueline du Pré

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 creative:

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.

Jacqueline du Pré rehearsing with Daniel Barenboim

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.

Hilary and Jackie

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.


(1) This essay was written to accompany the 2008 Liverpool Biennial.
(2) Beethoven: His Spiritual Development by J.W.N. Sullivan, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1927), 165-7
(3) This is in many ways the central question of Thomas Mann’s novel, Doktor Faustus (1947)
(4) Beethoven: The Music and the Life by Lewis Lockwood (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2003), 333-347
(5) ibid, 197
(6) ibid, 357
(7) J.W.N. Sullivan, ibid, 145-7
(8) ibid, 172
(9) Beethoven and his Nephew: a Study in Human Relations by Editha and Richard Sterba (London: Dobson, 1957)