A critical miscellany

In the wake of the storm that sprang up a few days ago around my Guardian article, here is a potpourri of responses by me and to me over the last few days…

Just found the following comment beneath my Guardian article. I’m completely intrigued! One of the most pithy, accurate and incisive critical summaries that I’ve ever come across… I wonder who wrote it? (I have taken the liberty of correcting three minor spelling mistakes.)

“The author couldn’t be more right nor more dead-centre in his appraisal of “El Sistema”, carefully dismounting one by one the many myths surrounding it and revealing to The Guardian’s readers what many people suspect within Venezuela or feels to be true but do not speak about, lest one be accused of crimes of treason to the motherland. Like much of what has to do with the country’s public sector, “El Sistema” has evolved into a black box, a pit of unfathomable depth where a lot of money goes, most of it unaccounted for, that if at all leaves only scant funding available for anything else in the cultural world and renders Abreu as the country’s general factotum in all things musical who, Roman Emperor-like, decides who lives (under his umbrella, of course) and who does not or is at least assured of a very hard struggle to survive. As putschist Lt. Col. Chávez ascended to the Presidency 15 years ago, Abreu made the smart move of selling him the purportedly social redemption merits of an initiative he had conceived in the late 1960’s and aimed at the country’s middle and upper classes as an efficient talent-detecting machine that had been around for at least the three preceding decades and that had indeed served to populate the country’s musical life with some remarkable musicians. Chávez, detecting an effective propaganda scheme immediately bought the idea, of course at the price of Abreu selling him also his soul. Abreu will pass on to history with the same tarnish as those who showed a similar behaviour in the USSR or 1930’s Germany or Italy.

But as a reading of other postings show, El Sistema is also fiercefully defended, it being one of the very few positive things Venezuela is known abroad for, besides baseball players, boxers and beauty queens. But within it there are very ugly, mostly hidden or little known things the author carefully has shown to the disgust of some. Dudamel’s remark is also revelatory, demonstrating everyone’s subservience to Abreu, whom he of course aspires to succeed as El Sistema’s generalmusikdiktator, himself being another totem no one dares to criticise but whose current fame one fails to understand as most of his interpretations are superficial, shallow or with little meaning. A sign of the times, no doubt.”

I’m ignoring most of the bilge that’s floating around my article in the English-speaking world, but there’s one particularly gloopy example that I can’t help holding up in all its malodorous glory.

A Scottish hack, Catherine MacLeod, has weighed in on the subject of my article. “His criticism implicitly raises questions about Sistema’s UK activities,” she states. Er, no. I said that El Sistema “is a throwback to the past, raising serious questions about much-heralded efforts to transplant it to the UK.” Not much implicit about that. “Interestingly, Mr Baker has never visited Sistema Scotland,” she continues. Yes, fascinating, especially since my book’s about Venezuela.

She then goes on a bit about my critique of El Sistema in Venezuela. Interestingly, it’s unclear whether Ms MacLeod has ever visited Venezuela. Interestingly, she doesn’t make any counter-arguments; the thrust of her article is that my work on Venezuela should be dismissed because it might upset someone in Scotland.

However, I see that “Audit Scotland and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health are collaborating on a massive research project. Sistema’s Scottish team are looking forward to in-depth research ‘capturing and measuring the vibe we already get.’” I’m reminded of Eleonora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett’s clear-eyed book The Social Impact of the Arts: An Intellectual History. As they write, public debate about the value of the arts is almost always linked to funding, and when funding is involved, debates slide into advocacy. “Advocacy, by definition, excluded the possibility of a critical and open-ended interrogation of what the real value or impacts of the arts might be” (p.10).

Of course, talking about intellectual history is just another example of me being in an “ivory tower,” that hoariest of clichés that MacLeod dredges up – lightweight, portable ivory, it should be noted, in order to allow me to live, travel, and carry out extended fieldwork in many parts of Latin America over the last 18 years.

“Where Sistema really matters the book should be ignored,” ends the article. So someone who was extolling in-depth research a second ago now recommends ignoring the only existing in-depth research on El Sistema – without actually having read that research herself. Reason disappears through a hole in the floor.

Pretty measured response from El Sistema so far, via the conductor Dietrich Paredes. Not much to argue with in his comments. The only thing really is when he says: “it doesn’t bother me that someone thinks differently from what a whole orchestral system thinks, from what any musician from the orchestra will tell you if you ask.” The tone is apparently reasonable, though the idea of a whole orchestral system of hundreds of thousands of people thinking as one is subtly chilling; but the content won’t fool experienced Sistema watchers.

Of course, looking at the public realm, what he says is true: the institution’s narrative is so dominant that debate is almost entirely absent. El Sistema’s figureheads and spokespeople can speak all they like, the mainstream media laps it up, and very rarely is an alternative opinion sought or heard. But, as I discovered repeatedly in Venezuela, what people say publicly and think privately are often quite different. (I can’t believe I’m reduced to making that leaden point, but the possibility just doesn’t seem to enter some people’s heads). Musicians with critical views generally can’t say anything openly, because they don’t want to be blacklisted by an organisation that virtually monopolises classical music in Venezuela. But I have many testimonies from Sistema musicians that contradict what Paredes says, and more have been coming in (as private messages, of course) over the last few days.

I liked this one, from a musician with many years in the Sistema orbit, responding to my Guardian piece: “me encantó el artículo y mas bien hasta se quedó corto. Esa es una olla que cuando se destapa sale azufre.” (I loved the article and it actually didn’t go far enough. When you take the lid off that pot, it smells of sulphur). They continued: “it’s a dream that someone is at last talking about the other side of El Sistema.”

I also enjoyed the veiled threat in Paredes’s comment: “perhaps that guy has never sat down to talk with Maestro Abreu, and perhaps he never will because if Maestro Abreu finds out, he’s going to […] him… [laughs].”

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