In Sunday’s Washington Post, Gene Weingarten asks an interesting question: what would happen “if one of the world’s great violinists had performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people?” As it happens, Weingarten and the Post arranged to perform this experiment with the aid of virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell, playing his $3.5 Million Stradivarius. The article is well written, delving into the philosophy of aesthetics, and the importance of context, and tentatively concluding that “we can’t look at what happened on January 12 and make any judgment whatever about people’s sophistication or their ability to appreciate beauty.” Bell comes off well too””modest enough, and wise enough to the ways of the mainstream media, to have as his sole condition for participation be that the word “genius” not be used to describe him or his work, and to be concerned that by playing in the L’Enfant station of the Washington DC Metro he might be an unwelcome intrusion into the lives of the passersby. Certain segments of the Internet are giving it a lot of attention, and some people are, unsurprisingly, in an uproar, but there’s no reason to be either surprised or dismayed by the results of the experiment.
Skill at a task, such as the performance of music on a violin, is subject to diminishing returns. I, who have had my hands on a violin for no more than 20 minutes total in my life, could become dramatically better with a single lesson, but the more I work the less improvement I see for each hour of practice time – the better you get the harder it is to get better. This means that the difference in quality between people at different levels gets smaller as you go up the ladder, and Joshua Bell, even if we declare that he’s the world’s greatest living violinist, is realistically not that much better than a good subway musician. This doesn’t diminish Bell’s accomplishments””the ground between him and those musicians is extraordinarily difficult to cover””but it means that from a practical standpoint having Bell as the variable in your experiment doesn’t change the equation all that much.
Apply the same logic to the Strad that Bell was playing. I believe the people who say that they are the best violins ever made, but modern violin making is awfully good and the divide between the good violin and the Stradivarius is pretty narrow. Again, if you’re Joshua Bell and you’re trying to be the best the small edge that a Strad gives you is worth worrying about, but treating the violin as a variable in the subway experiment changes the results of the equation very little.
Furthermore, in order to perceive the small differences we’re talking about you need a decent acoustic space and you need to be paying attention. Presumably the subway platform is a pretty substandard venue and will seriously detract from the quality of the sound, making those key differences hard to hear. And to a large extent the kinds of subtleties that distinguish a Joshua Bell from a Joe Professional Musician are not the kinds of things that jump out and grab your attention – you have to be looking for them. This is why college students use kegs of Milwaukee’s Best for chugging and save the Sam Adams for occasions when they want to savor the taste. Commuters would have to decide they wanted to listen to Bell before the would be able to hear that he’s a world class musician, and they have other things on their minds.
Consider also the fact that most of the classical music that people hear consists of recordings of professional musicians, and many of them have heard recordings of Bell himself although they probably don’t know it. Hearing music played at a skill level approximate to what you are accustomed to is not surprising or attention-grabbing. He probably would have garnered more attention if he had played badly, since that would have been surprising. Heck, even the guys who sing along with the automatic accompaniment on their 1990s era Casio keyboards generally sing pretty well.
So for starters, there’s no reason to think that having Joshua Bell play the DC Metro is going to produce different results from having your average good subway musician play there. It’s a cute gimmick, and given how it seems to have surprised and dismayed some people perhaps worth undertaking. I won’t even go into how using Bell for this experiment smacks of Classical Music Chauvinism, although Weingarten does a much better job than most reporters do at avoiding that temptation.
Given that adding Joshua Bell into the experiment shouldn’t make a difference, what do we say about the fact that so few people stop to appreciate a first-rate performance of some first-rate music when they encounter it on the subway platform on a routine basis? Are we cold and soulless? Is it that we value getting to work on time more than we value art, and if so does that say something bad about our society? Are we uneducated and thus incapable of recognizing great art when we see or hear it? I don’t think so. In fact I would suggest just the opposite””our lives are so full of art that we can afford to pass it by when we have something else going on. Maybe that guy playing the guitar at the 116th Street station won’t be there the next time I pass through, but in the meantime I have my iPod for the train ride, internet radio all day, architecture each time I step into the street, graphic design when I look at advertising posters, my iPod on the way home, maybe some other subway musician if my train doesn’t show up, television or radio or a movie or a book when I get home. And if I want to go out in the evening I can go to a concert or a play or a movie or a gallery or a poetry reading or a nightclub. Everywhere I look people are wearing beautiful clothing. The food that I eat is prepackaged and sometimes prepared for me, so it’s usually good and sometimes outstanding. Sure, some of this art is better than others, but the overall average quality is better now than it has ever been in human history, and its availability is vastly greater. Why be late for work to hear a violinist in a lousy acoustic space playing music I can hear on the radio even if from the few moments I hear as I approach he sounds like he’s probably pretty good? I live in a society so rich with art that I can afford to miss this opportunity and get my art someplace more convenient.