Monday 3 March 2014

Being "just"

It´s curious that the first thing I read about the protests in Venezuela was not a piece of news in some newspaper, but pianist Gabriela Montero's open letter to Gustavo Dudamel. In this letter she was saying:

“But I cannot remain silent any longer. Yesterday, while tens of thousands of peaceful protesters marched all over Venezuela to express their frustration, pain and desperation at the total civic,moral, physical, economic and human break down of Venezuela, and while the government armed militias, National Guard AND police attacked, killed, injured, imprisoned and disappeared many innocent victims, Gustavo and Christian Vazquez led the orchestra in a concert celebrating Youth Day and the 39 years of the birth of EL Sistema. They played a CONCERT while their people were being massacred.”
This is what made me look for news to see what was happening in that country. A few days later, another Venezuelan musician, Carlos Izcaray, en ex- El Sistema student, was making an online appeal:

“Through this medium I’d like to call on all of you to unite, with instruments in hand, to repudiate and strongly manifest against the rampant violence and human rights violations that are currently being perpetrated by the Venezuelan government on its own citizenry. Lets render our tribute of support to those who have exposed and given their lives whilst defending our Liberty. This basic right of all free people has now been unequivocally sequestered by a despotic and tyrannical Government, one that wishes to lead through fear, intimidation, and violence.”

These two musicians have chosen to live outside Venezuela, probably both for professional and political reasons. Gustavo Dudamel also lives and works abroad, but he maintains his ties with El Sistema and through it – or because of it – with his country’s government. So I read Mantero's and Izcaray's passionate declarations considering that the position from which they expressed their views need not be as diplomatic as Dudamel's, who has to consider, apart from his own views, the context in which El Sistema is operating and its dependance on the Venezuelan government. I must confess, though, that I was not prepared for his disappointingly “diplomatic” statement to the LA Times:

“I'm a musician. If I were a politician, I would act as a politician for my own interest. But I'm an artist, and an artist should act for everybody.

Dudamel expects (and accepts) politicians to act for their own interest? And artists for ‘everybody’? How are they acting for everybody? Who’s everybody? Are politicians who act for themeselves included?

A few days later, another controversy erupted, this time in New York, when artists, activists, professors and students associated to Occupy Museums, GULF Labor and other groups staged a protest at the Guggenheim Museum about labour conditions on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates, where Guggenheim is building its franchise. Two things stood out for me while I was following the development of this story. First of all, the fact that the Guggenheim did not bury its head in the sand, remaining silent and hoping for all this to go away. Unlike what is common practice here among politicians and cultural institutions alike, who behave as if they were  untouchable and immune to citizens’ criticism, Guggenheim director, Richard Armstrong, issued his own statements, made the institution’s position clear, did not shy away from any question (more readings at the end of this post). Cultural institutions do not (shoud not) stand somewhere above all common citizens, pretending to operate in a comfortable and protective vacuum, free of social responsibilities.

The other thing that stood out for me in this controversy was to find out that architect Zaha Hadid - who designed one of the stadiums in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup - feels that  “it’s not my duty as an architect to look at it [“it” being the deaths of hundreds of immigrant workers at the construction site]... I cannot do anything about it because I have no power to do anything about it.” (read here)

My mind flew to Ukraine. My friend and colleague Ihor Poshyvailo was writing on this blog last December: “ (...) ICOM Ukraine and a number of Ukrainian museums were issuing public statements condemning unexpected crackdown on peaceful protesters and the pulling out of an association pact with the EU. The Directors Council of Lviv Museums coordinated protest statements of a number of Lviv museums. One of the oldest ethnographic museums in East-Central Europe – the Museum of Ethnography and Crafts in Lviv – displayed a banner on its balcony saying "We support the demands of Euromaidan". In Kyiv a dozen museums made their public statements, including the Museum of Kyiv History which is run by the City Hall and depends upon the Mayor of Kyiv, whose headquarters were taken by the protesters. Pavlo Tychyna Memorial Museum (located closely to Maidan) opened its doors to protesters and proposed them tea, rest and cultural programs. (...)”.

We’ll probably never know the names of the people who took these decisions and acted in those moments. People who are not “just a musician” or “just an architect”, people who are not “just public servants”, but who first and above all are citizens. They were citizens of an authoritarian state, risking their jobs, their personal safety, maybe their lives, maybe public funding if things went the other way - but probably not Hadid’s fees. They were “anonymous” citizens who felt they had the power and the responsibility to do something. And they did it. They did what they could.

Dudamel somehow seemed to be contradicting himself when he stated to the LA Times "(...) we are creating in Sistema not only musicians but better citizens”. If that’s what El Sistema does, then those young citizens should probably be shown by their elders that, when the moment comes, they should not hide behind “I am just a musician” statements.

More on this blog

More readings:

Sistema in the crossfire, by Jonathan Andrew Govias

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