ESOVY’s first birthday: some reflections

[29/11/2015] A year on from the publication of El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth, I am giving in to the temptation to look back over the last 12 months and reflect on what has happened.

In Venezuela, perhaps the most notable development has been that the politicization of El Sistema which I discussed in my book has become increasingly overt. The amount of criticism directed at Gustavo Dudamel on this score finally pushed him or his team into making a public (non-)pronouncement about his (a)political views – which did little to appease his critics (see for example here, here, and here). From what I saw, a lot of musicians and thinking observers from Venezuela recognized his vacuous PR spiel for what it was, though as ever, there were also devotees overseas who thought his beauty contestant speech was deep philosophy.

A lovely story emerged recently about the LA Phil’s rich American groupies, one of whom presented Dudamel with a $1,100 bottle of scotch, which will undoubtedly sit nicely alongside his Rolex watch(es). I guess the conductor’s refusal to say anything meaningful about politics ensures that conversation never turns, as they chew the fat over a luxury buffet in a 5-star hotel, to his other, equally generous groupies – top officials in Venezuela’s socialist revolution. No wonder he wants to keep art and politics separate.

El Sistema’s close alignment with the government has kept the funding tap open and paid off in terms of steadily increasing numbers of participants and núcleos (allegedly). However, it’s been a tricky time at the top of the program’s hierarchy, with José Antonio Abreu’s health apparently in decline and, allegedly, some conflicts and casualties in the tiers beneath him (this being El Sistema, no one, especially Venezuelan cultural journalists, talks publicly about what’s really going on, so discerning the whole truth is virtually impossible). Still, the top three Sistema orchestras continue to wow audiences around the globe (and, presumably, continue to consume eye-watering sums of Venezuela’s hard-pressed foreign currency reserves).

There have also been changes, perhaps more marked ones, in the public sphere around El Sistema. The first conference dedicated explicitly to critical reflection on El Sistema and its offshoots and alternatives took place in London earlier this year. Newspaper articles and radio segments appeared around the world after the publication of ESOVY, alongside a good smattering of blogging and academic reviews. As time has gone by and the number of published responses has increased, a division has become increasingly clear: at one pole, the Sistema and classical music lobbies; at the other, scholars of music and music education. This has helped to clarify the interests and goals that are really at stake, and it suggests that El Sistema is still what it was in the beginning, 40 years ago, before it had cloaked itself in the rhetoric of social inclusion: a bid for the consolidation and expansion of the classical music performance sphere, rather than a mission to educate in the true and full sense of the word, much less pursue social change. Not that this is particularly hard to see elsewhere: you only have to compare the amount of effort El Sistema puts into international touring with its scant attention to developing innovative pedagogies or pursuing, monitoring, and evaluating social action at home.

This polarization is not, then, a case of academics sticking together in some sort of ivory-tower clique. (In reality, academics love nothing more than criticizing each other’s work.) It’s a question of alignment with the priorities and problems of education and society rather than those of classical music performance.

The ivory-tower question was batted around a little after the London conference. At the time, I was concerned by the misrepresentation of a group of people with varied backgrounds and experiences, some of them not even academics, by tagging them with a single clichéd label. As time has gone by, though, I’ve come to see the matter a little differently, in part thanks to Terry Eagleton, who writes:

Universities, which in Britain have an 800-year history, have traditionally been derided as ivory towers, and there was always some truth in the accusation. Yet the distance they established between themselves and society at large could prove enabling as well as disabling, allowing them to reflect on the values, goals, and interests of a social order too frenetically bound up in its own short-term practical pursuits to be capable of much self-criticism. Across the globe, that critical distance is now being diminished almost to nothing, as the institutions that produced Erasmus and John Milton, Einstein and Monty Python, capitulate to the hard-faced priorities of global capitalism.

In other words, the problem might be seen as not too much ivory-tower thinking, but too little. The reality of the modern university, as Eagleton notes, has little to do with this label, yet he argues that it ought to have more. This seems highly apposite in the context of public discussions of El Sistema, a program that is indeed “too frenetically bound up in its own short-term practical pursuits to be capable of much self-criticism,” yet that has still received little clear-eyed scrutiny from outside. Accordingly, the way forward for researchers would not then be to go and work in Sistema-inspired programs, but to maintain or even increase their critical distance and thus keep their eye on the bigger picture.

Making these kinds of arguments has made me some enemies over the last year, though it has also made me some friends (strikingly, the latter have been predominantly Venezuelan musicians, who seem to appreciate my critique considerably more than those foreigners who speak for them in the global North). I’ve been accused of being angry and intemperate (and not just by my enemies), and of being biased and unbalanced. Underlying such criticisms lies an implicit image of what a scholar should be like: controlled, dry, cautious, not too opinionated. To be sure, there are some scholars who are like this, but some of the most famous and celebrated (and interesting) are not. Terry Eagleton himself is hardly a retiring figure, and his words about Edward Said, a major intellectual force of the last half-century, are worth quoting. Here, Eagleton is making an argument about a distinction between academics and intellectuals, claiming that “intellectuals are not only different from academics, but almost the opposite of them”:

Anger and academia do not usually go together, except perhaps when it comes to low pay, whereas anger and intellectuals do.

Above all, academics are conscious of the difficult, untidy, nuanced nature of things, while intellectuals take sides. One reason why Raymond Williams seems to have been easily Edward Said’s favourite British intellectual is that the work of both men combines these qualities with astonishing ease. Williams and Said are both angry and analytic while aware that, in all the most pressing political conflicts which confront us, someone is going to have to win and someone to lose. It is this, not a duff ear for nuance and subtlety, which marks them out from the liberal.

After reading this, I turned to the first of Said’s 1993 Reith Lectures, “Representations of the Intellectual”:

the intellectual is an individual with a specific public role in society that cannot be reduced simply to being a faceless professional, a competent member of a class just going about her/his business. The central fact for me is, I think, that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.


Least of all should an intellectual be there to make his/her audiences feel good: the whole point is to be embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant.

Said concludes:

At bottom, the intellectual, in my sense of the word, is neither a pacifier nor a consensus-builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwillingly, but actively willing to say so in public.

The logical outcome, as he notes in the final words of the lecture, is that

it doesn’t make one particularly popular.

None of this defence of the intellectual exempts me or anyone else from criticism; arguments have to stand up, perhaps doubly so when presented with “an edge.” But the idea that taking a clear position and making strong, critical arguments is somehow unscholarly does not hold water, and reveals a limited understanding of the field. There’s plenty to get angry about in the world, and it can and should fall to scholars to get angry, above all when few others seem to notice or care.

Said was less interested in cautious balance than in rebalancing – in critiquing the powerful and providing more space for the voices of those usually marginalized or silenced. Of course, such an approach is unlikely to meet the approval of dominant figures and institutions – a point of some relevance when discussing a music education program that has attracted an unusual concentration of influential backers. But Said’s goal was famously “speaking truth to power” (the title of his fifth Reith Lecture), not flattering and accommodating to it, as has been so evident in the Sistema sphere and particularly in its dizzy sanctification of José Antonio Abreu, “the little dictator (el dictadorzuelo) of music in Venezuela” (Eduardo Casanova).

I have become more aware than ever that being a scholar is a privilege and a responsibility. The fact that my salary does not depend on good relations with the Sistema and classical music spheres allows me – and, I would argue, compels me – to say publicly things that others feel they can only say in private. I watch others try to tread the very difficult line between critical thinking, personal ties, and career prospects, and tailoring their public utterances as a result, and I think: I’m lucky not to have to do that, and I have to make the most of it.

It’s not straightforward though: even within academia there are plenty of people who talk a good game about critical scholarship but get all jittery if it involves criticizing powerful interests and popular causes. El Sistema is not only “too big to fail” (like banks), it sometimes seems too big even to have its failures pointed out. Some people start getting very jumpy when I propose to do this in public or print. Is it going to upset this lobby or that group or those institutions?

It is a privilege to have had the opportunity to go deeply into a story of considerable public interest and one that circulates widely in the media. Most right-thinking people will be aware that the press is hardly infallible, but there’s nothing like gaining in-depth knowledge of a particular public story to make you realize just how superficial or downright wrong media coverage can be. Working on El Sistema has given me invaluable first-hand experience that has driven home the need to be sceptical at all times, and not assume that the media grasps what is going on. Particularly in a field like arts journalism, in which resources are scarce and investigative journalism almost non-existent, a lot of the time the journalists may not be doing much more than glossing an organization’s press releases. I have dealt with a few sharp, critical journalists over the last year – but I’ve seen the publication of a lot of scantily informed dross and defence of personal interests as well.

The child of a close friend of mine has recently been diagnosed with a serious medical condition, and she was telling me how digging into the issue has blown apart her assumption that whatever your problem, there must always be people out there somewhere who understand it and know what to do about it. In her words, once you get beyond the superficial knowledge of the condition that many doctors have, no one has a clue.

Working on El Sistema is a little different, in that there are people – many people – out there who have much more than a clue, but with only a couple of exceptions, they’re not taking part in public discussions. So the public sphere is left, by and large, to the superficially acquainted and the clueless, with those who take the lead generally the most driven or self-important rather than the best informed.

It’s also been a great privilege to get close to powerful institutions and interests, and to see how they operate. I’m not going to go into details here, beyond the amusing one of Sistema CEO Eduardo Méndez trying to shed doubt on whether I’d ever actually been to Venezuela, but I’ve learnt a few things about power, and as with learning about the media, there is no substitute for first-hand experience. It has underlined the point that I had realized in Venezuela – that despite their high-minded language, the arts and education can be just as dirty as politics.

And while I can hardly say it’s been a privilege, it has been a real eye-opener to see the wave of denial, manipulation, censorship, and self-censorship that my book has unleashed. There’s nothing like a personal, financial or career interest to make some people scrabble around for an excuse – any excuse – not to look at what’s staring them in the face. It’s pretty easy to fool people when they’re happy to fool themselves. There are none so blind as those who will not see.

I genuinely thought that many people would be fascinated by the material I’d unearthed in Venezuela – and I’m talking about published, documentary material, as well as the testimonies of dozens of Venezuelan musicians, journalists, cultural officials, etc. – but in fact an awful lot of people have ignored it or even refused to read it. I guess I was naïve to think that people who had staked out a public position on El Sistema over a period of time would be swayed by new evidence, rather than looking for any way they could find to dismiss it.

So I didn’t interview Abreu? Just because the powerful are used to having the first and last word on everything doesn’t mean they always have to. Right of reply is primarily a journalistic practice, rather than an academic one. It’s also a formality: a kind of tick-box thing to give critics one less thing to bleat about. It’s hardly important under the circumstances. Are the detailed articles by two investigative reporters and the account of Abreu’s top conducting disciple, Gustavo Medina, all published in the 1990s, invalidated by the fact I didn’t ask Abreu what he thought about them 15-20 years later? To a committed denier, perhaps.

So where does it all go from here? It would be easy, and perhaps correct, to conclude: nowhere. Truths that inconvenience the powerful – the classical music industry, the media, the Venezuelan government, national and international banks – are unlikely to get much public traction. As Said put it:

In underlining the intellectual’s role as outsider I have had in mind how powerless one often feels in the face of an overwhelmingly powerful network of social authorities – the media, the government and corporations, etc. – who crowd out the possibilities for achieving any change. To deliberately not belong to these authorities is in many ways not to be able to effect direct change

And yet, I believe that change will be effected, if indirectly. As the forthcoming special issue of ACT (Action, Criticism & Theory for Music Education) on El Sistema will confirm, I am neither the only nor the most forthright Sistema sceptic, and word is spreading slowly but surely. I also believe that there are enough people out there with the intellectual and ethical faculties to engage with hard truths, even if they don’t come in a sugar coating. I don’t believe that educators need to be seduced with a raft of solutions in order to grasp problems; coming up with answers is their expertise, after all. I believe that over time, more people are going to get the difference between educating for social justice and rebranding what you already do as social inclusion. In another year’s time I’ll look back and see if my faith was justified or misplaced.

Ultimately, though, I believe that the public narrative about El Sistema will change because nothing so inaccurate can last forever. One of the many paradoxes about the program is its simultaneous strength and weakness. Strength, because of its powerful backers, funding, size, media profile, and so on. Weakness, because it’s built on half-truths and omissions, and therefore depends on the silence or the ignorance of many people. My book was an attempt to pierce that silence and ignorance, but its uncomfortable truths were too much for some people. They looked for a way out of confronting the reality. “It’s all anonymous, that’s not research,” they said, in denial of the fact that anonymization is a standard scholarly method and essential in situations where people’s livelihoods are at stake. So how would they respond if a senior Venezuelan musician decided to speak out publicly, in their own name, and confirmed the accuracy of my book in great detail?

Watch this space.