Eric Booth and Wuilly Arteaga, the Sistema icon who isn’t

A significant problem with the Sistema field is that it is full of false information and dubious claims, on which myths and fantasies are built. Eric Booth is particularly guilty in this respect. Take his recent response to a short film about the Venezuelan violinist Wuilly Arteaga.

Do not miss this five-minute film, from the NY Times. It tells the story of Wuilly Arteaga, the young Venezuelan El Sistema musician who stood up to government military forces. He represents the extreme expression of what El Sistema-inspired programs around the world aspire to nurture: courageous young artists who believe in music, in peaceful freedom of expression, and in their own personal agency to make a difference in the world.

Yet viewers will notice that Arteaga does not mention El Sistema in the film. This is no coincidence. Because Arteaga is in fact a critic of El Sistema.

He is not simply an “El Sistema musician” as Booth claims. He was part of El Sistema at one point but had left the program by the time of his rise to stardom as a protester. More importantly, he claimed in a TV interview that he had left after experiencing repression within El Sistema.

Furthermore, he had a very public argument with one of El Sistema’s most prominent ambassadors in Europe. Ron Davis Álvarez wrote a snarky message about Arteaga, which was published by Venezuela Sinfónica.

Arteaga responded, and again the message was disseminated by the Venezuelan classical music website. Of particular note in the present context are Arteaga’s remarks about El Sistema:

Some people criticize me because they say that I owe El Sistema for having learnt to play the violin and the piano, and that is totally FALSE. I owe it to God and to the strength that HE gave me to learn from YouTube.

Further down, he writes about his experience of playing in the Caracas Youth Orchestra, at the time El Sistema’s number 3 ensemble:

it’s because of that experience inside the orchestra that I know how it works. There I noticed that they didn’t encourage us to value our country and that’s where my disagreement began. While we rehearsed very, very well for the concerts that we were going to give overseas, they never made us take concerts within Venezuela seriously. We couldn’t wait for 6pm to arrive so that we could shoot out of the daily rehearsal, something that didn’t happen when we were preparing for a foreign tour. The rehearsals for overseas tours would go on til after midnight, as we would keep on playing the same passage from a symphony until it finally ‘worked.’ When we performed in Venezuela, we just played and that was that.

I would express my disagreement to the conductors, that they shouldn’t force us to sign in support of Maduro and the Bolivarian government, with the threat that if we didn’t they would almost certainly take away our tour or our scholarships, but he doesn’t say anything about this.

Armando Cañizales [a Sistema musician] was killed and despite this, the executive directors and employees of El Sistema continued and still continue to support the official marches of Maduro’s communist regime. This little conductor [Álvarez] says that I am a fake, but I wonder: who are the real fakes here? Is the fake not the person who belongs to a symphony orchestra and criticizes it when they are outside the rehearsal, instead of expressing their differences face-to-face with their conductors or musicians? Is it not really fake to say that you are with the opposition, and then go and laugh along to Maduro’s idiocies when he makes us go and play at a political event at the National Pantheon? Don’t you think that their dignity as Venezuelans or artists is worth more than selling themselves for a tour or a food voucher?

The rights and wrongs of this argument are not important here. What matters are Arteaga’s criticism of El Sistema and his spat with Ron Davis Álverez, and the fact that they received a lot of attention last year. Aside from the published articles, there was considerable debate on social media, including the unedifying spectacle of Sistema musicians mocking Arteaga because he had learnt to play violin using YouTube videos. If Booth is unaware of all this, then it says rather a lot about his level of knowledge of El Sistema. This is not the first time that it has appeared that he does not follow debates in the Venezuelan media, which seriously limits his understanding.

Far from representing an extreme expression of El Sistema, Arteaga presents himself as the opposite of the program, a dissenter from its approach who acted as he did despite rather than because of his period in the organization. Far from regarding El Sistema as nurturing “courageous young artists” demonstrating “their own personal agency,” Arteaga portrays his former colleagues as fakes, cowards, and collaborators, playing along with a repressive government in return for personal benefits.

In other words, Booth has once again got it totally wrong. Instead of the tense, divided, complicated reality of El Sistema, we get a simplistic and misleading fairy tale.

Booth’s “analysis” provides a microcosm of his work over the last decade: an inspiring, lyrical story that is unfortunately a fantasy, ignoring important information and covering up very real problems and divisions. It provides an example of his method and its results: take a small mistake, build a whole philosophical position on the back of it, and turn it into a big mistake. (Tricia Tunstall follows the same approach – see here.)

In this case, the consequences are not so great, but the sum of his errors over the last decade has played a role in consolidating a distorted image of El Sistema in the public imagination. There is clearly a large market for such fantasy stories, and Booth has tapped into it successfully. But those with a more serious interest in music education in general and El Sistema in particular should steer well clear.