On bullshit and El Sistema

[21/05/2015] This post is a companion piece to the previous one on censorship. Last time, I reflected on an urge to suppress or restrict the free flow of ideas within the Sistema sphere. Here, I’m going to address the other side of the coin: the production of a voluminous discourse by El Sistema and international advocates, yet one that – like censorship – acts as a brake on deeper understanding.

Not for the first time, I have been inspired by the work of Eleonora Belfiore – in this case, her 2009 article “On bullshit in cultural policy practice and research: notes from the British case.” I recommend this article to anyone familiar with the Sistema sphere and wanting to go deeper.

Belfiore’s article builds on a famous essay by the American philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt entitled On Bullshit:

According to Frankfurt’s conceptual analysis, there are two central aspects to the notion of bullshit, namely, ‘mindlessness’, or a complete lack of concern with the truth on the part of the bullshitter (p. 30), and the fact that behind any production of bullshit lies a bullshitter who is intentionally misleading his or her interlocutors so as to pursue his or her own interests and purposes (p. 56).

Belfiore’s argument is that in the years around 2000, British politicians advocated for public subsidy of the arts on grounds that they knew to be shaky, unproven, or actually disproven. They claimed strongly that the arts had positive socio-economic impacts in the full knowledge that such claims were not backed up by rigorous research; indeed, a study commissioned by the government itself suggested that such impacts were in fact minimal. In sum, her article argues that “many of the key actors in the cultural policy debate indeed display that lack of concern with truth, the ‘indifference to how things really are’ (p. 34), as well as the cultivation of vested interests that Frankfurt attributes to the process of bullshitting.”

Given her focus on cultural policy, Belfiore is particularly interested in the sphere of politics and public life, which “are usually considered as a privileged domain for both bullshitting and lying.” She homes in Mayhew’s (1997) contention that “communication in the public sphere has become dominated by professional specialists (as well as professional politicians) who utilise techniques borrowed from advertising, market research and public relations in order to maximise the effect of political messages and minimise the possibility of their scrutiny.” As Mayhew himself wrote: “Rhetoric employs adumbrated, sketchy arguments that amount to symbolic tokens of more extended arguments that the speaker purports to be able to expound if necessary.”

A key section of the article concerns the former Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, who had been one of those politicians who had argued strongly for cultural subsidy on instrumental grounds. After he had moved on, he looked back at his time as culture secretary and commented:

Spare a thought, however, for the poor old Minister, faced with the daunting task of getting the increased funding out of the Treasury to start with. The Treasury won’t be interested in the intrinsic merits of nurturing beauty or fostering poetry or even ‘enhancing the quality of life’. So I acknowledge unashamedly that when I was Secretary of State, going into what always seemed like a battle with the Treasury, I would try and touch the buttons that would work. I would talk about the educational value of what was being done. I would be passionate about artists working in schools. I would refer to the economic value that can be generated from creative and cultural activity. I would count the added numbers who would flock into a free museum. If it helped to get more funds flowing into the arts, the argument was worth deploying. And I still believe, passionately, that it was the right approach to take. If it hadn’t been taken, the outcome would have left the arts in much poorer condition.

Smith took what Belfiore calls a “consequentialist ethical position.” He believed that bullshit was justified by the positive outcome – that the ends justified the means.


The relevance of Belfiore’s article to El Sistema is not hard to fathom. José Antonio Abreu is a politician as well as a musician; indeed, like Chris Smith, he served as minister of culture. He created an orchestral training program in 1975 and spent the next 40 years trying to get increasing sums of money from the government and various large organizations in order to fund its expansion. He is a famously persuasive figure, likened by some to a snake charmer, renowned for his skill as an orator. His aphorisms – the philosophical building blocks of El Sistema – are reminiscent of Mayhew’s “symbolic tokens,” maximizing effect and minimizing scrutiny. Moving El Sistema from ministry to ministry, he was a prominent adopter of “a strategy of ‘policy attachment,’ whereby the arts, which constitute a policy area commanding small budgets and little political clout, have progressively attached themselves to economic and social agendas, thus benefiting from the larger budgets and greater political influence of those areas of public policy” (Belfiore & Bennett, “Beyond the ‘Toolkit Approach’” (2010)). In the process, his project underwent a rhetorical transformation from a musical to a social program.

As I have argued elsewhere, much of El Sistema’s present-day discourse about social impacts crystallized during the 1990s and early 2000s, long after the program’s creation, when it came under pressure on several fronts. The increasing prominence of statements about the power of music to promote social inclusion and overcome poverty and crime was driven not by emerging evidence, but rather by the need to garner economic and political support under unfavourable circumstances. The quote from Chris Smith chimes with the way that Abreu approached negotiations with politicians (above all Chávez) who had little interest in classical music and little sympathy for El Maestro himself.

It may sound crude to suggest that many of El Sistema’s iconic statements are bullshit, but I am using the word not in its colloquial sense (i.e. false) but rather in Frankfurt’s: these statements are not fundamentally concerned with truth, and they are uttered to pursue interests and achieve ends. Indeed, I would argue that bullshit in this sense might actually be true; it’s just that we don’t know whether that’s the case or not, and its truth is of little consequence to those uttering it.

Why does any of this matter? After all, one might well argue – as Chris Smith did – that bullshitting about the socio-economic impacts of the arts is entirely justified by its outcome (more funding). Bullshit is a powerful driver of cultural subsidy: one only needs to look at the IDB, which has given El Sistema some $170 million over the last 17 years without any robust evidence of the program’s effectiveness – an extraordinary scenario in what is supposedly an increasingly data-driven world. Do we actually need to cut through the bullshit if it works? Should we not join thousands of others in giving Abreu a hearty round of applause for his canny strategy and move on to other questions?

It matters to those of us interested in getting closer to the truth about El Sistema. It matters to those of us interested in social action through music; identifying bullshit for what it is encourages us to keep thinking and questioning rather than believe that the answer has been found. It matters because it raises the question: if social action is a button to be pushed, what are the deeper interests that are being pursued?

In the reception of El Sistema and my book about it, one may see that those concerned with promoting particular projects or art forms have tended towards applauding the skilful bullshitting and dismissing criticism, whereas researchers have been more sceptical. In particular, I have been struck by the fact that the three most negative reviews of my book have been written by newspaper classical music critics, and the three most positive by scholars of music education. This is highly illuminating when thinking about whose interests are really served by El Sistema, behind the bullshit about social transformation and educational revolution. If in the UK, the rhetorical weapons were deployed by politicians to secure more funding for the arts in general, in Venezuela they were used to increase the flow of resources to Abreu’s personal project and El Sistema’s original aim: training classical orchestral musicians.

Behind the social rhetoric, then, the Sistema sphere is driven to a significant degree by boosters of classical music who see their culture under threat and opportunities for their musicians in decline. The program continues to be – at least in part – a bid by the classical music sector to preserve or increase its slice of the pie, just as it was in the beginning in 1975. There is nothing wrong with these aims, but they have been obscured by bullshit about how the pursuit of these interests leads to impressive benefits for society at large.

Seen in this light, El Sistema is a wonderful case study of how to fund a specific cultural activity, but less illuminating if we’re interested in whether or how the arts have positive effects on society. There are important lessons to be learnt by those interested in ensuring the survival of symphony orchestras or classical music more generally in the 21st century, but less so for those interested in understanding the social impacts of music.

This raises another question that is central to Belfiore’s article: the relationship between research and advocacy. Rather than presenting a simple binary, however, she points to their intermingling in problematic ways:

one of the problems with large portions of research that has so far been carried out into the social impacts of the arts is its being marred by a profound confusion between genuine research and research for the sake of advocacy. The temptation to articulate research questions in policy- or advocacy-friendly terms is evident in this field, so that research has often focused on asking how the presumed positive social impacts of the arts might be measured or enhanced, rather than in asking whether the arts have social impacts of the sort claimed for them, if these impacts can be expected to be positive and, more generally, whether it is possible to generalise people’s experiences of the arts within art forms, across art forms and across the very diverse population represented by those who engage with the arts.

Her response is to propose “an anti-bullshit research ethos,” built on radical scepticism. She also calls this a “critical research ethos,” using the word critical “to refer to research that is disinterested, that is, indifferent to the requirements of advocacy – advocacy being a fully legitimate enterprise, but one completely distinct and, ideally, separate from genuinely explorative research.”

Belfiore does not set up scholars as superior to others – she devotes a section to “bullshit of the academic variety” – but she does suggest that bullshit is more likely to emanate from advocacy than from disinterested research. This is why critical academic research on El Sistema is essential, a point that I first debated with Eric Booth nearly three years ago and which still seems to be a bone of contention with a segment of the Sistema field. Most people within this sphere believe or claim that more research is necessary, yet implicitly or explicitly, many of them feel that the value of research is in proving what they instinctively feel to be true and providing a more secure foundation for what they’re already doing. Even the IDB has worked along these lines: fund the project first, on the basis of gut instinct, and then look for evidence that the funding was justified. And if the evidence doesn’t emerge, well, just keep on funding anyway. A researcher who is not perceived as being aligned with the values and beliefs of the sector, or whose findings contradict those beliefs, is likely to be given short shrift.

Advocacy is clearly essential to getting anything done; you’re not going to set up a music education program by debating the finer points of philosophy in an academic journal. But critical research is also essential, because it can provide checks and balances to getting too carried away with bullshit that may be effective but is still bullshit. Some influential advocates are less concerned with whether a report or a story is true or coherent than whether it supports their position, and anti-bullshit research provides a necessary counterweight.

Take, for example, the (in)famous IDB report with its 1:1.68 cost-benefit ratio (see my first ever blog post and my book for details). This figure was seized upon and quoted for years by advocates, yet without checking the calculations that lay behind it. No one seemed genuinely interested in whether it was true or not, only in whether it served their interests and purposes. It took a critical researcher to examine the report, dig up another IDB document, talk to an IDB official, and reveal the flaws.

It may be that critical researchers and advocates are destined to have an uneasy relationship. Advocates are often driven by a sense of mission, passion, and commitment; anyone who isn’t on board may be an irrelevance at best and an enemy at worst. Yet even if the relationship is destined to be uneasy, it is still necessary. Neither party should aim to act alone, pretend that the other does not exist, or actively seek to suppress its counterpart.

In conclusion, I would argue that bullshitting needs questioning for two reasons: one practical and the other ethical. First, making claims about the socio-economic impacts of the arts on dodgy grounds simply increases the risk that the position of the arts will actually be weakened if the flimsiness of the claims is revealed. (Recall the whole business around the Mozart Effect and its debunking.) Second, Belfiore homes in on Frankfurt’s argument that bullshitting is actually more dangerous to society than lying:

Frankfurt’s moral concern is that, in a society which tolerates bullshitting and considers it less morally reprehensible than lying, the resulting temptation to make whatever statement or declaration suits one’s personal interests would, in time, have a damaging effect. Indeed, the tolerance of bullshitting might eventually erode people’s regard for the way that things really are, thus compromising that ethics of accuracy and conscientiousness on which a healthy public sphere thrives.

The case of El Sistema provides a good example of the potential for escalation that makes bullshit dangerous. When the program became an international phenomenon, many of those encountering it for the first time were unaware of its complex past, its contradictory present, its twists and turns; so they heard the bullshit and thought it was the truth. And those involved were not naïve or inexperienced: London University’s prestigious Institute of Education awarded Abreu an honorary doctorate on the basis that El Sistema was “proven to have an extraordinary capacity to reduce levels of poverty, illiteracy, crime, drug use and exclusion.” Yet no such thing had been proven, begging the question of where such a strong statement originated. Around the world, orchestral education programs sprang up, believing that El Sistema’s optimistic claims were demonstrable truths. Yet there were no rigorous studies behind them, and there still are not as I write these words. The bullshit that had taken root in the 1990s to ensure the program’s domestic survival had suddenly become the cornerstone of a global movement, and the further it spread, the less people were aware of its true nature. However, if we believe in the importance of a healthy public sphere and imagine that music education has a part to play in fostering it, then we may have to wake up and smell the bullshit.