One of the most commonplace and least accurate characterizations of El Sistema is as a “revolutionary social project.” As I noted in my first blog post, El Sistema draws inspiration from moralistic, reformist, proselytizing music education programs from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, programs that were the opposite of revolutionary even back then. If El Sistema bucks a trend, that trend would be progressive developments in music education since the 1970s.
For this reason, I find the establishment of “Sistema Europe” to be more than slightly tautologous, for all the good intentions of those involved. The core of El Sistema is warmed-up ideas from the European past in the first place (music of the middle and upper classes as reforming the morals of the working class and making them more productive, poor people as potential delinquents who must not be left to their own devices, music as a defense against the temptations of alcohol (now drugs), and so on). And now it’s being sold back to Europe again as a funky new idea from Venezuela. The phrase “coals to Newcastle” springs to mind.
The thorough conservatism of El Sistema is readily apparent if one views the project through a historical lens, but it also shines through clearly if one compares the Venezuelan system to a truly revolutionary cultural or educational program. There are many possible candidates, but for the sake of brevity let me choose just one, also from South America: Brazil’s Pontos de Cultura program.
(The references here are to Célio Turino, Punto de Cultura: El Brasil de abajo hacia arriba – the clunky translations are mine, though having already been translated from Portuguese, the Spanish is a bit odd in places too).
Pontos de Cultura are “culture hotspots” funded by the Brazilian government but largely left to their own devices when it comes to choosing and running their own activities. The Ministry of Culture does not determine how the funds that it allocates should be used; each Ponto develops its program according to its own needs and desires. Money may be spent on facilities, equipment, teaching, or cultural production. Some Pontos focus on theatre, others on dance, others on music, and others still on audiovisual production. Cultural forms may come from the street or the academy, be experimental or traditional, and reflect the perspectives of the young and the old, the centre and the periphery, and different ethnic groups.
Traditional, large-scale, top-down schemes to take culture to the masses tend to curb their autonomy and capacity for leadership, and hence commonly lead to dependence. Presenting the elite as the fount of knowledge and good taste and denying the majority the opportunity to make its own choices, argues Turino, is a means of reproducing the existing class structure. The Pontos de Cultura, in contrast, aim at emancipation, at breaking down social and political hierarchies.
Turino sums up the program’s theory in a simple equation (69):
autonomy + leadership = breaking relations of dependence
[if anyone has a better suggestion for protagonismo than leadership, please let me know – I’m struggling with that word]
Turino thus identifies in Ponto de Cultura a new critical response to Brazil’s historical inequities at the hands of an elite that looked overseas for direction: ‘Good things come from abroad!’ was the message transmitted by having their clothes ironed in France or, in the present day, using their Rolex watches” (128).
[which dashing Venezuelan conductor advertises Rolex watches? Answers on a postcard]
In the 21st-century, then, a new paradigm is emerging in Brazil: ordinary people no longer have to wait for the master (el maestro) to tell them what to do – now their own knowledge and capacities are being valorized. The central logic of Ponto de Cultura is to believe in Brazilian people and culture as they currently are, rather than treat them as defective and in need of correction, and hence to boost what already exists. The Ponto de Cultura program is not about the government providing culture or a service: “its focus is not on lack, on the absence of goods and services, but rather on the potential and capacity to act on the part of individuals and groups” (67).
It is a decentralized project that promotes autonomy; the paternalist role of the state is pared back to a minimum. Cultural authorities now understand that “a policy of access to culture has to go beyond simply offering artistic workshops, spaces and cultural products; it has to be understood in a broad way, expressed in a program that respects the autonomy of social agents, strengthens their capacity for leadership, and generates social empowerment” (129). As an example of the empowerment that the program seeks, Turino presents the example of an active, diverse Ponto run by young people themselves.
Turino’s book is subtitled “Brazil from the bottom up,” and it presents a vision of a world in which “things are changing, since those at the bottom no longer want to be governed like before” (21). “A bottom-up state presupposes a change in mentalities and values. It’s necessary to overcome the temptation to plan in offices, ignoring what is really going on, and the uncontrolled desire of the governing class and cultural managers to take on the role of founders or demiurges, disdaining [others’] experiences and histories. Decisions are arrived at in autocratic ways; or, in a display of ingenuous romanticism, a single solution is sought, applicable independently of local realities and needs” (130). In this new world, there is no room for a singular, paternalistic guiding vision – no conductor at the centre of the picture.
Ponto de Cultura forms part of the broader program called Cultura Viva, which focuses on widening access, but “not to culture, since culture is inherent in human action and everyone does it, but rather to organized cultural goods – performance venues, recording studios, courses, and regular artistic programming – since the majority of the population is divorced from these resources. The strategy that was adopted went down a different path from that normally adopted in official meetings: instead of doing something separate from reality, we tried to boost what already exists, striking agreements and making alliances with dynamic cultural agents who are already active in their communities. We also avoided the single form or the imposition of rigid rules. Instead of doing for, we managed to do with. Instead of imposing, making available” (130).
Ponto de Cultura rejects the paternalism of obliging disadvantaged social groups to speak in another’s voice. Rather than employing individuals in the service of an institutional ideology dictated from above, it aims to liberate them and empower them to realize their creative potential. Here we really do see a new, and arguably revolutionary, conception of cultural policy, one being implemented “from the bottom up.”
The contrast with El Sistema is abundantly clear. El Sistema sees popular zones as cultural deserts that it must fill; it hears a barrio without classical music as silent. “For me, the most important priority was to give access to music to poor people,” said Abreu, ignoring the fact that poor people already had access to music – just not to his music. Ponto de Cultura, in contrast, believes that Brazilian communities are already culturally rich and simply need more resources. For decades, El Sistema promoted “a single solution […], applicable independently of local realities and needs,” as Turino puts it, and it still believes the symphony orchestra to be the answer to every problem, in Venezuela or around the world. Ponto de Cultura has no program, no institutional hierarchy of cultural value that it seeks to reproduce, and it can thus take on a huge variety of forms.
Unusually, Turino rejects the current neoliberal orthodoxy of utilitarian justifications for culture (what he calls “facile rhetoric of cultural inclusion”), and offers an alternative to El Sistema’s strategy of placing the social at the centre: “Ponto de Cultura works with popular culture and social inclusion and has a clear role in citizenship, but it is, above all, a cultural program. Culture as interpretation of the world, as expression of values and sentiments. Culture as mutual understanding and drawing together. In this sense it would be more accurate to identify the action of Ponto de Cultura as taking place in the field of ethics” (81). Interestingly, utilitarian justifications have become so normal that making the case for culture in cultural terms is the radical position today.
I’m sure this is an idealized vision of Ponto de Cultura; large schemes like this are never as perfect in reality as they are on the page. Turino was heavily involved in creating the project, so his view is far from impartial. I’d welcome comments, corrections, or criticism from anyone who has first-hand experience of the Pontos de Cultura. But even at the level of theory, the Pontos de Cultura are coming from a very different place than El Sistema, and from a much more radical place – 21st-century South America, rather than 19th-century Europe.