The limit of greatness: Whiplash and abuse in art

whiplash and abuse

Artwork by Chloe Leeson

Whiplash is an intense and visually striking film that examines the limits it takes for someone to become great. The ways to nurture the qualities of being “excellent” or “genius” at artistic endeavors has been examined in many films, most memorably Black Swan. In Whiplash, “How far will you go to be great?” is the question jazz teacher Fletcher asks of his drumming student, Andrew. But the ways in which Fletcher expects him to reach those heights are downright abusive.

Fletcher is a Full Metal Jacket-esque drill sergeant who willingly crosses the line between mentor-ship and abuse. his motto is “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job” Fletcher will go as far as he can, cursing at students, throwing things at them, in order to make them great. Fletcher believes that by breaking them down as much as they can, through psychological and physical abuse, only then can they rise above to achieve their great talent.

Andrew is the perfect victim for Fletcher, for Andrew wants nothing more than to be one of the greatest drummers of all time. He sacrifices friendship, romance, nearly everything in order to get there.  Andrew spends night after night, practicing drums for hours until his fingers bleed and are cut open. He nearly loses his life in a car crash rushing to get to a concert.

To be an artist does mean to make sacrifice and work hard, but is that how we measure greatness? Does sweat, blood, and tears really make an artist great? What does it take to be great in the arts? It’s something that I’ve questioned myself. Is it a natural gift, or is it from hard work? Will being beaten down by teachers help you to rise up and meet your potential? Or will it break your spirit so much that you forget why you loved that art in the first place?

From my own experience, I went to school for theatre. It’s a bit different than dance or playing an instrument, you can’t really practice on your own to the extent that Andrew does in Whiplash, or even Nina in Black Swan. While my school never had anyone like Fletcher, (thank god!) there were definitely instances where criticisms could go too far. When you’re an artist, a criticism of technique becomes a criticism of YOU, because sometimes your art is all you allow yourself to be. Sometimes the search for an elusive greatness in line with endless criticisms ends up breaking your spirit and leaving you embittered with the art you once loved.

Being involved in the arts does make you wonder how tough you have to be. It can be a harsh business. And if you come across the likes of Fletcher and fail to meet him to the challenge, does that mean you’re not made to be great? I feel that emotionally abusive teaching tactics (and obviously physical abuse- the likes of Fletcher most certainly!) does not make an artist grow. Tough times, yes. Harsh critiscms? They are sometimes necessary.  But there is a line for them.

But then again, does the ending of Whiplash when Andrew busts out that 10-minute solo prove that Fletcher was right? Does Fletcher beating Andrew as far down into the ground as he could turn out a solo that magnificent solo prove that there was a method in his madness?

With something as subjective as art, the greatness of an artist will probably always remain elusive. Is it innate talent and in their blood? Or is it being beaten so hard by their teachers that they had no choice but to get up and fight harder? Whiplash explores that question and remains slightly ambiguous on it’s stance, giving food for thought for artists and audience members.

By Caroline Madden

CAROLINECaroline was raised out of steel in the swamps of Jersey, a 23-year-old film junkie and feminist. She loves anything from the feel-good Hollywood classics to slasher films, from the magical Studio Ghibli to Vietnam War movies. Her favorite director is Martin Scorsese, especially when he’s directing Robert De Niro. It’s nearly impossible to pick her favorite movies without listing tons of them, but a few of them are Amadeus, King Kong, When Harry Met Sally, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Jaws, and An American Werewolf in London. Her absolute favorite will always be The Lord of the Rings. Her tumblr is cinematicvisons , she blogs about film at cinematicvisions (same name, different place) and her twitter is crolinss.

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