Valentina Lisitsa and Artists’ Social Capital

Here’s my take on the Valentina Lisitsa affair.

Lisitsa, a Russian-speaking, Ukrainian-born classical pianist, was scheduled to perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last week, but she was dropped by the TSO over a series of offensive tweets about ethnic Ukrainians and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. Lisitsa has a social media presence—her reputation was basically made on YouTube—and the inevitable online shitstorm ensued. That shitstorm swallowed up Stewart Goodyear, the pianist tapped to replace Lisitsa, who had to bow out in turn. (More at Musical Toronto and NPR.)

In the Globe and Mail, Marcus Gee argues that firing Lisitsa sets a terrible free-speech precedent: arts organizations are poorly equipped to evaluate whether an artist’s views are too offensive. But Paul Wells in Maclean’s notes that “there is also precedent for soloists being sent packing because what they were doing outside the hall was too big to park.” If arts organizations are poorly equipped to evaluate artists’ views, they’re also too strapped for time and money to deal with the blowback.

As I see it, artists in the course of their careers acquire a certain amount of social capital. How they spend that social capital is up to them, but they don’t always spend it wisely. If you’re known for your antics rather than your talents, or for taking sides on deeply controversial issues, well, it’s your social capital to spend, but you’re running a real risk of not only going into social-capital overdraft, but also making it more difficult to make the art that enabled you to build up your social capital in the first place.

More to the point: no artist exists in a vacuum. Writers have publishers. Musicians have orchestras, record labels, concert venues. When you make yourself socially toxic through your public conduct, you make it very difficult for your collaborators to do business with you. Not because they’re opposed to free speech, but because you’re dragging them into your argument without their prior consent. You’re forcing them to spend their social capital on your behalf, for a cause they don’t necessarily believe in.

In which case you’d better be worth it. I’ve watched a few of Lisitsa’s YouTube videos—the Beethoven piano sonatas, mainly, because I know them cold and can use them to tell if a performer is any good. From what I can tell, she’s technically flawless, but a bit soulless: an excellent reference performance, but not so much with the emotional interpretation.

The classical music scene is really competitive: there are a lot of other really good pianists out there. Don’t blame an orchestra for opting to go with one just as good who will give them fewer headaches.

The same could be said for artists in other fields.