Anthony Tommasini, music critic of The New York Times, recently wrote a long article about political pressure on some leading musicians to protest policies of their respective governments. The focus was on two brilliant conductors, Gustavo Dudamel of Venezuela and Valery Gergiev of Russia.
How artists interact with society is a venerable and complicated question, and Tommasini’s article is certainly timely. I am fond of Tommasini as a music critic, whose judgments are insightful and never insensitive. But in this article, I think conventional (conformist) political narratives limit his objectivity.
Tommasini appreciates Dudamel’s concern and devotion to the young musicians drawn from poverty-stricken areas into the remarkably successful El Sistema, nurtured under successive Venezuelan governments. But he takes for granted the narrative of those pressuring Dudamel to condemn his government. Dudamel has spoken against violence and for the right of protest. I don’t know his views on the huge divide between rich and poor in Venezuela, or on the US State Department’s history of intervention and support for coups against democratically elected governments in Latin America, including in Venezuela. But it’s a disgrace to gang up on him for not going along with “our” side as defined by “our” media. And if his main concern is protecting El Sistema and its thousands of young artists, that establishes him as a real hero to go along with his place among the world’s foremost musicians.
The Gergiev story is not straightforward, but some similarities appear. Human rights issues are necessarily of international concern, whether involving suppression of social protest or repression based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. The Russian government is among those with intolerable restrictions denying Gay rights, and those policies should be protested everywhere. Gergiev’s position on the issue is limited to the assertion that his orchestras don’t discriminate, far from a convincing declaration of conscience and social responsibility. But it’s quite another matter to demand that Gergiev and Anna Netrebko, the celebrated opera singer, denounce their government and take “our” side in the renewed antagonism between the “West” and Russia.
The problem with Tommasini’s version is its conformity to “official” legend. Apparently it's not bothersome to pressure artists from Venezuala and Russia, while ignoring the outcry against repression by regimes considered our "allies". Tommasini does give a passing salute to Zubin Meta, the conductor of the Israeli Philharmonic, for publicly opposing the settlements and occupation policies of the Israeli government. But few of Israel’s outstanding musicians have spoken up against the colonial occupation and suppression of the Palestinians.
Nor in Tommasini’s essay is there a glance in the mirror, no hint that musicians in the United States may have an obligation to speak out on a host of oppressive foreign and domestic policies. Some of our artists have taken stands of dissent, including in periods of repression when it wasn’t easy. That arises from conscience, persuasion and courage when necessary, not from political targeting.
There is something wrong about what Tommasini calls the “Political Cacophony” challenging musicians. Making Dudamel and Gergiev convenient foreign targets is more a matter of political manipulation than of social responsibility. It’s hard to be taken seriously about human rights when selective focus conforms to prevailing political bias.