Where You Least Expect It
June 20th, 2011

I would wager that at some level we each like to fancy ourselves the curator.  That is, we believe that we know a good thing when we see it.  Especially those of us in the blog-reading/writing set like to believe that we are tuned in, aware of our surroundings, observent, and (dare I say it) present.  We notice and appreciate the little things around us that only gain meaning when thoughtfully absorbed.  But really, would we notice beauty – true beauty – if we walked past it out of context?

A 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning piece from The Washington Post says no.

I came across this piece by way of my mother, who had tickets to see Joshua Bell in concert this past weekend.  She mentioned the Washington Post’s experiment to me, and naturally I had to go find the whole story.  It went down like this:

At 7:51am on a Friday morning in January of 2007 (yes, I’m a little late to the party here) acclaimed virtuoso violinist Josh Bell put on jeans and a t-shirt, carried his $3.5 million Stradivarius violin into D.C. subway station, threw some seed money into his case, and started playing.  He played six pieces over the course of about 45 minutes with the objective of discovering which busy commuters would recognize talent and beauty when they heard it.

The results, as you might expect, were rather disappointing.  It turns out that we Americans are an uncultured lot who can’t appreciate musical brilliance when it’s standing in front of us.  Actually, that overstates it as there are various theories explained the article as to why people overlook such beauty when they aren’t expecting to see it (or in this case, hear it).  Nevertheless, the fact remains that in the 43 minutes Bell played 1,097 people walked past him.  Of those 1,097 people 27 gave money, most without stopping, and a mere seven stopped to listen with more focus.

The original article goes into much more detail about the entire event.  It is both fascinating and a bit heartbreaking and I highly encourage you to read it because I am leaving further description of it to the Post, as A) it’s already a Pulitzer quality article, so really what more could I add? and B) my thoughts on the subject are in a slightly different vein.

Going back to my original comments on our abilities to play the curator, what is it we’re looking for when we identify something as beautiful?  Is there some objective yardstick against which all objects are measured?  Or is it all merely a function of our own perception?  The Post article cites Gottfried Leibniz who claims that beauty is a measurable fact, David Hume who believes it is merely an opinion, and Immanuel Kant who claims that it is, “a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer.”   This hybrid definition then raises the question, are heralded classics played by a master more beautiful in Carnegie Hall than they are in the D.C. metro?  Or are they just as lovely, but we are predisposed not to realize it because we don’t expect it?  I am inclined to say No.  I suspect that Bell’s performance was every bit as stunning on that January morning in the metro as it was the week before in the Library of Congress, and that it was the mindset of the commuter that blinded most of them to the actuality of their surroundings in that moment.

Further still, does one kind of beauty trump another?  Is one of Monet’s lily pads – considered to be masterpieces – more beautiful than a sunset off view from your balcony at the end of a perfect day on vacation?  (I mention the lily pads on purpose, because I’ve always found them a bit dull.)  If seeing something created by an artistic genius and arbitrarily hanging on a museum wall does less for me (I’m just talking about the lily pads here) than the sunset that is laced with context and subtext, does this mean that I’m an ignorant boor?  Surely not.  Nevertheless, if there is any objective component then shouldn’t the Monet masterpiece carry more, or at least equal, weight in my estimation?

Setting all these abstract questions aside, there was one aspect of the article on the Joshua Bell experiment that has stuck with me the most since I first read it more than a week ago.  Of the 1,097 people who passed Bell, every single one of the children either stopped or tried to stop, only to be rushed along by their parents.  This tells me that at some level, we are innately wired to recognize beauty in any context, but that over time that ability atrophies and perhaps eventually dies altogether if left unused.  There are a number of times in life when the mindset of a child behooves us.  Joshua Bell in a subway station, it turns out, is one of those times.

6 Responses to “Where You Least Expect It”

  1. Ana Says:

    Wow, what a profound idea to ponder this morning! I read the original article and also found it heartbreaking. I see 3 issues here: 1) Is beauty a subjective or objective quality? 2) Would I notice true beauty if I was walking by it? and 3) Putting beauty aside for a moment, would I notice ANYTHING at all? Questions 1 & 2 were eloquently addressed in the article. I kind of agree about the lily pads, by the way. There is probably some objective quality of artistry/mastery that most can agree upon, but the actual “beauty”—the way something can touch your soul & actually reach & change you, has to be an individual thing (or we would all be fighting over the same mate and dressed alike!)

    #3 was touched upon briefly, when the Brazilian shoe-shine lady mentioned that someone had died in the subway station and no one noticed. Obviously this is the most heartbreaking aspect of the whole thing. OK, you ignore a world-class musician—your loss. But when you ignore true human suffering—this is everybody’s loss. Loss of humanity—an unfortunate side-effect of our (American) idealization of independence and self-reliance. Even more frightening to consider though, is the thought that people DID notice, but did nothing about it. Because we are so conditioned to “mind our own business” and “not interfere”, we feel awkward and unsure about these situations & are paralyzed into inaction. I feel a great responsibility now to teach my children better, by example.

  2. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    As always, good food for thought. Did they consider option #3) People are cheap bastards and the economy sucks? Just wondering. ;)

  3. Cathy Says:

    I have an alternative theory – being a daily commuter, I often pass people playing musical instruments in the BART stations. I pass by quickly in my rush to get to or fro work, but more significantly, I pass without stopping because I am constantly confronted with people begging for money. Good intentions, good talent, unassuming – it doesn’t matter, there is a steady stream of people always looking for a handout. If I gave to everyone asking, I’d never take home any to my family so, unfortunately, I tend to turn a blind eye. Sad, but true.

  4. Gale Says:

    Cathy – I’m glad you mentioned your theory, because I think it’s probably a big part of the commuter’s mindset. Panhandling is ubiquitous in big cities, and you’re right, you can’t give to everyone. The Post’s article mentioned that most of the people who didn’t notice Josh Bell didn’t even look at him, and supposed that the reason for that is that it’s much easier to decline a donation if you don’t really engage with the performer at all. It’s an unfortunate aspect of life in a city, but a real one nonetheless.

  5. BigLittleWolf Says:

    What a fascinating experiment, Gale. And I think you’re right to point out that so many pass by – whether sick of giving hand-outs, in a hurry, or for any other reason. Having lived (and commuted) in Paris as well as cities in the U.S., I’ve nonetheless the impression that more on the other side of the Atlantic might pause to appreciate beauty.

  6. Kathryn at Good Life Road Says:

    Well said! “This tells me that at some level, we are innately wired to recognize beauty in any context, but that over time that ability atrophies and perhaps eventually dies altogether if left unused.”

    As kids we have no preconceived notions about where something amazing or beautiful might be found. Over time those preconceived notions begin to run our lives if we are not present enough to steer out of the mental rut.