It’s the story that just won’t die. Gabriela Montero publicly calls out Gustavo Dudamel for his unwillingness to advocate for regime change in Venezuela, Dudamel refuses to take the bait, and the pundits have months’ worth of grist for their print mills. And if there were a chance of the public battle disappearing, it evaporated as quickly as the LA Phil’s cross-continental flight to the eastern seaboard, giving the Atlantic media a valid reason to throw in their (at times, very insightful) two cents. In a situation where there would never be a zenith, the nadir of the Gabriela-vs.-Gustavo debacle may well have been the interview she gave to CBC Radio (rebroadcast on American NPR) when the LA Phil was visiting Eastern Canada. Host Jian Ghomeshi asked Montero whether she had any desire to run for office in Venezuela. “No!” was her emphatic response back: “Politics are complex!”
Of course politics are complex, the moment you have to engage with them on a personal level. Why live in the horrendously uncomfortable diplomatic milieu when you can dabble in armchair punditry from afar, free of consequence? There was no recognition, let alone sympathy, for the fact that Gustavo and Maestro Abreu might be under equal or greater pressure from Maduro to voice their support openly for his administration – something they have not done. (They do thank the government for its support, which is nothing more than good manners.) There was no acknowledgement that as employees of the state, Dudamel or Abreu could be dismissed, now or by a future administration, for their current political positioning. (Senior executive positions in the Fundación are determined by the Venezuelan Government.) And there was no acknowledgement that artists have the right to support politically whomever they please, as a core tenet of the democratic principles the detractors of the two claim to uphold. Politics are complex.
This should not be misconstrued as a defense or even an exoneration of Maestro Abreu or Gustavo Dudamel. History will judge them more objectively for how they chose to navigate this crisis, and if there has been an immediate lesson for Gustavo, it is that he needs to be able to articulate in far more substantive fashion the nature of the work of the Fundación in Venezuela. The aphoristic sound bites might play well to an indulgent press engaging in Hollywood feel-good journalism, but they have utterly failed to stand up to scrutiny during this crisis. In his defense he is first and foremost a conductor, but as Sistema’s most famous product he has also become its face by default. To discharge his responsibility to his teacher and the hundreds of thousands of students he has come to represent, he needs to inform himself thoroughly as to the nature of the work of the Fundación. Yes, it is entirely unfair for the international community to assume that, as a product of Sistema, Gustavo is immediately equipped to speak on its behalf – it would be no more fair to assume that by virtue of the experience of attending a high school, any person is thus prepared to offer critical commentary on national educational policy – but the popular perception has become the reality he has to confront.
While the contretemps between Gabriela and Gustavo has failed to reflect much credit on either of the antagonists, the third-party commentary it provoked has raised interesting questions. Since the controversy erupted in Los Angeles, the conversation has evolved from the personal to the professional, expanding from “What should Gustavo do?” to a far more interesting and general “What should artists do?” The crux of the issue is the perception that artists bear a responsibility to their audiences, beyond the act of producing art. Strangely, this responsibility only appears to be discharged when the artist acts in accordance with external mainstream opinions. The parallel has been drawn between Dudamel and Valery Gergiev, the latter with regards to the recent anti-LGBT statutes in Russia (and even more recently concerning the Crimean annexation). Many individuals hoping that Gergiev would use his stature and influence to advocate on behalf of the LGBT community have been sorely disappointed by his apparent complicity with legislation and legislators. (Or perhaps not, see this article.) But Gergiev’s vague, non-committal statements are no different from Dudamel’s. While Gergiev has a right to his own opinion, however contrary it may be to others, he has a responsibility to his employer, the state, which precludes a stronger statement. Like Dudamel, Gergiev has become the embodiment of the institution that employs him, and like Dudamel, Gergiev would have to dissolve that relationship in order to forgo his larger responsibilities and act solely on personal interest.
Could Dudamel or Abreu be fired for speaking out? Governments fire whomever they please on the most paltry of pretexts, regardless of the consequences. In February of this year the Colombian government abruptly informed Juan Antonio Cuellar, Executive Director of the Fundación Nacional Batuta, that his contract would not be renewed. This came as quite a surprise to the international community: many acquainted with Cuellar consider his leadership of the Colombian el Sistema to have been exemplary in all respects, artistically and administratively. Mariana Garcés, Minister of Culture in the Santos Administration, justified the decision by stating Batuta had not done enough during Cuellar’s six year term to diversify its sources of funding… and has reportedly appointed a friend with no relevant experience as Cueller’s replacement. (Note: I was unable to verify this independently.) With the Maduro administration in Venezuela clearly –and expectedly- calling the shots in terms of major executive appointments, a forced reorganization to remove dissenters would hardly be surprising.
But were that to happen, surely the outrage of the Venezuelans would force the government to reconsider? So far the outrage of Venezuelans has resulted only in violence. There was outrage in Colombia over Cuellar’s dismissal too, including broad, highly favorable media attention. Yet in an act absolutely consistent with his thoughtful, pragmatic manner, Cuellar has declined to contest the government’s decision. Cueller understands that were he ultimately successful in his appeal and reinstated, this public loss of face for the government would create an untenable tension between him and Garcés to the inevitable detriment of Batuta. Doubtlessly the organization will carry on, and whether the new director can earn the extraordinary international respect accorded to Cuellar remains to be seen, but Cuellar himself made the choice to serve Batuta again by walking away, rather than fighting a personal political battle in which any victory would be Pyrrhic.
Should they fall afoul of Maduro, Dudamel and Abreu could be dispensed with as easily as Cuellar was, with as flimsy a justification, depriving them of any ability to have a positive influence domestically. Tendering resignations would have the same pointless outcome. As long as the Fundación can continue its work relatively unhindered, without overt politicization in any direction, Dudamel has the ability – and thus the moral obligation – to do what he can most effectively in his homeland.
This entry has been updated to correct the spelling of Gabriela Montero’s name in two instances.