April 25, 2007

Pearls Before Breakfast

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
-- from "Leisure," by W.H. Davies

Some of you may have already caught wind of this story - others perhaps not. But as I've finally finished reading the entire article (it's admittedly kind of long), I felt I had to share it with you all. A few weeks ago the Washington Post ran an article about an experiment they conducted in which one of the world's most renowned classical musicians (Joshua Bell) performed in disguise at a Metro station in Washington, D.C.

The idea was to see how many people - despite being busy and on their way to work - would recognize the high quality of the music they were hearing. Would they be willing to take a few moments from their day to appreciate truly beautiful art? Or would they walk by oblivious to what they were missing?

I'm sad to say, the latter scenario is what unfolded. Over the course of 45 minutes, more than 1000 people passed by indifferent - perhaps even intentionally ignoring. Only a handful of people so much as looked his way - let alone stopped and listened. The article is truly fascinating, if sad. I'd like to think I would have been the kind of person who would stop. But then again I'm also not the kind of person who would ever live in D.C.


Anonymous said...

The set up was a little ridiculous. One description I heard, I think from a MetaFilter podcast, was along the lines of "a reporter set up a situation where nothing was going to happen and then wrote a story about nothing happening."

While the article was narrowly applied to great music -- great music, like almost all music, is never widely popular -- the broader lesson, I think, is that there simply isn't much that people will stop for when they are busy and on their way to work.

Anonymous said...

On other hand, I believe that if a great musician can fill a concert hall in D.C. with several thousand people, we should expect that more than a couple people would stop and listen to his playing.

I think one lesson we can draw is that some people go to great music events not because they enjoy it (as demonstrated by this article), but because it's "high" art, and they want to be "high" (in the sense of superior)

Nobrainer said...

Another question, are those who enjoy "high" art going to be riding the subway?

Hal said...

I'm with nobrainer on this one. I'm not in the subway for entertainment, I'm there for transit, which means I hope to spend as little time in there as possible.

Maybe the musician is fantastic. I'll bet it's hard to tell over the roar of the trains going by and the hustle of the crowd.

These articles are kind of insulting. "Ooooh, look how pedestrian we are, we wouldn't know greatness if it came up and bit us in the face." Meanwhile, people are trying to make their way to real jobs and probably can't bother themselves with a street musician, talented or not.

Jared and Beth said...

Did you even read the article? and/or watch the videos? You can hear him perfectly. And furthermore, it should be pointed out that the article isn't ultimately trying to make people look "pedestrian" or say people don't know greatness when they see it. And I quote....

Let's say Kant is right. Let's accept that we can't look at what happened on January 12 and make any judgment whatever about people's sophistication or their ability to appreciate beauty. But what about their ability to appreciate life?

We're busy. Americans have been busy, as a people, since at least 1831, when a young French sociologist named Alexis de Tocqueville visited the States and found himself impressed, bemused and slightly dismayed at the degree to which people were driven, to the exclusion of everything else, by hard work and the accumulation of wealth.

Not much has changed.

I agree.

Anonymous said...

Me too!

Hal said...

Sorry Doc, I didn't watch the videos. I didn't read this article, but I did read a similar one a few months ago. It might have been the same one.

My point still stands. I don't buy the clarifying harrumphs of "Oh, maybe it just proves we're busy and can't appreciate life." The author is making a moral judgement in one of two ways: Either we're too busy to take our August vacation, or we're too low-brow to appreciate real art.

Sorry, but I call 'em like I see 'em, and I see this as an exercise in condescension.