The Presumption of Artistic Types

A much-shared picture appeared on Facebook today,with a lovely little story attached. I’ve reproduced it below:


“A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by, and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace, and stopped for a few seconds, and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping, and continued to walk.

A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried, but 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. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 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. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste, and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:

If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?”

Now, stuff like this gets on my tits. I usually ignore it, but I’m not well today and in a bad mood, so they got both barrels…

Wow. Talk about a mind-numbingly stupid experiment just to prove an agenda!

People don’t go to underground stations to ponder and enjoy the finer things in life, they go there because they are on the way to somewhere else spending the minimum possible time doing it. This experiment would have exactly the same meaning if it was conducted in the middle of Spaghetti Junction.

Sadly, they rather under-analysed the result, choosing to simply dismiss the public’s reaction as a deficiency in “perception, taste and priority”. Had they actually thought about it, they could have reached some more meaningful conclusions about appropriateness of venue, about context of performance and about however valued a performer might be to their core audience, there are billions of people out there who neither know nor care about them.

So instead of learning about humility and professionalism, it was incorrectly dismissed as a failure of the audience.

As much as anything, it was the arrogance of the presumption that just because he was playing an apparently difficult piece of Bach (a vastly over-rated composer, in my view, being the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day) on an expensive violin, that this made what he was doing more important than what the other people were doing.

That reality-gap is a common failing in “artistic” types. It’s exactly – *exactly* – the same as a Trekkie standing in the middle of Oxford Circus Tube in London, reading aloud the script of “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and expecting to be taken seriously.