I’m snowed into a hotel room in Madison, Wisconsin, setting the alarm for 4:15 a.m. to make my replacement flight home. Ah, life on the open road! What to do with my suddenly free time? Blog, of course.
One of the dedicated arts people I met on this trip forwarded me an article from The Washington Post that slowly deflates—without intending to, it seems—the arts world myth that Quality Will Out.
Here’s the story: with the Post‘s cooperation, heartthrob violin virtuoso Joshua Bell (who has this week been awarded the Avery Fisher prize, designating him as the best classical musician in America) conducted an experiment in the Washington, DC, Metro system. He dressed down, toted his $3.5 million Stradivarius into the bowels of the subway station, seeded his open violin case with some loose change and performed 43 minutes’ worth of selections from Bach, Schubert, Ponce and Massenet, attracting an aggregate audience that could be counted on one’s fingers and a total of $32.17 (which included one $20 contribution).
Sixty-three people passed Bell by before one turned his or her head. Seven people in all stopped for at least a minute. The Post kept count, so I can tell you that in the same space of time, 1,070 people walked right past Bell without stopping. (The Post article is linked to video, if you want to see for yourself.) Unapplauded for perhaps the first time in an illustrious career, Bell himself was nervous and awkward in the silent breaks between pieces. Reviewing the video, he said this: “I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all, as if I’m invisible. Because, you know what? I’m makin’ a lot of noise!”
Preparing for the experiment, the Post reporters tells us, they anticipated crowd control problems. The article trots out experts to speculate about what will happen (with wild optimism, Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, predicts a total crowd of about 100 and a haul of $150) and to interpret what did happen. Curators and philosophers suggest that the experiment proves only that to be appreciated, art must appear in the proper context. Cultural commentators say people have gotten too busy to stop and notice beauty.
But here’s an interesting angle:
There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.
I have spent most of my life somewhere on the fringes of the art world, where it is an article of faith held dear even by people who think it would be terminally uncool to admit it that artists who don’t win art world acclaim just don’t deserve it. If you’re good enough, the saying goes, you’ll be noticed.
In a pig’s eye. The truth is that if you have learned the right codes and customs, studied with the right teachers, and lucked into receiving the right sort of framing (i.e., context)—the tuxedo, the proscenium, the printed programs and velvet curtains—and you have talent, you have a decent chance of being noticed. All of these things are like big red arrows. “Look here,” they say, “this one has been certified for your attention.”
Meanwhile, our world is teeming with artists of great ability whom life has not placed in the gilded frame. I know too many to count. And now I have proof. The next time I hear someone hold forth on the evergreen untruth that Quality Will Out, I’ll tell them about Joshua Bell in the Metro station, caught with his frame down:
“When you play for ticket-holders,” Bell explains, “you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I’m already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don’t like me?”
What if without the frame, without the big red arrows, they don’t even notice him? How arrogant is it to say that those who go unnoticed deserve obscurity?
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And on another subject, to listen to or download a podcast interview with me on New Creative Community for The Bat Segundo Show, click here and select interview #107.
[…] as to call attention to its place of pride in the pecking-order. I wrote a few years ago about an experiment in which the superstar violinist Joshua Bell performed incognito in a Washington, DC, Met…, failing to attract either attention or donations from passers-by. I imagine that even the most […]