Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Pearls Before Breakfast

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
--from "Leisure," by W.H. Davies

I only just found this yesterday but can't stop thinking about it. In 2007 the Washington Post conducted what was, basically, an anthropological experiment. I could give you all the technical terms, straight out of my "How to do anthropological fieldwork" texts of the past two years. Such an interesting idea. They placed Joshua Bell, a seriously talented ("prodigy", "genius"--oh, they went there) violinist, incognito at a heavily trafficked metro hub for government jobs in Washington D.C. He played fantastically difficult but not generally familiar, crowd pleasing violin solos for 43 minutes on his Strad (worth several million bucks) and his case laid out a la your basic street performer that many urbanites view as transients. Beggars. Please give me money. Man! It's just so interesting. He was there for the morning rush to work. Over a thousand travelers passed within 10 ft of his performance.

The hypotheses were many but most leaned in the direction of success. Definitely some recognition. Even possibly serious issues of crowd control should he be recognized or onlookers simply clogged the area.

While maybe a little disappointed (I realize I would've most likely failed as they did) I am really not surprised in the actual result: $32.17 and three people that noticed his quality AND stopped to listen for more than one minute.

The Post followed up with interviews from several participants (ignorant of the experiment at the time) and Gene Weingarten wrote a Pulitzer winning article based on his review of interviews, the hidden camera footage of the experiment, and scholars assessment of what happened. The article is long but really worth reading if you think this kind of thing sounds interesting... you know--being human, interacting with the world around us, recognizing culture and beauty? Meh. Maybe it's not for you. ;)

I'll give my cliffs notes and reaction here anyway if you are an idiot and don't read it for yourself... Nope, no hypocrisy on this blog. (There are pictures, if it helps... *shrug* It helped me.)

So, why this shocking, even depressing result? Genie-boy tosses out a few suggestions. The most obvious of course--we're too busy for our own good, we are so internally focused that we don't notice beauty around us, we feel especially uncomfortable with that type of individual--the beggar--so we go out of our way to avoid and ignore, we wouldn't recognize true culture or beauty if it dance naked in front of us... well, maybe not. Bad choice of words on my part... sorry. One man had had no idea there had been a musician there at all despite walking within a few feet of him. He had ear buds in. Listening to his iPod. The ironic beauty of it? No he wasn't listening to Joshua Bell, but that would've been freaking hilarious. He was listening to "Just Like Heaven" by the Cure which is about understanding what Beauty is and not appreciating it when it's right in front of you...

I think that those reasons are all probably factors in the result. Gene thinks otherwise, however. And while I am usually the kind of person that would rather knowingly walk off a cliff in the opposite direction of that damn dangling carrot, I followed Genie as he dangled that Pulitzer Prize... The article comes down to one big ole' feel good rationalization... I mean 'conclusion'. It's not our fault. Unframed art is no longer art. Take a Kandinsky out of its frame in a museum and it's no longer a multi-million dollar work of art. We can't process that stuff out of context. Well, I feel better, don't you?

Ok, you know, what? I just remembered that I don't even like carrots! Or Pulitzer Prizes... A world reknown violinist playing Bach and Schubert isn't the same to me as not recognizing abstract art. Even if it is! I think it's sad that we live our lives this way. I don't even have a freaking job and I do it. I think I would rather chance assigning beauty to more things that I see than deserve it than chance missing such obvious beauty while walking within 10 ft of it. The saddest part about all of this to me? The poet I quoted at the start (from the article--I did NO research!), Davies? He was a hobo. Is that what it takes? Do we need an Emmerich-esque world-wide disaster to get us back to a simpler way of life, disruptive technology gone? I'd like to think that with some personal effort we can have both. I really like modern plumbing and my iPod...

That's all. As I finish this sucker off, I am very aware of two things. First, the fact that odds are very good that this post is in some way quite ridiculous: disorganized, self-important, full of typos, too long or one of many other things that I hate hate HATE!!! And second, it is 3am. I don't sleep much any more and am therefore kind of constantly on the edge of crazy. Seriously, though. Even if my talk is crazy, please read the article, watch the video of it, and tell me what you think about all this. I have this feeling that this is at the core of a lot of ugliness in the world right now.