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Cuomo, Levine, and Mediocrity

Over the last week, the American press has been consumed by the actions of two men, Andrew Cuomo and James Levine. The first is the governor of New York, who has managed an Icarian collapse from the ‘Love Gov’ of the early pandemic to the subject of multiple inquiries including possible impeachment; the second, a sexual predator and conductor who died this month. Excellent pieces about both have been written by authors far better-informed than me: this article in the Boston Globe explores the problematic notions of genius that protected Levine; this in-depth exploration in New York Magazine from Rebecca Traister considers how Cuomo’s twin failings—sexual harassment and governing incompetence—are in fact combined.


There were two other pieces, however, that pointed me to thinking about how similar the stories of these two men are. The American conductor Kenneth Woods has written a searing article about Levine, the opening premise: ‘James Levine was not a great man with a single tragic flaw. He was an almost completely horrible person, with a single, tragic talent.’ Woods argues that across the scope of his career, Levine was characterised by an insatiable ego. Woods recounts several anecdotes to this end, although perhaps the most telling is Levine’s abject disregard for the situation of the orchestral players at the Met, that institution to which he was supposedly so deeply attached and about which he cared so profoundly. The overriding discussion concerning Levine has considered him from two angles: the sexual predator (no one seriously disputes this), and the artistic genius. This binary is clear in the summary of Woods’s article, and pervades most of the coverage, as it does whenever artists commit bad acts. The question, as usually posed, concerns the extent to which the art is tainted by the artist, or—admittedly less common in recent years—the artist is absolved by the art.

That said, Woods goes on to complicate this dichotomy. Initially he accepts that ‘He was very possibly the most gifted American performer of his generation. His ear, his memory, his knowledge of languages, his encyclopaedic knowledge of opera style and performance tradition are all legendary. He was a phenomenal pianist.’ However, Woods quickly notes that, ‘I can’t think of any opera in which his recording would be my first choice, and there are many where I feel that once you’ve heard the real thing, his interpretations seem pretty pale – particularly in Wagner. Without the world’s greatest singers at his side, I can’t think of a single symphonic recording of his that is of the first rank.’ The conclusion, then, not only was he a monster, but perhaps the quality of the art isn’t even good enough to excuse him of his monstrosity.


This where I want to bring in my other inspiration for this article. On Friday, the New York Times Columnist Ezra Klein published his interview with Rebecca Traister about her reporting of Cuomo’s actions. The thrust of Traister’s argument is obvious in the title of the episode, ‘Andrew Cuomo and the Performance of Power’: throughout his actions Cuomo is performingpower. Whether it’s making lewd comments (or worse) about young women, berating a State Assemblyman as he bathes his children, or obsessing over the coverage of his pandemic briefings, his interest is in the show. As you might guess, she makes explicit comparisons to Trump beyond the easy juxtaposition of the briefings.


The line that was most telling for me, however, came from Klein in a broader discussion about tropes of male power (with reference to Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, and Harvey Weinstein): ‘Their cruelty is understood as somehow wound up or bound up in their greatness and often ends up being a kind of aesthetic standard for greatness, hiding a sort of mediocrity behind it.’ For Traister and Klein, this performance is there in place of ‘actual’ governance: detailed policy-making, legislative developments, etc. Whilst there is a fair argument to be made that part of the role of the executive is precisely this sort of performative leadership (consider the praise of Biden as ‘Comforter in Chief’), their critique is that it has to be coupled with policy, and Cuomo lacked any interest in this. Hence the performance is ‘hiding mediocrity’, epitomised by the nursing-home disaster.


As you can probably see, in many ways it’s exactly the point Woods is making about Levine. It’s interesting in this regard to consider the shift in the behaviour of conductors that we have witnessed over the last century. We have moved (not fast enough!) from the Maestro of old, the Toscanini-style bully (if you haven’t already seen it, consider this video). The best modern conductors often put far more weight—at least rhetorically—on collaboration and respect (the recent John Bridcut documentary on Bernard Haitink made this abundantly clear, both from Haitink’s perspective, and that of his musicians). It’s telling, in this regard, that Levine was ousted from the Boston Symphony Orchestra not for his sexual predation, but because the musicians simply could not put up with his refusal to do the job in a respectful or effective manner.


There’s a distinction to be drawn regarding the performativity in both roles: for a governor, there is work to be done beyond the leadership of people; for a conductor—famously the only silent musician—the leadership is the job (whilst I obviously appreciate that the role of a music director is more expansive and includes all sorts of administrative tasks, no one would dispute that their primary function is the conducting of musicians). Fundamentally, Levine’s harassment was more extensively physical than Cuomo’s (at least according to present reporting), although we can assume they were both motivated by the same need to soothe their ego (consider Wilde’s proclamation that ‘Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power’). Cuomo got a pass because he made the right noises: approving gay marriage, encouraging gun control; likewise, Levine because his music was pretty good (pace any critique in this regard). We might suggest, however, that for both men this was secondary to the celebration of their ego.


The performance of power instead seems so intrinsic to both men, whatever the extent to which it was carried out, that it stands as a warning. Klein’s notion of the ‘aesthetic standard for greatness’ is crucial, we must rethink our criteria of quality of leadership. Indeed, I would say we should be actively suspicious of anyone who performs power in this way. We need to ask why do they behave in this way? What are they hiding? Not only is it wrong on its own terms but what does it distract us from seeing? As Traister puts it, if nothing else, ‘the amount of work and time and energy on everyone’s part that it takes to maintain and manicure these bizarro power hierarchies is just mind boggling and sad if you actually do care about governance’.

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