Monday, February 22, 2010

Political Spectacle: El Sistema Seminarios, policy and decision-making.

On our first week in Venezuela, and among the excitement of finally being here as Abreu Fellows, I have also had time and inspiration to reflect on ideas I've had for a couple of weeks now. Political spectacle is a subject I have thought –and blogged– about before, in relation to El Sistema and arts policy in general.

Last week, our last in Boston, we had a lecture by Ricardo Hausmann, Director of the Center for International Development at Harvard University, and former Minister of Planning of Venezuela (1992-1993). One of his anecdotes that day reminded me of the political spectacle phenomenon in relation to El Sistema: Dr. Hausmann had to deal with big budget cuts in the Venezuelan government, after the Gulf War set the prices of oil on a downward spiral. Part of his task was to meet with each of the high government officials to ask for recommendations on where to make cuts in their ministries' budgets. When it was the time to speak with Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu, he called Hausmann at the last minute to cancel the budget-cut meeting due to an emergency at his office, but he sent him tickets to a concert that evening. In Dr. Hausmann's own words to us, after the concert he just didn't have the heart to make any cuts in Abreu's budget.

This story sounded familiar to me.  For instance, I had been always curious on the purposes and effects of the El Sistema "seminarios" (intensive camps), specifically the ones I helped organize as a host in Guatemala, in the late 1990s. Besides from empowering young musicians and raising the bar of an otherwise stale ensemble, these seminarios also had a huge impact on some of our policy makers and powerbrokers in the audience. Government officials, sponsors, and even parents immediately realized that their commitment to this cause was essential to the cause, and potentially favorable to their own interests.

People usually argue that playing that card –the political spectacle card– leads to compromising the educational and social benefits of a program.  If you present the final product of an intensive seminar it looks and sounds impressive, but skeptics say that this is an incomplete educational process that disfigures traditional music pedagogy.  Moreover, they argue, there is no immediate way to prove that the seminario will lead to the promised social/human development outcomes.

On the other hand, Murray J. Edelman (Symbolic Uses of Politics) argues that in creating policy, instrumental evidence (assessments, surveys, scholarly research) don't matter much.  Rather, what's important to policy makers is to give the appearance that they have done something.  Edelman calls this symbolic policy.  He argues that the people, the spectators, consume symbols that have an emotional value (anxiety over problems, reassurance, patriotism or even revange).  In his 1988 book Constructing the Political Spectacle, Edelman argues that the constant use of symbolic policy is the main reason why it is impossible to trace the the outcomes and consequences of political decisions and policy-making.  Come think about it, most policy, as Edelman argues, comes as a result of power brokering and negotiation.

In other words, it seems like decision-making could depend more on touching someone's heart (the policy makers themselves, or the spectators they serve) than in presenting hard evidence of beneficial outcomes.  As El Sistema has demonstrated here in Venezuela and in other countries, support ultimately comes from institutions ran by human beings.  Political spectacle is a powerful tool of El Sistema, one that has to be carefully designed.  A balance has to be kept not to fall into good 'ol cheap political circus (as many have had), nor to turn it into the usual un-accessible (elitist) classical music program.


Jeane Goforth said...

Really thought provoking. Thank you, Alvaro.

Ms. Cynthia, Suzuki Specialist said...

Right now I need just enough spectacal to get another dozen small violins.