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Beauty Out of Context Remains Unseen by Almost All

By David Shribman

In the annals of newspaper tricks and gimmicks, this ranks among the best. Not, perhaps, as good as when James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald sent Stanley to find Livingston. But a whole lot better than showing how hot it is outside in midsummer by frying an egg on a sidewalk.

Earlier this year, The Washington Post asked Joshua Bell, one of the world's most renowned violinists, and a matinee idol besides, to stand at a subway stop, play his instrument and see if anyone noticed.

You can guess what happened. Hundreds of people hurried by on their way to work, to meetings, to breakfast appointments. A few people tossed coins his way; for 43 minutes of play he collected $32.17, including some pennies. Only one person recognized him, and that wasn't only because he was wearing jeans and a Washington Nationals baseball cap.

"It was the most astonishing thing I've ever seen in Washington," Stacy Furukawa, a demographer at the Commerce Department who had heard Mr. Bell play some weeks earlier at the Library of Congress, told the Post. "Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn't do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?"

This makes for a pretty good story, and a morality tale to boot. People in Washington are too busy, too self-absorbed, to recognize beauty at their doorstep or, in this case, at their subway stop. It's an especially good story because in the post-Reagan era (oh, let's be fair about this -- in the post-George Wallace era) we like to make fun of federal workers as being boring drones who work in joyless cubicles and are about as isolated from society as it's possible to be.

This fits some of the narratives we love to tell: Americans have no innate sense of culture. They could not recognize artistic genius if they ran into it on their way to work. Washington is a humorless, isolated place where pointy-headed intellectuals can't even park their bikes straight. (And you thought George Wallace was dead. That's his line, and we're sticking with it.)

But I wonder how many of us would have known the difference between Mr. Bell and your typical subway busker. I'd like to think I would have; I heard Mr. Bell play the Brahms violin concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony in December and thought him quite remarkable. (He also played at the Hard Rock Cafe in Pittsburgh, apparently to great raves.) But would I have thought the same if he were playing in a Pirates hat on the sidewalk instead of inside the concert hall?

Do I really know enough about art music to recognize genius out of context, on the street? Do you?

I can tell the difference between "Traumerei" when I play it on the piano and when Vladimir Horowitz played it. You could, too. But can you distinguish between an inspired Horowitz version of Schumann's great piece and an insipid one? Can you say that Emmanuel Ax plays better than Lang Lang, and can you defend your view? Do you know what you are doing when you stand and give Sarah Chang a standing ovation, or are you just pretending, or following the crowd, or doing what you think is expected after having spent $65 for a ticket to hear her play the Dvorak violin concerto? In your heart of hearts, how do you think she compares with Itzhak Perlman -- or don't you have the slightest idea?

Maybe you don't have to. "Knowing what you are doing is intellectual," says Larry J. Tamburri, president of the Pittsburgh Symphony. "There is an emotional element, as well, and it is the most important element. It's the visceral part." It is, in short, what makes music, music -- and not sound. And the truth is that a few people did notice that the violinist at the subway station was pretty darn good, astonishing even. Some stopped, watched and listened. One woman said she didn't want to leave. The violinist was that good. The music was that magical. The feeling he inspired was that special.

So I am not sure what the Post proved with its gag, except what we have known for some time: that it is actually possible to fool a lot of people a lot of the time, and that some newspaper people are smart-alecks who are absolutely sure they are smarter than the people they write for. I'm not sure that if Picasso were painting on the corner, or Lincoln were declaiming in the park (take away the stovepipe hat and the beard, just to make this a fair exercise) we would stop and take notice. I personally would not pause a moment if Christina Aguilera were singing in the square. I wouldn't recognize her if she walked into my office. I kind of hope she doesn't.

And yet the broader point of the Post exercise is worth acknowledging: We are not prepared to encounter beauty in our everyday lives. Very seldom in those everyday lives (at least in mine) do we run into Joshua Bell on the way to work.

But it isn't only Joshua Bell enhancing the morning commute. It's the beauty of the cityscape draped in fog, or the way the sun hits the buildings downtown, or the quiet beauty in the sidewalk drama when a toddler holds his grandma's hand and crosses the street. I am talking about something deeper than raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. I'm talking about a way of looking at the world, and at life.

But here is another way of approaching the question of how we look at the world and at life. Mr. Bell, comfortable at both the Hard Rock Cafe and the L'Enfant Plaza subway station, is willing to bring art music to the people and to bridge the gap between the formal concert hall and the scruffy street. We may damn the people who passed him by, but we can only praise the man who wouldn't pass by the chance to play in the subway.

Copyright 2007 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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