Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Venezuela, El Sistema and the end of Chavez

Hugo Chavez is dead. What now for Venezuela - and for El Sistema, which has spread from the country to revolutionise the role of music in children's lives worldwide?

Opinions split. First of all, it would be a mistake to associate El Sistema too deeply with Chavez. It was founded in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu - long before Chavez came to power. It has been supported by the state, but it's Abreu's baby, not Chavez's. But some accuse Chavez, perhaps with good reason, of having used its popularity and influence as a whitewash to gild his image and that of the iniquities of his regime. Abreu and Venezuela's most celebrated musical figurehead, Gustavo Dudamel (left), meanwhile have both insisted that music is above politics.

This article from the New York Times, published just over a year ago, presents some arguments and opinions very well: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/18/arts/music/venezuelans-criticize-hugo-chavezs-support-of-el-sistema.html?_r=0
The situation evokes age-old questions about the intersection of art and politics: Should they remain separate? Should artists denounce politics they don’t agree with? At what cost should culture be kept alive?
The Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero has been extremely outspoken against the current state of Venezuela. This morning she has commented via Facebook:
Today, Chavez died. Venezuela needs a renewal. We don't need the emotional and social disease that has infiltrated our society. We need POSITIVE change for all. We don't need the attempts of the government to instill more paranoia. The "Imperialists" did not poison Chavez and cause his cancer. We need to work towards a Venezuela free of these toxic thoughts that defy logic and manipulate the emotions of the Venezuelan people. We need good people to lead. I congratulate the students in my country for being so brave and selfless. To all those people who are mourning the death of one man, please, mourn the 21,000 plus people who were murdered in Venezuela last year. Think about that very real figure. Who is mourning all those victims? Think about the social decay that Venezuelans live in, day in and day out. Let's keep the perspective of our recent history, and be conscious that a lot of work needs to be done.
So the end of Chavez means an opportunity for real and positive change in the country - if it can be brought about as Gabriela hopes.

But nobody is suggesting that that should mean the end of El Sistema. At least, I hope they're not. Art and politics become terribly intertwined, as you know, at all the wrong moments. Those opposed to "socialist" policies and to state support for culture in general tend to turn guns on El Sistema for their own ends. We'd like to think that the worth of music goes beyond that.

Besides, the fact is that El Sistema works. It's been proven to work - and it is even working on this island of ours. Here's Sistema Scotland. And here's In Harmony, the expanding English branch.

(If anyone is still confused about the loss of empirical fact as a core value under the slews of political opinion, I recommend Adam Curtis's latest fascinating blogpost.)

To condemn El Sistema because it has been supported by a dubious state would ultimately mean throwing out a lot of babies with the murky bathwater. Remember, there are many more than 50 shades of grey in this world. Let's maintain those matters that do most good for humanity as a whole, please. Music is one of those.

The positive influence of El Sistema will outlive Chavez. And Mahler will outlive us all. Here's the Simon Bolivar Orchestra with the Dude doing a spot of it at the Proms.