Whiplash and Philosophy
Does the Aesthetic End Justify the Immoral Means?
By Douglas Groothuis
Directed by Damien Chazelle, Whiplash is a film about jazz that is laden with moral theory enacted through drama. An aspiring 19-year old jazz drummer, Andrew (played by Miles Teller) attends a prestigious music school—on the order of Julliard—where he is spotted by the studio big band leader, Terrence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons). Andrew is startled by Fletcher while he is practicing in a music room. Fletcher shouts at him, keeps him off-balance, and then tells him to report for practice in the studio big band the next morning at 6:00 AM. Andrew scrambles to get there on time. He does, but then waits three hours for Fletcher and the band members. This episode is heavy with the future. Fletcher is a Mephistophelian maestro, a genius of intimidation, deception, and cruelty. His piercing eyes, taut physique and explosive temper evoke terror (and a kind of respect) from his students.
This sadism is not an end in itself. Fletcher tells his young and tormented charge a tale about jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker. While struggling through a solo, Jo Jones threw one of his cymbals at Parker, barely missing him. Parker left the stage stunned and humiliated. But Charlie Parker became Bird, the path-breaking and paradigmatic soloist of bebop. (This is a true story.)For Fletcher, anything is instrumentally justified by the end of finding and perfecting another Bird. Fletcher puts this into practice by insulting Andrew, playing on his unhappy family background, and even hurling an object at his head while he is drumming. Andrew ducks out of the way, but the point is made: grow or die.
Andrew is terrified, intimidated, and captivated by Fletcher. He must master the difficult chart of “Whiplash,” chosen by Fletcher, the obsessive perfectionist. Andrew practices for hours, exhausting himself, and leaving spattered blood on the drums. For him, everything is jazz drumming, and Buddy Rich is everything a drummer should want to be. (Jazz lovers will delight in a subtle, nonverbal reference to Rich in the final scenes of the film.) Andrew immerses himself in Rich’s recorded performances. He coldly puts aside a budding romance because he knows that it would hinder his development as a musician. She is an obstacle, not a human being. His arrogance begins to rival that of Fletcher. He is becoming nearly as monomaniacal as Captain Ahab pursuing Moby Dick. Fletcher is Ahab.
I will not reveal the lead up to the finale, so I can only say that Fletcher pushes Andrew too far, driving him out of music for a time. Fletcher himself suffers a career-changing setback. However, the two end up sharing the stage in the last scene. We find Fletcher conducting a big band comprised of young players, including Andrew on the drum chair. The psychic contest between the jazz dictator and the driven drummer escalates into a spectacular showdown in which both men achieve their musical goals, but in radically different ways. Along with superb acting by the two principal characters, suspense and dramatic reversals give his film its sinuous dynamic. To divulge much more of the plot would dissolve this magic. Further, it would be disrespectful to the makers and actors in the film and would rob the viewer of significant cinematic experience. Nonetheless, the plot discussed is replete with moral and aesthetic questions.
Fletcher is no relativist about music. For him, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. His standards are transcendent and objective. He cajoles, bludgeons, and goads his students to attain perfection in the demanding medium of jazz. That is there obligation. Perfection impels him. That pursued end justifies nearly any means by which to attain it, including cruelty, lying, vulgarity, and psychological battering. For Fletcher, his musicians are not ends in themselves, who ought to be respected qua human beings; they are means by which to realize an aesthetic ideal. To realize this end, most anything is permitted. Immanuel Kant, the great deontologist, would frown on this:
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.
This version of the categorical imperative forbids treating humans as merely means to an end. It does not forbid the borrower from benefiting from the lender, who becomes a means for securing money. If Fletcher recognized the dignity of his students while compelling them to achieve excellence, Kant would approve. A Kantian Fletcher would not place aesthetic purpose above moral principle or above the dignity of the person. Cruelty does not justify the emergence of a genius in jazz—or in anything else. The Jewish and Christian claim that humans bear the divine image and thus have intrinsic value makes essentially the same point; however, Kant did not offer this support for his view.
Those watching Whiplash may be morally torn. Fletcher’s brutal treatment of Andrew is painful to watch. It seems morally wrong—period. Yet this monster, Fletcher, is a master of jazz. His students prize playing in his band, despite his ferocity. Because mediocrity is anathema in his presence, many rise beyond it to new levels of musicianship. Those unequal to these ordeals fall away from music, or worse. When one of Fletcher’s successful graduates commits suicide—a suicide induced by the anxieties Fletcher instilled—he is disheartened, but not repentant. He continues to inflict his method.
Perhaps Andrew achieves virtuosity in spirit of Fletcher’s obsessions, since the final scene pits both against the other in a musical shootout. If so, then Fletcher’s methods are not morally vindicated, even though they spurred Andrew to greatness. Fletcher gets his virtuoso, but at the expense of his career. Andrew must turn on his cruel muse to find his own great gift. Do we respect both Fletcher and Andrew or only Andrew? Moral questions remain.
Fletcher is a kind of elitist consequentialist. That another Bird may fly out of his studio is his only passion. How many birds are shot down to the ground in his fever swamps is irrelevant. Nor does the general welfare of musicians matter to him. Producing the greatest good for the greatest number does not enter his mind. Just as Nietzsche claimed that the deaths of thousands were worth one Napoleon, so, for Fletcher, one Bird is worth the demise of many lesser beings. This is morally questionable, to say the least. But what of the value of jazz itself? Is this art form worth all the causalities that Fletcher and his kind inflict?
Nietzsche wrote that “Life without music would be a mistake.” Many agree; but should we sacrifice the elements of common decency—such as kindness, friendship, and honesty—on its aesthetic altar? Should musical skill be placed above virtuous qualities and moral development?
If you subtract Miles Dewey Davis (1926-1991) from the roster of jazz luminaries, the lineup thins dangerously. Put differently, the headwaters of bebop, free pop, and jazz-rock fusion reduce to a trickle without his trumpet, band-leading, and compositions. We marvel at his playing, but we do not salute his living. Aloof, angry, and brooding, a drug addict, sexually irresponsible, often contemptuous to his audience and violent with his wives and girlfriends, Mr. Davis was no moral virtuoso. He had many admirers, but few friends. He was not married to any of his children’s mothers.
We should be grateful for the music of Miles Davis. But would we want to raise a child to be like him? Would anyone with a modicum of prudence want to have a spouse exhibit this combination of musical virtuosity and moral viciousness? It seems that in axiology (the theory of value) moral value should be ranked higher than artistic value—if a choice between them must be made.
Whiplash gives us two compelling characters, both on a quest for what few attain—musical mastery. In the drama three moral philosophies compete for justification. If one believes that using most any means to reach an aesthetic end (virtuosity in jazz), then Fletcher and his method are vindicated. If one sides with Kant, then cruelty, dishonestly, and the like, cannot be justified under any condition. The virtue ethicist indicts for a different reason than Kant: Fletcher lacks the settled dispositions that are conducive to human flourishing for individual character and for society as a whole. Jazz is not the center of the universe. Nor does he pass moral virtues on to his students; instead, he demands musical monomania whatever the cost.
For those fascinated by jazz, film, and philosophy, one cannot do much better than Whiplash. If you can endure the cruelty of Fletcher to his students (and I winched), then watch this film and discuss it with thoughtful people.
Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and an ardent jazz aficionado.
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