As reported in the Washington Post: Pearls Before Breakfast by Gene Weingarten on Sunday, April 8, 2007.
On January 12, at 7:51 a.m. a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeve T-shirt and Washington Nationals baseball cap positioned himself against a wall next to the L’enfant Plaza Metro station. He pulled a violin out of its’ case, turned the case around, put a few dollars in it as seed money and began to play.
During the next 43 minutes while he preformed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. After 3 minutes, one middle aged man turned his head to listen before moving on. Shortly after, a women threw a buck in the case. In the time that he played, seven people stopped for a moment to listen, 27 gave money for a total of $32 and change.
The violinist was Joshua Bell, a onetime child prodigy and an internationally acclaimed virtuoso. Three days prior to the Metro station performance, he played to a filled house at Boston’s Symphony Hall where OK seats went for $100.
The violin was a $3.5 million Stradivarius. The music was some of the most beautiful classical music ever written.
This story is interesting on so many levels. Among the most interesting is the importance of context. How the simple act of taking something out of one environment and placing it in another changes our perceptions. Take a man in a tuxedo, place him among others in tuxedos all holding musical instruments and he becomes a classical musician. Take that same person and put him in a fancy restaurant standing next to a table and he becomes a waiter, or again place the same person standing next to a women in a wedding dress and he becomes a groom. A tree without leaves among other trees without leaves is dormant; a tree without leaves among other trees with leaves is dead. Context is, of course, why politicians give interviews in front of the Capital Building, and why lawyers like to be pictured in front of massive bookcases, and why the cars we drive are more then mere transportation vehicles. Context has us believe that someone sitting behind a TV news desk is giving us real news, void of bias, and has us believe that attending a concert with a $100 ticket is worth more than one at some local venue. We like our classical musicians in black ties performing in concert halls, our politicians in suits, our doctors in lab coats, and our rock musicians (even though some can afford Armani) in jeans and T-shirts that look like they came from the Salvation Army. “You’ve got to suffer if you want to sing the Blues,” and you have to look the part if you want us to believe you.
Also quoted in the story was a senior curator at the National Gallery, who stated that if he were to take a $5 million abstract masterpiece out of its frame and out of the National Gallery, walk it down the street to one of the restaurants where student artists hang work and put a price tag on it for $150, no one would take notice.
Why do we automatically assume that a painting hung on a wall of a gallery is better than an illustration that appears in a magazine? And if so, what makes one painting more valuable then another? What roll do critics play? Does the value of something simply rest with the expertise of others? Are we so insecure about our opinions that we are willing to let critics and jurors decide what is good and what is bad?
We, for the most part, do not make decisions based on facts, but rather on perceptions. Not what is real, good or bad, but what we believe to be real, good or bad. And these opinions are highly influenced by the taste of others and highly influenced by context.
Vincent Van Gogh is regarded as one of history’s greatest painters and possibly the most important contributor to the foundation of modern art. His Portrait of Dr. Gachet is among the 10 highest priced paintings ever sold at auction, yet during his lifetime he never sold a painting. No critics in his life ever took notice of his work. He shot himself believing his works were valueless.
In 1963 when both “Meet the Beatles” and “The Freewheeling Bob Dylan” were released, Robert Goulet won the Grammy for best new artist. Put that in context.
One additional item noted in the article was that while most adults did their best to avoid eye contact with the violinist, every child that passed took notice. Every child that day tried to stop and listen, and in every case they were scooted away by a parent. I wonder if any of these parents were the type who strapped speakers to their abdomen so that her unborn child can listen to Mozart prenatally and arrive in this world with a jump-start on culture.
The big question raised by the article is how much that is truly beautiful do we miss. And I wonder if I had been at that plaza station on January 12, 2007, on my way to fetch a cappuccino, would I have stopped?