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"Life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us"

Here is an interesting article in the Washington Post (thanks, julia). They got Joshua Bell, one of the world's best violinists, to play incognito in a metro station during rush hour to see how people would react.

His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?
Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man kept walking, but it was something.

A half-minute later, Bell got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened.

Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

Now, fnord12 would point out the elitist subtext that goes on throughout this article. The not quite said opinion that these people rushing by just weren't cultured enough to know they were in the presence of greatness. It is certainly hinted at by phrases such as the one describing this particular metro station as being "more plebeian than most". Or how about the premise of the experiment: would ordinary people recognize genius? It even states that you shouldn't be too quick to "label the Metro passersby unsophisticated boobs," as if this would be the default reason for people not recognizing the rare treat they were being exposed to. During rush hour.

It's definitely there. I can't argue with him about that. But i feel that the writer redeems himself in the rest of the article. I feel that although this is the first explanation they come up with, they come to realize that it's not that people are "uncultured" or "unsophisticated boobs" but that they are busy and rushed and have no time to take notice of the beauty around them.

First, he brings up a very important point. Context.

"Let's say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It's a $5 million painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: 'Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'"
In his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Kant argued that one's ability to appreciate beauty is related to one's ability to make moral judgments. But there was a caveat. Paul Guyer of the University of Pennsylvania, one of America's most prominent Kantian scholars, says the 18th-century German philosopher felt that to properly appreciate beauty, the viewing conditions must be optimal.

"Optimal," Guyer said, "doesn't mean heading to work, focusing on your report to the boss, maybe your shoes don't fit right."

He also gives an example of what really is going on in people's minds when they're trying to get to work on time.

"I had a time crunch," recalls Sheron Parker, an IT director for a federal agency. "I had an 8:30 training class, and first I had to rush Evvie off to his teacher, then rush back to work, then to the training facility in the basement."

This is prolly typical for most people. They haven't got time to stop and listen to music no matter how beautiful. It's not about how cultural they are, it's about the daily grind. It's about how our society is structured in such a way that we have no choice but to focus on rushing from daycare to work back to daycare to home to extracurricular activities then back home again to collapse before tomorrow's routine starts. It's about how this ridiculous way of life chokes the poetry out of us. It's consumerism pushed on us to keep us numb to the fact that insanity of 9-hr/day jobs plus commute is depressing.

A hundred feet away, across the arcade, was the lottery line, sometimes five or six people long. They had a much better view of Bell than Tindley did, if they had just turned around. But no one did. Not in the entire 43 minutes. They just shuffled forward toward that machine spitting out numbers. Eyes on the prize.

Happiness is only a few lucky numbers away! Don't stop now!

Fnord12 says i see this because i'm sympathetic to this idea. But it's not exactly the message the people at the Washington Post got.

This article just misses the mark of total redemption. They understand that people are missing out on life because they're too busy to take the time out to appreciate the beauty around them. What they don't get is that people are too busy not by choice but by necessity. If you've got the good paying job, you're prolly expected to put in 50 hours a week. If you've got the crappy paying job, you're prolly working 2 jobs to make ends meet. And this on top of any family obligations and commuting. So what little time is left after that is most likely spent on housekeeping and sleep, not attending $1000 concerts.

In 2 places, there's mention of how it would be different in another country. A crowd would stop to listen. More people would recognize the person playing. This isn't because there's something wrong with the people here. There's something wrong with the structure of our society.

By min | April 9, 2007, 1:19 PM | Music


"They haven't got time to stop and listen to music no matter how beautiful"

"What they don't get is that people are too busy not by choice but buy necessity."

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Not everyone likes the violin just like not everyone thinks that mathematics, to give one example, is beautiful.
And you make a blanket judgement of what is necessity versus choice...
If you placed a guy in a subway doing highly complex statistical analysis on a chalkboard, how many people do you think would stop and take notice the beauty of the calculations?
People who CHOOSE to listen would stay, but those who CHOOSE not to listen are those that have made another CHOICE that supercedes listening. Just because you CHOOSE not to listen doesn't mean that you chose not to because of a necessity.

On the flip side, I've also seen crowds of people stop to watch street performers who were not performing what society would coin as genius. But those who stop do in fact watch these performers in awe. So what is or is not genius is also relative to the observer.

But you do have a point... Society has trained many to almost ignore performers of this nature altogether, so that passersby unconsciously categorize them as nuisences and keep walking.

Two things. Number 1: If they wanted to provide contrast, they could have tried this experiment on a weekend or on the long commute home. The variable of when the experiment was taking place would change the outcome.

Number 2: In big cities, especially in mass transit areas, people routinely avoid making eye contact. In fact, most people only interact when absolutely necessary. Mostly because you want to avoid attracting the attention of any potential whack jobs waiting to paint you in chicken blood and proclaim you as devil-spawn, or whatever crazy thing that crazy people do that suits you.