There’s a viral email going around that you can probably google, in which violinist Joshua Bell plays in a DC Metro station wearing a ballcap and jeans. The fact that commuters rush past him notwithstanding the fact that his violin is worth a lot and tickets to his performances are worth a lot is presented as evidence that we tend to take for granted the beauty all around us. I responded:
This irritates me because it makes a judgment about people when it should be making a judgment about performance. I am offended by the idea that this reveals anything striking about the human capacity to ignore beauty. Had I known before embarking on my commute that Josh Bell was playing in the Metro station on an eleventy bajillion dollar violin, accompanied by the ghost of Bach on cherub-fart-pipe-organ and Mozart on heavenly-fartsichord on a Monday morning, I still would have rushed by. Why? Because I’m on my way to work, and though the music is nice we have situations and spaces that let people who want to enjoy music do so. Would I have jerked my kid away? Probably. I don’t want my kid to get knocked down or impede the flow of traffic. The Metro moves a heck of a lot of people, and when there are service interruptions during rush hour, the platforms swell with unhappy commuters. An impediment to the flow of pedestrians in the form of a static audience becomes both a frustration and a potential danger. Music alone will not salve that.
Might this story not say as much about the way that a legitimizing situation overvalues culture than the way that a dilettantish situation undervalues it? If I got a great meal for free when I wasn’t hungry from a truck in an empty stripmall parking lot alone in the pouring rain, would I be able to appreciate it as much as a moderately expensive decent meal in a comfortable restaurant with pleasant company that I was actually craving? No, context is important. Context is a big part of what you pay for when you pay to see a performance. Environmental theatre is great: the thing about it is that plays are made to fit the environment, because it’s outrageous to expect an audience to give a performance out of context the kind of attention they would give to a performance in context. If I gave the best performance anyone ever saw of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, some people might think it was an interesting novelty, but most people would keep doing their damn jobs because that was what they were there to do, and I made an idiotic decision when I decided that this was a context conducive to my work. No one would likely appreciate the subtlety of the performance or the script.
I am, as an artist and performer (I admittedly have not been a performer for several years) critical of the insistence that the value of any art should be so apparent that it transcends context. Why would a performer not try to situate his or her performance in a way that engages the audience? This is poor performance craft, not a failing of the human capacity to appreciate beauty. The performance has already been rendered significantly less identifiably beautiful by this failure in the artist’s craftsmanship.
I am also critical of the notion that the price of an instrument and the price of one’s concert tickets are any kind of objective measure of the quality of one’s work. I say that not to impugn Mr. Bell, whose work I have never heard, but merely to say that dollars and cents do not make a credible yardstick by which to measure the human capacity to be ignorant to beauty.