Over ten years ago, a short, unassuming article was published in one of America’s leading newspapers, the Washington Post. It was about a social experiment that highlighted some harsh truths about the society we live in. Most of the mid-level bureaucrats disembark at L’Enfant Plaza station, located in the heart of federal Washington. On Friday, 12 January 2007, as people slurped coffee and scarfed down doughnuts, as they scurried off to work, an inconspicuous man, in jeans and a T-shirt, stood next to a dustbin inside the station playing a violin.
In a city like Mumbai, it would not be considered highly dignified for someone to play music on the street. The perception in the States is different. They are not part of the aristocracy, but not considered impoverished either. They are just seen as street performers, who can at times attract quite a crowd and media attention.
If you see someone playing music in a public area, do you stop and listen? Do you ever give any change to show your kindness? Or do you hurry past in guilt fearful of your lack of time? That winter morning, the Washington Post conducted an experiment to see if people would stop for one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing the most elegant music ever written, on one of the most expensive violins ever crafted. Would they accept their free front-row ticket to witness the musical genius or squander their opportunity, as they rushed to Capitol Hill?
The artist was the internationally renowned violinist, Joshua Bell. Thirty-nine at the time of the experiment, Bell had swapped the concert hall for the Metro hall, and an adoring audience to one who may just ignore him. Days before the experiment, Bell had filled Boston’s stately Symphony Hall, where run-of-the-mill seats sell for $100.
This was a test of context, perception and priorities: Would people pause to appreciate beauty when it’s right in front of them?
Bell was a child prodigy. His parents, both psychologists, decided to get him formal training when they noticed that their four-year-old was making music with rubber bands—he would stretch them, opening and closing them across side-cabinets, to vary the pitch. His fame was amplified as a teenager. ‘Does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live,’ one magazine interview commented. But would the humans at the train station tell him that? Would the masses recognize this disguised genius playing perfect masterpieces on a violin worth $3.5 million? So what do you think? A free concert by one of the world’s most famous musicians! You would expect a swarm of commuters around him. The opposite happened.
It was at three minutes that a middle-aged man glanced at Joshua for a split second, but kept walking. Thirty seconds later, a woman threw in a dollar and dashed away. It was six minutes later that someone leaned against the wall, and listened. The stats were dismal. In the forty-five minutes that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped and hung around for at least a minute, twenty-seven gave money amassing a grand total of $32. This left 1070 people who were oblivious to the miracle happening only a few feet away from them.
The Washington Post recorded Bell’s whole performance secretly, creating a time-lapse video of any incidents, or in this case, lack of them. ‘Even at this accelerated pace, though, the fiddler’s movements remain fluid and graceful; he seems so apart from his audience—unseen, unheard, otherworldly—that you find yourself thinking that he’s not really there. A ghost. Only then do you see it: he is the one who is real. They are the ghosts,’ the article said. Can we label the thousand people who ignored Bell as unsophisticated? Not necessarily.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant said that the context of a situation matters.
‘One’s ability to appreciate beauty is related to one’s ability to make moral judgements,’ he said. But to do this, the ‘viewing conditions must be optimal’. Art in a gallery and art in a coffee shop are going to be treated differently. In the coffee shop, the art may be more expensive and of a higher value, but there is no reason to pay attention as people sip a variety of mochaccinos. In most galleries, the ‘optimal’ conditions have been created to appreciate beauty. Light in the right place, enough room between the art and the viewer, a description of the piece, etc. Funnily enough, many have lost ordinary objects in art galleries later to find that people are gathered around them taking pictures thinking that they are exhibits! Context manipulates our perspective.
Therefore, we cannot make judgements about people’s ability to appreciate appreciate beauty because Bell did just look like a humdrum violinist.
However, what does this say about our ability to appreciate life?
I have found that we as a people have got busier over time. We tend to exclude parts of our lives which are not directly related to hard work and accumulating wealth. The construct of the modern world is such that we have less time to press pause, and appreciate beauty. Minding their own business, stressed, with their eyes forward, people on the escalator ignoring Joshua Bell have the capacity to understand beauty, but it seems irrelevant to their lives so they choose not to. If we cannot take a moment to listen to the beautiful music, played by one of the best musicians on the planet; if the drive of modern life suppresses us, so that we are deaf and blind to that spectacle, what else are we missing?
Ps. If you really like the concept of this experiment, you should check out ‘Roomies by Christina Lauren’. It is a romance novel based on a similar idea and a nice read.