February 2012, blog 1- UPON READING THE JOSHUA BELL/WASHINGTON POST EXPERIMENT (IN ORIGINAL AND [social media site withheld for copyright] FORM) AND THE IMPLICATIONS THEREIN
This event took place over four years ago and it has been discussed to the point of mythology; the Washington Post journalist Gene Weingarten who originally got it down won a Pulitzer for his work: I’m not doing anything new by placing it under the microscope. But I recently came across a mythologized account of Mr. Weingarten’s 2007 article in truncated form being passed around as parable on [social media cite withheld for copyright], forcing the implication that the original article bemoaned the prevalence of waning artistic appreciation among the American population. The parable leads the reader to imagine the average American as a philistine much more prone to the shallow squanderings of purchases, commutes, and commentary, than capable of the self-awareness necessary to recognize any fine art right in front of them. And so, indirect though it may be: “how sad that is; how pathetic!”
Frankly, I concede, I believe there might be some truth to the implication, and Weingarten certainly doesn’t seem so much opposed to that view either in his “Pearls Before Breakfast”; however, I also found the implication overtly biased and, like most leftist-liberal-arts-pedigreed bemoans, too quick to point out the “unenlightened troglodations of the bourgeoisies” without first taking into consideration the motives of those masses - which is a far cry from where Weingarten summates his original (though also undeniably biased) examination.
My purpose here is to challenge some of the prerequisites that classify the American Artistic Event (chiefly: monetary admission; captive environment; complete audience complicity) in order to illuminate that it is not the event itself, but the article’s biased examination of the event and subsequent internet-parable by arts enthusiasts/artists (with their shared conclusions of wide-spread ignorance by varying degrees) which prove and propagate the self-centric indifference prevalent in American artistry, both in the wider public opinion of its utility and in its creation process.
I also hope to offer a synecdochical circumstance and fitting entryway into beginning to layout the philosophical basis of The Otiose Aesthetic.
At the height of the morning rush-hour commute, ten till 8am, Joshua Bell, virtuoso violinist (shortened in American classical music fame only by Yo Yo Ma), began playing what can arguably be considered the most demanding and technically compelling pieces for violin ever composed. He played them on a work of art equal to the works of art he was sawing out: an infamously coveted Stradivarius fiddle, worth nearly $3.5 million. He played for just short of an hour to an exactly calculated 1,097 commuters passing through D.C.’s L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station. Of those 1,097 passersby, only 7 people stopped for more than a stutter step to watch, and an additional 20 tossed in some small bills and change, totaling $32, according to the Washington Post. (This money issue is of particular focus in the article, retreaded a few times over. It seems that it is this fact, in light of the usual going rate for a Bell performance at the cost of $100+ a pop, that seems to take Bell’s Subway Snub from untoward to egregious…)
Correlative to money, the article also takes special issue with the demography of the bystanders of the impromptu concert. In the mythologized version, near-singular focus was given to the fact that children (actually, a child, one, singular, in the original article) were the only ones who seemed to actually “get” what Bell was doing before being dragged away by their ignorant parents; probably because it plays on our penchant for endowing the concretely-inarticulate with preternatural, enlightened reasoning and infallibly unbiased taste (“Mikey likes it!” or, “my dog listens when music plays”- [as oppose to ‘hears’ when music plays]).
By positioning Bell as some pied piper playing upon a dog whistle, the mythologized version incites in the reader a need to be among the naturally ordained, above the vanity of day-to-day schedule keeping- it plays on our deepest desire to be uniquely in the know. This on the whole is the parable’s point: an in-joke signifying the sorry state of those who don’t know any better.
It is, of course, a fallacy- one perpetrated both by the mythology and, albeit less heavy handedly and to a different end, by Weingarten in his actual account. The fallacy presupposes that a child noticing something and then actively responding to that thing in appreciation physically (let alone mentally) responds in the exact manner as would an individual with inarguably more developed cognitive, sensory, and motor skills. The difference is appreciation.
The variables of an environment, which not only dictate a reasonable relevancy of appreciation, separate the mere physiological sensation of foundationally noticing something from consciously choosing to incorporate it into your perception of your reality (e.g. if the Titanic is sinking, is the quartet really playing at all?). The problem with the truncated form’s thesis is the presupposition’s logical implication: that there is a universality to “true artistic taste” regardless of circumstance, its existence indicated by the divining rod of a child’s shameless innocence, and that most Americans cannot recognize it, not because of environmental expectation or conditioning, but because our society has grown lazy and stupid…except for me and my [social media cite withheld for copyright] friend-list who, like the children, totally “get” the undeniable necessity of art (and by the way, would have totally stopped for Joshua Bell in order to totally vibe with him, duh).
The diagnosis based on this presupposition seems to be that it’s up to the learned-class to resurrect the fallen-asunder human spirit until every man and woman, along with their child’s dog, stands in rapturous understanding of Joshua Bell’s Stradivarius whenever/wherever we chance to hear it, regardless of situation…or at the very least, if the public is not responding popularly to my personal art work, it’s not because I’m untalented or irrelevant; it’s because there’s a societal divide, and the smart people are vastly outweighed…
Popularity. Ultimately. Always popularity, always profits: the overriding metric and unavoidable circularity of the American artistic conversation…
The demographic considerations widen considerably in Weingarten’s infinitely more nuanced, though still incomplete, treatment; however, ultimately never distinguish themselves beyond a monetary relevancy: his mention of the child is juxtaposed against the surrounding participants in the experiment, some of which Weingarten offers sociological close-ups of (occupation, race, reason for commute). The line of thinking follows: because the L’Enfant Plaza is a viaduct of industry, and however you slice it, people are there at the specific time of this experiment predominantly as commuters on the road to earning a buck, we can automatically equate their preoccupation with commerce (instead of Bell) as the limiting variable in the experiment of “is fine art appreciated?”
While I’m inclined to agree with Weingarten’s presumed conclusion, I have major reservations regarding what I see as the implied indifferent party in his story: This dynamic experiment and Weingarten’s deft fodder contextualizing it against the human historical preoccupation with the quantification of aesthetic existence, has the unique ability to illuminate why the American populace seems to have little interest in someone like Joshua Bell while possessing an well-exploited, insatiable glut for entertainment. It feels like Weingarten manages to blame, or at the very least adopts a disbelieving tone when referring to, the commuters for their inability to recognize!
I argue that it is the ART and the ART’S REQUIREMENT OF SPECIAL EVENT STATUS that fails in recognizing the people! And which willfully misleads them into nullifying an invaluable experience.
(or, to speak in terms of money-centricity: according to the average American’s preconditioning, the mere lack of money exchanging hands signified to most that nothing worthwhile was happening. Based on the conditions of the environment, when, against the odds, a passerby did appreciate Bell, the only response was to customarily deposit some money and ultimately keep moving; because to stand idly in wonder along the walkway is tantamount to whistling on the elevator in the tenets of industry—every conditioned commuter knows and fears this.)
This is not to say Weingarten does an incomplete job in codifying the event: he is elegant in his employment of Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, leading the reader to understand “beauty” through Kant’s lens: “colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer,” and just like the process of moral decision making, only accountable dependent on “[optimal] viewing conditions.” He even goes as far as calling on a Kantian scholar to clear up any remaining confusion as to how this should be understood: “Optimal doesn’t mean heading to work, focusing on your report to the boss, maybe your shoes don’t fit right.”
In fact, Weingarten suggests this a few more times toward the end of the story, almost as an implicit mantra: “Context matters.” He calls in National Gallery curator Mark Leithauser to all but make the statement for him with a hypothetical about the difference between restaurant art and gallery art (specifically noting the price tag as a primary component of psychological value); He references the devastating Reggio/Glass film trilogy containing “Koyaanisqatsi” (Hopi for “life out of balance”), which depicts documentary footage of Americans moving through their business as drone ants, building the hill forever upwards toward nothing; He cites British author John Lane who concludes the experiment is merely symptomatic of the modern world, “not because people didn’t have the capacity to understand beauty, but because it is irrelevant to them.”
Despite all of this effort to justify the over 1,000 people who didn’t seem to notice Bell at all and give reason to their affront of beauty, Weingarten concludes with an accusation, which comes at the end of his citation of Lane in a quote that acted as a summation of Weingarten’s “Context matters” thesis: “This is about having the wrong priorities.”
Whose wrong priorities?
…Whether these wrong priorities stem from our forced preoccupation with occupation, from the societal lack of necessity to appreciate or even become acquainted with classical music, from having shoes that ‘don’t fit right’ or the other various encumbering garments of our era, it is these drones who have grown up with “the wrong priorities,” who have turned their backs on the sublime in order to more ardently pursue the quotidian.
I can’t help but arrive at this conclusion when I read Weingarten’s prognosis. That certainly seemed to be the message the truncated/mythologized editors received and therefore clarified without the mitigation of context or fact.
In our examinations of the psychology behind The Joshua Bell Experiment, both Weingarten and I employ philosophical conundrums-
Weingarten: “If a great Musician plays great music but no one hears…was he really any good?”
Me: If the Titanic is sinking, is the quartet really playing at all?
Both questions are incomplete. They beg numerous contextualizing follow-up questions: Did they choose a poor place? Did they choose a poor time? Did they choose a style that was so unidentifiable as music that the given audience could not place it as requiring an audience and therefore nullified the fact that is was being played for them? why does no one hear?
My Answer to all of these: the artist played for himself. The audience necessary to register a corroborating debate in either instance is not the focus; the artist’s self-evident artistry is the focus. That being the case, the artist’s world perception was not available for import/challenge/growth beyond itself, therefore, it can only be quantified as “practice.” This same stagnation happens when we face an audience prepared to saturate themselves with our perception, to agree wholeheartedly with what’s being presented to them; another word for that is “anesthetizing”, or, “drugs.”