April 11, 2007

L'Enfant Terrible

The Washington Post recently conducted a very funny social experiment. They got one of the world's finest violinists, Joshua Bell, to pose as a street musician and play in D.C.'s L'Enfant subway station as mid-level federal bureaucrats made their way to work. Several days earlier he had sold out a Boston concert hall where seats went for over $100, and the goal of the experiment was to see, I suppose, whether these Washingtonians would form some kind of classical music appreciating flash mob. Or at least stop and listen at higher rates than usual.

He chose some of the hardest and most beautiful pieces of music, played his heart out (as you can hear at the article site), and, predictably, attracted little attention. Yawn. It is supposed to be a revelation that when it comes to cultural knowledge most people are phoning it in these days?

It was all videotaped by a hidden camera. You can play the recording once or 15 times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent newsreels. The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts, cups of coffee in their hands, cellphones at their ears, ID tags slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia and the dingy, gray rush of modernity.

. . .
"It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . ."

The word doesn't come easily.

"...ignoring me."

Bell is laughing. It's at himself.

"At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change." This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

The saddest part is probably the bit about every single passing child wanting to listen and being dragged off by their parents. The whole article is fascinating and the video of it is indeed difficult to watch, especially since it lets you hear how beautiful his playing was, even in that weird acoustic environment.

Not surprisingly, (and I think I'm prettymuch alone here), I don't agree with most of the obvious interpretations of this event. No one ever gets tired of pointing out how degenerate our modern lives are -- regardless of when "modern" is taking place. When I first read this story, it reminded me a bit of something I wrote about last summer, where a blind taste-test showed that sommeliers couldn't tell regular wine from super-fancy wine without seeing the label. It was a nice little trial because it exposed some of the phoniness of pretentious wine people and confirmed what we all know to be true: that lines like "I detect a slight hint of peachy zest" are completely worthless. But is this the same thing? That people who flout their extensive knowledge of classical music, and would spend hundreds for a night in a gilded concert hall wouldn't recognize Joshua Bell, or even drop a buck in his violin case in a different setting? I'm not so sure.

There is a bit later on in the article where an art critic says that he isn't surprised about Bell's performance attracting so little attention because art requires "the right context." Nobody realized he was a great musician because he was playing in a subway and therefore, no one could have known what was going on. Like most things that come out of the mouths of artistic types, this is partially true, but for the wrong reason. If people had stopped to watch him because there was a sign saying "Joshua Bell, performer for the Crowned Heads of Europe" the passerby wouldn't be listening because they suddenly realized that he was a virtuoso, it would be because of his notoriety. The art guy compares it to taking a painting from the National Gallery and putting it for sale in a coffee house, where people like him wouldn't be able to tell the painting was any good. That certainly makes me think of the wine snobs. If your job is to understand the greatness behind certain works of art and then convey it to others, but you need to be told which paintings are worth looking at, what are you good for? If you actually purport to have this special ability for art appreciation, but basically just regurgitate the same established critical reviews that have been around forever...well, it's no wonder so much modern art sucks, the reviewers are just an echo chamber.

Anyways, I don't think it says anything so important about the plebians on their way to work other than that they didn't have the time to stand around listening to Bach in a subway station. If it was scores of music producers passing him on the way through the turnstiles, sure, it would show that they are hypocrites. But you can't tell that no one thought he was any good, even if they had wanted to stay and listen, everyone was rushing to work. This is not the right way to conduct this experiment. Try it in the afternoon and then tell me no one stops to listen. Sure, the vast majority would still pass by without breaking stride (I'll admit that I might even be in this group myself), but give me a more leisurely crowd and I'm sure that classical music appreciators would have lingered. If it shows anything, it is that most people are too worried about keeping schedules. Yes, most people are ignorant about classical music. Yes, it is sad that only one person recognized him while Paris Hilton treads the Earth on winged feet. Yes, everyone is too involved in their own affairs to "appreciate beautiful things occurring spontaneously in daily life." None of these things are news, and despite popular opinion, the intellectual world is not crumbling at a greater rate than usual.