art in context

First, go read this article, about an experiment the Washington Post conducted on the D.C. Metro.

No, really — go read it. The entire thing, if you can, and watch the video clips. There’s some good stuff in there. Not just the incident they staged, but the variety of things they learned from it.

Have you done that? Okay. Then come inside the cut. I want to discuss this, but not out in the open, where people will be tempted to read my comments before they’ve read the article.

First off, props to Joshua Bell for being willing to conduct an experiment like that — and with his actual Strad, no less. (I wouldn’t have faulted him in the slightest if he’d borrowed some lesser instrument for the less-than-ideal environment.) And he seems to have a good attitude about it; instead of getting in a snit about the way he was ignored, he shifts perspectives to see how a whole dollar becomes a high compliment, how even snaring someone’s attention for a few seconds is an accomplishment.

It makes me sad that we have so few street musicians in the U.S., compared with Europe. We just don’t appreciate them. And I’m as guilty as anyone else, sometimes; I get annoyed with the racket from time to time, though on other occasions the presence of a musician can brighten my day. (Could brighten my day, I should say; we’re generally lacking in buskers, in this town, so I’m mostly generalizing off my experiences in Boston and New York.)

But the thing I mainly want to talk about is the notion of art in context. I watched the video clips, and frankly? The music Bell’s playing isn’t the kind of thing I’d be likely to stop and listen to. Yes, he’s a fabulous violinist, and yes, his instrument is a priceless treasure . . . but the music doesn’t belong there. It’s music you appreciate more the more you understand it, the more you have the leisure to pay attention to it and capture all of its nuances. Right now, iTunes is playing Lisa Gerrard singing “The Wind That Shakes the Barley.” I would be more likely to stop in the subway and listen to her than to Bell. Why? Because I know the song — the pleasure of familiarity. It has lyrics that tell a story — the pleasure of narrative. It’s simple in its evocativeness in a way that Bach’s “Chaconne” isn’t.

And that’s where some of the quotes in the article verge on irritating me. The unspoken idea behind some of the praise for the music seems to be, this is great art, therefore it should be great art anywhere. And I’m not sure if I agree with that. I think I’m more sympathetic to the idea that art of any kind derives some of its quality from context. If you play “Chaconne” for an audience that understands its structure, the conventions of its genre, and the subtleties of violin technique, and you do so in an environment where the acoustics complement the performance, and everyone involved is in the right state of mind for the event, then it might deserve the praise that’s heaped on it. But if you play it for an audience that hasn’t heard the piece before, isn’t familiar with the genre, and can just barely recognize a violin on sight, in an acoustically odd environment where everybody’s on their way somewhere else . . . .

It’s a question, I suppose, of purpose. If your purpose is to attract the attention of commuters and give them a moment of musical beauty, I think you could pick better music than “Chaconne” (and everything else Bell played). In that context, maybe Lisa Gerrard singing “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” would be the better piece of art.

To the WaPo’s credit, though, I don’t think their article is intended as a slam on the commuters for being philistines who don’t appreciate Bell playing Bach. (Some people may walk away with that conclusion, and those people, I would disagree with.) I think it’s meant to be a lament for how focused, isolated, and over-busy those commuters (and the rest of us) are, that we can’t take the time to stop for music, or even to notice that it’s there. And I can agree with that, wholeheartedly.

That’s why, even when I used to find myself irritated at an overly-loud busker, even when said busker was maybe not all that good, I was generally glad to see him there. I was glad someone was making music for the public, bringing a little spot of color into the world.

0 Responses to “art in context”

  1. sapphohestia

    The thing that struck me about the article is that, while there is a bubble of single-minded destination-orientation determination about metro travelers in DC, I’ve seen the walls get knocked down. But you really have to go out and pop the bubbles, otherwise even the best performer will end up getting caught in their own little sphere of single-minded purpose (I think even the article says something to that effect). I dunno. One of the few magical moments in DC for me was when a bunch of everyday guys hopped on a car and started singing. And they had a force of will about them, walking around the car, moving and dancing to the rock of the train that people started to wake up. They burst every bubble in the car. I think it was the first time the travelers on the train noticed all the other human beings all day.

    So, yeah, I agree. 🙂 A good experiment, but, perhaps, a bit ill-suited to the performance environment.

    • Marie Brennan

      That’s kind of what I mean about the choice of music. Classical music, even the best of it, is not so inherently perfect that it is in all ways superior to popular music. In a venue like that, the superior music will be the kind that reaches out and engages the audience, breaking through the shell that is otherwise around them.

      The sad thing is how hard it is to break through that shell.

  2. ckd

    Badly Drawn Boy spent a day busking in the London Underground a few years back (secretly filming for a video).

    He made £4.90.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, that’s the funny thing: Bell ought to be compared against, not the estimates of how he would do, but how other people do in practice. His thirty-two dollars might be the equivalent of a sold-out concert series, in busker terms. He might have been an earth-shattering success, in those terms.

  3. ninja_turbo

    I have to agree about the right-music, right situation kind of setup. The rituals that go in to appreciating classical music in a public space are well-defined, and classical music outside of that context lacks some of the mystique, I think, that comes from that framing (Goffman style).

    Had Bell done his experiment outside, even outside of a metro station, I bet there would have been a much larger crowd. Just because of the psychogeogrpahy — a metro station is a busy hurrying place, walk fast, get in line, hurry up and wait.

    The results would have also been markedly different, I think, if he’d been playing on a subway platform or the like, some place where people are already stationary, but not necessarily paying attention to anyone. This is more a question of the dynamics of how attention is apportioned out and the ways that people set themselves into patterns than any failing of musical appreciation, and also more relevant than the type of music played (though I still think something pop-y would have drawn much more attention–like they say in the article, familiar songs would get people’s attention. But that’s part of the whole thing. You go from one pattern (commute!) to momentarily revolve around a different pattern (hey I know this song).

    I agree we need more buskers in life. I always love it when the bagpipe players play down by the Sample Gates.

    • Marie Brennan

      I guess the major thing niggling at me is the elitism that seems to be tied into the choice of music — that it’s so wonderful it ought to transcend location. I’m not sure the article is saying that — in places, it seems to be questioning it — but I think a lot of people from the classical music world would believe it. But I can listen to some of the pieces that are supposed to be the pinnacle of human expressiveness and be quite unmoved.

      • diatryma

        Early on in the article, they say pretty flat-out that the music is brilliant. I disagree; Schubert’s Ave Maria is boring and I hear it too often. But it’s the piece I think most people would have recognized.

  4. kurayami_hime

    I definitely agree on the music choice affecting whether people stopped or not. Assuming I wasn’t horribly late, I probably would have stopped for the Bach Partita III (from the first clip), but not necessarily for the Partita II, as I know and love the former piece and I’m not sure I’d ever heard the latter before reading the article.

    Now I desperately want to listen to Partita III, but I’ve only got a copy from Evangelion and I do not like the way it ends. Gives me the creeps, it does.

    But I digress.

  5. drydem

    look at my userpic.


    Is that a moving work of striking beauty, an object of true genius?

    Okay, how about this . The Wall at the Scholar’s Inn Bakehouse East makes the comment that comparing a kettle boiled bagel to a frozen bagel is like comparing a ferrari to a picture of a ferrari. Assuming that 1:15 of a 12 minute piece is even the most moving 1:15, the piece is simply incomplete.
    In Beethoven’s 9th, there are 2 minutes that I can listen to over and over out of a CD length piece, but those are only meaningful in the context of the rest of the piece.
    I feel that there was a bit of journalistic ho-hummery. A bit of “how uncultured we are” I don’t think it was the main point, but I don’t think that the criticism focusing on the lack of attention paid is a valid one due to the selective nature of the ‘experiment’.

    • tibicina

      Oddly, I actually recognized your user pict even from that tiny sliver. That said, it’s true that knowing what the rest of the picture around it was like, frames my understanding of that sliver. Though even there I can appreciate the shadowing and some of the subtlety.

      I do think it makes sense that several of the people who stopped to listen are musicians.

    • Marie Brennan

      I still think there’s a decent point about people’s lack of attention, but as I said in an above comment, I’d like to see Bell’s results measured against those of an average busker. That would be the more useful metric; he might have been a stunning success, by those standards. Some of the best parts of the article, too, were the interview responses: the guy who didn’t even remember Bell being there, the people who payed attention being ex-violinists themselves, the reactions of children. I think those touched on some really interesting issues.

  6. lyceum_arabica

    (wandered over from mindstalk’s link) I basically agree with everyone, just thought I’d throw in my two cents.

    I’ve worked with renaissance faires since I first started college, so I’ve a little bit of experience with what it takes to gather a crowd of strangers and keep them interested in whatever you’re doing. The basic technique seems to go: Find a good place to stand where you’re tangent to the traffic, but you’re not in the way and you have room to gather a crowd, if you do get one. Try to gather a starter group using a ‘hook’ (a bit of your act that’s neat, simple, and interesting), and by acknowledging in some way (smile, nod) any people who do stop and come over. Once you have 4-5 unrelated people standing around you, the simple fact that people are stopped will gather more people, and you can move on to doing more complex bits of your act assured that your audience will pay sufficient attention to appreciate them.

    …but for this they had him stand in a place where his little audience, when they did form towards the end, was at risk of getting run over by people. …and it seemed like he didn’t acknowledge the folks that did gather (why would he if he’s used to performing on a stage?). and… well, more philosophical issues of context aside… complex classical music pieces are, in general, meant to be heard from the beginning all the way through to the end, in an environtment that’s quiet enough so you can hear them clearly. If they just wanted to see what happened when they took the music outside the concert hall, it’d be better to play for the waiting area at the BMV.

    Meanwhile, I wonder what would have happened here if he’d had less variables set against him? … a better place to stand, a bit of busker-training, and a few light simple pieces to serve as hooks, and maybe he’d have gotten more of the attention he deserved. (shrugs)

    • Marie Brennan

      Right, and Bell himself acknowledges some of the differences between that situation and how he normally relates to his audience (being pre-validated in his normal context, etc). Also how his metric for success altered so radically. He’s a brilliant violinist, but the only thing he has going for him as a street musician is his musicality; he lacks the other skills necessary for success.

      Assuming, of course, that he wasn’t a success. As I say elsewhere in comments, he might have done very well by busker standards.

  7. Anonymous

    There is a great response to the Joshua Bell article on the blog of a NYC subway performer:
    She interprates the situation differently, basically saying to be noticed as a busker you need more than just to be a good or even a great musician.

    • Marie Brennan

      She says one of the things I just tried to say in a comment, but better. Probably because she’s actually busked, and I haven’t. <g> I don’t think it completely invalidates the point of the experiment, but it’s definitely a contributing factor to the results, and one that challenges the notion of an objective standard of “great art” separate from context.

  8. houseboatonstyx

    Seems to me they set it up for just what happened, so they could write that kind of article. For a real experiment, they should have tried several times and locations, and compared the results.

    Otoh, the article said that some real buskers do choose that location. I wonder how much they make, and what kind of music they play.

    • Marie Brennan

      Well, okay, but there’s probably a limit to how often they can get Joshua Bell to park himself in a metro station and play for chump change. <g> I’m pleased to see he did it even the once; a lot of performers on his level wouldn’t.

      (Plus, the more often they do it, the more likely their results are to become tainted; people might find out it’s going on.)

      Your latter point is one I’ve mentioned in other replies here. How does he compare against your average busker? It would be interesting to know.

      • houseboatonstyx

        [[ but there’s probably a limit to how often they can get Joshua Bell to park himself in a metro station and play for chump change. ]]

        Yes, to make a real experiment wouldn’t have been practical — so I’m uncomfortable that this was presented as an experiment. And even within these limits — one hour, no long walks — there could have been some variation in location. It’s like they set it up as a worst case.

        In a way I’m glad that most of the commuters didn’t register what was going on. To realize that they were being offered a special experience — at the cost of losing their jobs! — would have been very sad.

  9. coyotewatches

    I thought this was a fantastic piece of coyote thinking to the effect it knocked down quite a few concepts held by not only the common working person but also a few influential and elite professionals in a field that seems to enjoy making themselves “special.”

    The piece saddened me on many levels because of the one phrase I issue more then any other. “A little confirmation never hurts.” Well, in this case, it did hurt. Ever since watching Koyaanisqatsi at the ripe age of 19 such a thing has always saddened me since it caused me to be more aware and sensitive of how easily the human animal puts its head down and locks itself away from the world around it. We’ve all done it and it seems that its more easier to do with each generation.

    It has become so epidemic that we have to train ourselves NOT to do it.

    The young coyote in me wants to say, “Those poor bastards…” and the old man coyote in me says, “How can we fix this?” But we all know what happened the LAST time Coyote tried to help out his buddy, the walking ape…

    There is one section that brought tears to my eyes as I read it to my wife and I am surprised that no one has commented on it. Of course, not many of you have children. I’m referencing the section where children were the strongest and only demographic which attempted to stop and listen only to be hustled away by their parents. Children. Children who did not know Joshua Bell from Taco Bell, don’t know know classical music, Kant, proper experiments of perception, Chaconne, Lisa Gerrard, Stradivari, the best way to busk, or lottery tickets. Children, I am sure, who would have acted that way if it was Joshua Bell, BB King, R. Carlos Nakai, or even a nameless busker playing a penny flute or guitar.

    And, as much as this story reminded me of “A little confirmation never hurts,” it also reminded me of my other favorite quote, this time from a comic writer I adore, Christopher Moore.

    “Children see magic because they look for it.”

    • Marie Brennan

      The children were one of the things I was thinking of when I said there were a lot of interesting tidbits buried in the article. The point isn’t just that they conducted this experiment and got the following broad result; the details matter as much, or more.

  10. eclectician

    I second the comment about popping bubbles. To me this read like an experiment about knocking people out of the patterns they know, and so to play familiar songs or to busk, to engage the commuters by interacting as a person rather than a musician, would be beside the point, since those engage you by moving you into another set of bubbles.

    Whatever your take on the stature of classical music, the sound is undeniably musical, and Bell’s movements certainly demonstrate an engagement with his performance. You might not recognize the music, but I think most people would recognize that he’s good.

    If we want to show it off to best effect, sure, put him in a concert hall and silence their cell phones. But I interpreted this as a piece about our responsibility to step outside those bubbles and bring ourselves to the table, to engage with what’s being offered rather than to expect it to come all the way to engage us.

    • Marie Brennan

      I just deleted what was on its way toward becoming a rambling and pointless comment that, upon reflection, boiled down to “yeah, what you said.” <g> So yeah: what you said.

    • houseboatonstyx

      [[ to play familiar songs or to busk, to engage the commuters by interacting as a person rather than a musician, would be beside the point, since those engage you by moving you into another set of bubbles. ]]

      That makes sense. To have put him in a park at sunset, where people are out to stroll and listen and donate regardless of the quality of the music, would have slanted results the other way.

      Hm, for something further outside the bubbles, you might find a location where the musician was on one side of an opaque fence or hedge, doing his busking thing for busy people — but the music could be heard on the other side too, without the social ‘busker bubble’ effect.

  11. unforth

    I’ll admit, I haven’t the time to read that entire (very long!) article, though I read chunks and skimmed most of the rest, and I’ve also skimmed the comments people made here…I don’t think this part of what I took from this is duplicative, but if it is, I’m sorry.

    I agree with the assessments of the articles tastefulness, the incompleteness of the experiment, etc.

    I’ve never been a busker, but I’ve been a rush hour commuter. When it was 8 AM and I was in a hurry to get to school, and I’d slept in as late as I possibly could and still make it on time, but even so I’d only gotten 5 hours of sleep, and if I missed the next train I WOULD be late, and that would go on my permanent record, I still had time for music. This was every day, pretty much, when I was in high school. But I wasn’t stopping to listen to buskers, that I didn’t have time for. I had head phones. My CD player was, at that point, approaching 10 years old; it skipped every time the train jostled, but that was where my music was coming from. If some dude was standing in the station, I’d ignore him unless he was actually inside on the platform, because if he was on the platform I could wait for the train and listen at the same time – otherwise, I would risk missing the train if I listened to him. If a guy was actually on the train, likewise, I’d listen. I’d try to give some change or a buck, if I had any money. I think a lot of commuters were a lot like me – in a hurry, frazzled, and unable (not unwilling – jobs are too hard to come by for this to be a matter of willingness) to risk being late.

    I mean, I love music, of all kinds, and I would probably pay to see Bell, if it was in my price range, and I still wouldn’t have even considered stopping. I might have – might have – if I’d recognized him, but even then, you can’t go in to work and say “I was late because of a famous person on the train” – it doesn’t really make it, ya know? 🙂

  12. d_c_m

    When ya gotta get to work so you can pay your bills because if you don’t get to work your boss will fire you and you will go under taking time to listen to music no matter how brilliant just doesn’t happen. I guess I didn’t like the picking on the commuters. Yes, Bell is a genius, but if I HAVE to get work in order to survive, well I may not stop to drop money either. However telling me that I don’t appreciate art is well, irritating to me.

    Plus, Joshua Bell is a genius. However, he is lucky to have educated parents who lived in the town with one of the best music schools in the world. Otherwise, well, he wouldn’t be Josh Bell. Nature and nurture came together. Thank goodness. 🙂

    • Marie Brennan

      I really don’t feel like “people don’t appreciate art!” was the point so much as, people don’t have the time to spare, or don’t spare the time they have, to stop and smell the roses/listen to the world-class violinist. I think the article agrees with you; it wasn’t picking on the commuters so much as the situation the commuters are symptomatic of.

  13. kendokamel

    The idea I came away with after reading this was actually not about art and commuters and whether the two will ever mix… but about how it showed just how subjective the notion of “celebrity” is.

    If they had put up a big banner over his head that read, “Joshua Bell!” I’m pretty sure a lot more people would have stopped to listen, just because it was Joshua Bell, rather than some other random-yet-talented musician – even if they weren’t captured by the music, itself.

    • Marie Brennan

      I don’t think the point was Joshua! Bell! I think the point was, great music, great musician, great instrument; will anyone pay attention? Will the art itself attract notice? Celebrity wasn’t really the issue they were testing.

      • mindstalk

        Like, if you put the Mona Lisa up next to Norman Rockwell, but don’t label anything, which will naive spectators be drawn to? Replace Mona Lisa with obscure painting from the same time, perhaps.

  14. diatryma

    I agree that the experiment was flawed. The children thing, while sad, seemed unnecessary– kids will stop and look at lots of things. For every brilliant street musician little Evvie was dragged away from, there were probably multiple pigeons, interesting yet wordy advertisements, pretty things in windows, and interesting people. It’s sad that the kids were pulled away, but what fraction of the time are they pulled away for ‘good’ reasons? They might not have been fascinated by the music but by the fact that it wasn’t a screechy nasty saxophone.

    The overall tone of the article bugged me a bit, not least the choice of music because the pieces were art regardless of where they were performed. I’d rather listen to a talented violinist playing something I know, or at least something catchy with a beat. Schubert’s Ave Maria is not that. A lot of great classical (and by this I mean fancy concert) music is only great to people who have learned to appreciate it, much like wine or expensive chocolate.

    I wanted to remind the writers that classical music was not played continuously from its composition to today. It was popular, written for money, written for fame, same as all the other pieces that aren’t played in Carnegie Hall or the subway, same as all the songs we’d recognize.

    I’m not done thinking about it yet, though.

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