f all the news stories arising from the ongoing sexual-harassment crisis, the one involving James Levine has made the deepest impression on the world of art. This is not because anyone in the classical-music industry was surprised by accusations that the music director emeritus of the Metropolitan Opera had molested teenagers, since rumors of Levine’s interest in very young boys had circulated for four decades. It was, rather, because he was the first high-culture artist to be swept up in the scandal. Actors, producers, directors, comedians: All were brought low in the wake of the exposure of Harvey Weinstein as a serial abuser. But with the exception of Kevin Spacey, who had carved out a place for himself on the legitimate stage, these men belonged to the pop-culture domain. Not so Levine, the public figure most closely associated with America’s largest opera company. That he is also a conductor of the first rank caused lovers of classical music to find it especially painful that so great a career should now be ending in ignominy.
Despite ample evidence to the contrary, many people remain stubbornly inclined to believe that great artists like Levine are somehow immune to the temptation to conduct themselves contemptibly. So it will be interesting to see what happens when the attention of the public turns, as it undoubtedly will, to the misconduct of still greater artists of the past. It is striking, for instance, how unwilling some admirers of the music of Benjamin Britten have been to accept the well-attested fact that the foremost British composer of his time was sexually attracted to pubescent boys, many of whom he is known to have “groomed” in ways indistinguishable from those of a child molester.
Even more immediately relevant is the case of George Balanchine, the co-founder of New York City Ballet. Born in 1904, Balanchine was the greatest choreographer of the 20th century, a figure of towering stature whose works continue to be danced by most of the world’s classical ballet companies. Yet he treated his female dancers in ways that would leave him open to the charge of being a sexual predator were he alive today.
ost of the dance companies of the modern era were founded and led by charismatic choreographers, more often than not men, who controlled all decisions related to the hiring and promotion of their dancers. The more accomplished the choreographer, the more absolute his power, and the greater the desire of ambitious young dancers to work with him. “Young” is the operative word: Dancers normally start their training as children and launch their careers as teenagers. Because their studies are so prolonged and demanding, dancers are often immature for their age, having had less opportunity than most adolescents to learn the ways of the larger world. Conversely, the leader of a dance company spends most of his time with attractive young people who are in no position to reject his advances should he feel inclined to make them.
Not surprisingly, it is far from unusual for choreographer-leaders to become sexually involved with their dancer-employees. The existence of such liaisons is taken for granted, as is the notion that choreographers will seek inspiration by falling in love with “muses” whose dancing moves them, changing partners as newer dancers stimulate their waning creative impulses.
In this regard, Balanchine was no different from his colleagues. He had four wives, a common-law spouse, and an incalculably large number of transient partners. Allegra Kent, who danced for him from 1953 to 1981, noted that each of his major romances lasted for about seven years, and that he usually married the women in question when they turned 21. Tanaquil Le Clercq, his fourth wife, was born in 1929, started dancing for Balanchine in 1944, became romantically involved with him in 1950, and wed him two years later.
In the first half of his life, no one questioned the way Balanchine treated his female dancers. The only reason anyone bothered to talk about it at all was that so many of his ballets embodied a powerfully romantic, often tragic view of heterosexual love. He was a man obsessed with women, and the fruit of his obsession was a body of work unrivaled for its beauty and profundity. In the words of the dance critic Arlene Croce, “If George Balanchine were a novelist or a playwright or a movie director…his studies of women would be among the most discussed and most influential artistic achievements of our time.” But he was a choreographer, one whose work was known only to dance buffs, and so what he did with his dancers after hours was of no concern to anyone save for the dancers themselves.
All this changed when, in 1948, Ballet Society, organized two years earlier by Balanchine and his patron Lincoln Kirstein, was installed as the resident dance company of New York’s City Center for Music and Drama. Renamed New York City Ballet (NYCB for short), it became one of America’s leading ballet troupes. In 1954, Time put Balanchine on its cover, calling him “the most effective maker of ballets now living.” At 50, he had become a celebrity, making his offstage life a matter of interest to reporters at the very moment when it was interfering with his ability to run his company.
Like other compulsive womanizers, Balanchine kept on pursuing young women far into his own middle age. By then, though, many of them saw him less as a potential lover than a father figure and found his sexual advances repellent. Kent, who joined NYCB at the age of 15, was one of a growing number of up-and-coming ballerinas who kept him at arm’s length. Their rejection propelled him into a midlife crisis, writ larger and more consequential by his new-won fame and institutional security.
It became Balanchine’s informal policy to discourage his female dancers, not just the ones whose favors he coveted, from marrying. He gave his preferred ballerinas different kinds of perfume so that he would know whenever they were in—or out—of the theater. One of them, Melissa Hayden, later recalled that he started touching her and other dancers in rehearsal in ways that were unrelated to the work at hand. And while he was too serious about his work to maintain a Hollywood-type casting-couch policy, he started taking roles away from dancers who refused to let him manage their private lives.
Balanchine’s erratic conduct blossomed into a full-scale crisis when Suzanne Farrell, who would become the most celebrated American ballerina of the ’60s and ’70s, joined NYCB in 1961, the year she turned 16. Certain that she had the potential to become a star, Balanchine made his first role for her in 1963. He then started taking roles away from other women and giving them to Farrell, who soon became NYCB’s most prominently featured ballerina, performing nearly every night. According to Hayden, “It was hard to hold your own. No one else danced.” The situation was exacerbated by the fact that Le Clercq’s career had been cut short when she contracted polio in 1956. Balanchine now saw Farrell as the company’s next prima ballerina assoluta and took it for granted that she would also succeed Le Clercq as his lover—not anticipating that Farrell, who was Catholic, would refuse to yield to his urgent wishes.
Balanchine knew perfectly well that it was foolish for him to pursue a shy, naive young woman who was 41 years his junior. Yet he was unable to stop himself: He divorced Le Clercq in 1969, telling reporters that he and Farrell were engaged. In fact, she was already seeing Paul Mejia, another NYCB dancer, and Farrell and Mejia married in the hope that Balanchine would accept her rejection of him as a suitor. Instead, he took away Mejia’s roles, and the couple resigned from the company in protest. Farrell did not return to NYCB until 1974.
On January 1, Peter Martins, Balanchine’s successor as ballet master-in-chief of New York City Ballet, announced his immediate retirement. A few weeks earlier, he had been accused of sexually harassing and physically abusing his dancers over an extended period of time. Martins denied the charges, claiming that he was retiring solely to “bring an end to this disruption,” but the New York Times reported that two dozen former dancers said that he had “verbally and physically bullied performers and students…and abused his power by conducting sexual relationships with select dancers.” And while no one has suggested that Balanchine engaged in misconduct of the former kind, it is unlikely that Martins’s alleged behavior would have been tolerated had it not been for the precedent of Balanchine’s treatment of his female dancers.
Dance is by no means the only branch of high art in which such matters are now being reconsidered. Shortly before Martins retired, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it would not be swayed by an online petition signed by 12,000 people that called for the removal from display of Balthus’s 1938 painting Thérèse Dreaming. The petition contended that the painting, which portrays a young girl in a sexually suggestive but not explicit pose, is inappropriate for public viewing, recommending that it be replaced by another painting by a female artist of the same period: “Given the current climate around sexual assault and allegations that become more public each day, in showcasing this work for the masses, the Met is romanticizing voyeurism and the objectification of children.”
To its credit, the Met refused to remove Thérèse Dreaming, which has long been the subject of understandable controversy but is nonetheless generally regarded by critics as a modern masterpiece. It is also noteworthy that the language of the petition was later modified by its creator to suggest that it would also be acceptable for the museum to change the painting’s label so as to indicate that “some viewers find this piece offensive or disturbing.”
Yet the language of the Met’s statement defending the painting’s display was no less noteworthy in its own careful way: “Moments such as this provide an opportunity for conversation, and visual art is one of the most significant means we have for reflecting on both the past and the present and encouraging the continuing evolution of existing culture through informed discussion and respect for creative expression.”
Given the growing intensity of the collective rage that fuels the anti-harassment movement, one may take leave to doubt that those who make the next posthumous assault on the oeuvre of an artist like Balthus will be deflected by mere statements of sympathy. We are, it is more likely, witnessing the opening skirmishes of a clash of irreconcilable points of view, one whose ultimate consequences will be far-reaching.
On one side are those who, shaped by the tenets of feminism and rightly disgusted by the vile behavior of men like Levine, Weinstein, and Spacey, believe that it should be the paramount priority of America’s cultural establishment to extirpate such behavior by any means necessary. Many of them do not distinguish between the vicious abuse of a Weinstein and the lower-level harassment of, say, a Leon Wieseltier, regarding both as unacceptable products of the “patriarchy” of powerful men who in their view have heretofore controlled American life.
On the other side are those who, while no less enraged by the revelations of recent months, fear that the anti-harassment campaign may be evolving into a “warlock hunt” (a term coined by the writer Claire Berlinski). In their view, some of its leaders are dangerously willing to trample on due process, whether formal or informal, in their zeal to cage the beasts among us. Comparatively little has been heard to date from these latter skeptics, in part because the charges leveled against Levine, Weinstein, Spacey, Bill Cosby, the comedian Louis C.K., and innumerable other entertainers and industry executives have been so credible—and so shocking. As a result, there is now a general consensus that the entertainment industry is a stable in need of cleaning. But if a false or exaggerated charge should do irreparable damage to the reputation of an innocent man, those who now contend that charges of sexual harassment should be assumed true until proven false will find themselves in a difficult position.
Until that happens, though, the anti-harassment crusade will likely continue to grow in strength. And because so many of its members also see it as part of a wider anti-patriarchical political movement, it seems probable that at least some of them will sooner or later decide to turn their attention to great artists of the past. The New York Times’ story about Mia Merrill’s anti-Balthus petition ended with this bald sentence: “Ms. Merrill said that she was not creating petitions to remove any other paintings by Balthus nor was she planning, at the moment, to protest any other works.” Perhaps—but even if she does not, others will.
nd where does this leave the reputation of George Balanchine?
Not, needless to say, in the same pigeonhole as that of Peter Martins, much less Levine, Weinstein, Cosby, or Louis C.K. Unlike these men, he was a creative genius of the first order, and cases such as his have historically been dealt with by declaring that it is the art that matters, not the artist. To remove masterpieces of the choreographer’s art like Serenade, The Four Temperaments, and Symphony in C from the international dance repertory because their maker was a sexual predator would be like demanding that the Met stop performing Tristan und Isolde because Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite.
So, at any rate, runs the conventional wisdom. But in our ideology-driven world, those who believe that “the personal is political” are showing little inclination to split such aesthetic hairs. It may well be, then, that the pendulum of judgment is destined to swing back, if only for a time, toward a more moralistically judgmental view of the artist’s responsibilities to his fellow man. Moreover, this development could even be desirable—up to a point. Balanchine, like Wagner and Britten, was an artist, not a god, and none of his ballets is beautiful enough to excuse his mistreatment of the women on whom he made them.
For my own part, I would strongly prefer not to live in a world in which the accessibility of great art of the past were to be made conditional on our collective approval of the way in which its flawed makers conducted themselves in private. But I am no less uncomfortable with the long-prevalent tendency to suppose that the ability to make great art somehow relieves its makers of the responsibility to live up to the same ethical standards as their less gifted fellow men.
Can this dilemma be resolved? Might the righteous anger of feminists and progressives lead us into an era of cultural neo-Puritanism? Or will cooler heads respond to their understandable revulsion at the predations of artists like Balanchine and James Levine by successfully reasserting the autonomy of great art from the personal lives of its makers?
One thing should already be surpassingly clear: Long before the scandals of 2017, the history of art had already taught us that there is no relationship between artistic and personal greatness. Indeed, it is tempting to suggest that the desire to make great art may actually increase the likelihood that an artist will behave monstrously in his private life. The iron determination of the serious artist very often warps his personal character. Yet we persist in regarding such artists as heroic and finding reasons to justify their self-centered behavior.
Surely it is time to put aside such foolishness. To make excuses for the damage that charismatic geniuses do to innocent people is to run the risk of committing the sin of idolatry, a sin all too characteristic of an age in which art has for many people replaced religion as the wellspring of life’s meaning.
And what of the art that results from their behavior? Is it thereby tainted? While I have no trouble understanding why others might feel that way, I do not share their view. Surely Keats was right to say that a thing of beauty is a joy forever. But so, too, was Shakespeare right to say that the evil that men do lives after them. It must never be forgotten—even when it issues in beauty.