The culture of popular art versus humble pie

This story was sent to me today:

A musician played the violin in a Washington DC Metro Station on a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 60 minutes. During that time approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
3 minutes
A middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.
4 minutes
The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping, continued to walk.
6 minutes
A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.
10 minutes
A three year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly, as the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced them to move on.
45 minutes
The musician played. Only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32.
1 hour:
He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

This is a real story. The Washington Post, as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities, arranged the entire scenario. Playing incognito, no one knew the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days prior to this, Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the tickets averaged $100 per seat.

The questions raised:

In a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty; do we stop to appreciate it; do we recognize talent in such an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be:
If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ……. How many other things are we missing?

I mulled over this for a while . This is something I have often thought about – but in the context of visual art rather than music. I was quite surprised at the story in some ways as I think music is always noticeable if played well. All those people getting a free concert and not noticing!

But is it really about not having time to stop, or is it about not wanting to stop. Perhaps there is a  fear of having to become intimate with the musician. By this I don’t mean giving him a kiss and a cuddle, but there is always a chance he will look at you as you are watching him , and maybe for some this is too intense. It may sound silly but I have been in that situation many times, and I would rather listen to a musician from a distance and with a crowd than alone and up close.

I was introduced to busking  in the 80’s by a boyfriend I had who would take me to London and sing his Bob Dylan- like angry songs. But he never let me join in, so I would be the one sitting like the dog with the  pot for coins. The coins usually bought cigarettes and sherry and the occasional pasty. We stayed in a friends flat that was crawling with cockroaches. All in all it was a pretty miserable week or two and I was always relieved to get out of a car after hitching a ride back home.

Later at art college I went busking quite often with friends, I sang my heart out and strummed my guitar frantically. Occasionally people would stop and listen, some would stop and gurn,  more often they would pass by. (But they really weren’t missing much!)

But to get back to the story of the musician,  perhaps another reason for not stopping  to listen ,  is that people are snobs. The children knew it was good, and maybe the adults did too, but as far as they knew he was just another unknown down and out. If people know who you are they come flocking, if you have no name then you are ignored. Dreadful isn’t it?

In the visual arts if you have made a name for your self or have been “discovered” by a member of the art establishment, people will come to see your shows and pay a lot of money to buy your work, even if it is complete crap. Meanwhile Joe Bloggs in the little gallery next door is unknown, but he is very talented and makes fantastic art, but he only has a small gathering of folk on his preview and only sells because nothing is very expensive.

I had an experience a few years ago that made me feel very small and inferior, although  I think it did me a lot of good at the time. (Perhaps I had  become a little arrogant). I was at a show by a very well known artist in this area, in fact she is well known in her genre across the world. I know her a little having chatted with her from time to time. At this opening she introduced me to an elderly and very stern looking lady. The lady looked at me and said in a condescending manner “…what was your name?” I told her my name and  wondered  if I should  curtsey, to which she snapped “never heard of you!”  The thing was I wasn’t really expecting her to have heard of me , but the way she said it made me feel as if I didn’t exist, I was a  shadow, or a little wisp of a breath taken away in the wind! And because she hadn’t heard of me she wasn’t interested in me. All in all a very humbling experience!

But then I thought well who the hell was she?!

Eating Humble Pie

If you want to read more stories like the one about Joshua Bell visit

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  1. I so agree with you, but what I also have found is that people also are like sheep, they just join the others even if they don’t agree. They are too scared to stand up and be counted.
    Have their own view, don’t want to stick out like a sour thumb, worrying about the consequenses of their thoughts.
    It’s hard for people to be spontanious and have opinions.
    I don’t mean to be too deep, but it’s an interesting observation you raise…

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