A Ringing Bell: More Than Music at Play
The Politics of Experience
  (November 15, 2008)

The many long, thoughtful responses to Crowds Ignore World Renowned Violinist: What Does This Say? support my basic contention that much more is at play here (bad pun intended) than just commuters' likes and dislikes and the "recognition of beauty."

Longtime contributor Eric A. submitted the following provocative email and essay on the subject:

This may "tweak your nose" as the response says, but I believe that the Bell experiment intersects a lot of cultural assumptions that need to be examined. Ran Prieur is far better at this than I am--instinctively zeroing in on the unspoken argument--but I simply fall back on cross-cultural studies, to compare Native ways to familiar (western) ones. The difference is so jarring, you can sometimes see yourself.

They are the best comparison because only 1st nation cultures seem to have retained a sense of immediate experience. That "what I like" is valid, but personal. That is true of law (they decline to outlaw any but the most wayward activities) and religion (each person meets God directly or not at all) as well as in the smaller things. No "civilized" culture has retained an immediate, personal experience.

Civilization runs like China's bureaucratic Confusianists, not like Taoist masters. So we inherit this orientation to always look to others for that which we should look to ourselves. I find this to be the single sickness of civilization, the cause of their violence and staggering soul-loss: that they are not allowed to like what they like--to be what they are--but must rather like and be as the teachers, the authorities, COMMAND them to be.

If I could change one thing to heal the world, it would be this.

Here is Eric's essay, "The Bell Jar: Slipping Out to Look Within." My comments on the subject follow.

I'm astonished at how much both you and the Journal make of “Pearls Before Breakfast”. I wouldn't have stopped for Joshua Bell either, but the reason is simple: I don't like classical music.

Both their article and your response hinge on two basic assumptions. One, that there is a single universal standard of beauty and excellence; and two, that Mr. Bell is that standard. Once those assumptions are laid out in the first lines “Best musician, Best Music, Best Violin” the rest of the article is a foregone conclusion.

But it's more than that. As you pointed out, the rest of the article is a down-the-nose look at the editor's disappointed astonishment at the blind cupidity of people. Why? Well, presumably he likes classical music and in true human fashion he expects everyone else to like it too.

In my defense, if it had been the Chieftains at the top of the escalator at 8:00 on a busy morning I would have stopped; and that is no idle comparison. The Chieftains are also the world's best musicians, also child prodigies, playing music often far older, and they certainly have the wherewithal to own the best instruments. But then I like Celtic music. As Robert Burns said:

“My pretensions to musical taste are merely a few of nature's instincts untaught and untutored by art; for this reason, many musical compositions affect my simple lug no otherwise than merely melodious din. On the other hand, by way of amends, I am delighted with many little melodies which the learned musician despises as stupid and insipid.”

But it goes deeper than that. Why is it necessary for me to defend my dislike of classical music but not necessary to justify a dislike of rap, Country, Balinese or Aboriginal? And why is my case only worthy to be heard if I can wax eloquent and quote 18th century poets? The articles dance with the idea of why people need some “expert” to tell them Bell is good, or classical is good, and why they need to pay $100 for it. But they miss something: perhaps the reason is that they don't like it either, and so need to be convinced that they do by peer pressure and persuasion; that is, “the smart, with-it people think this is really good: if you're a smart, with-it person, you'll think this is good too.”

So if yourself and the editor of the Wall Street Journal like classical music, bully for you. I note that the few who truly stopped were musicians, and classical ones. Like listening to a foreign poet, they understood the unique language of Classical, and I imagine that, like Burns, each gravitates to what they know and have learned. I've trained my ear to hear Celtic, but no less to folk, ambient, world music, American pop, alternative, and 30's jazz including violin master Stephane Grappelli... but not Classical. Classical sales as a proportion of music sold argues that worldwide most people agree with me: classical is not the “best” music because if it were “best”, then more people would like it. The same is often said of the millions who prefer Tolkien to Joyce's “Ulysses”. But who is to say what is “high art” and what is not?

The assumption underlaying all this is that the experts are “right”; that they are our council and authority no less than the priests of the Middle Ages: that only they are learned enough to decipher God's work. We are not to have our own immediate experiences without their approval. If we don't like as they do then the fault is our own. It cannot be that we just happen to like different things in a world where both of our personal experiences are equally valid; someone must be “right” and “wrong.” If you are not an expert—and we have paid gateways and degrees for this sort of thing--it's clear your way is wrong.

This is the very thing discussed here, this is the removal of people from their environment which makes them blind. That they do listen to the experts about what they should want and feel, instead of doing what they themselves want, and feeling what they themselves feel. That's why it's true that commuters are oblivious to their surroundings—they already followed the experts, the salespeople many years ago and that's why they are where they don't wish to be, in a soulless train station on the way to unloved work, the same as the last 5,000 joyless mornings.

And in self-preservation of forcing themselves to experience what other people say they should like, but they themselves do not, they have become so far removed from immediate experience they wouldn't know it if it hit them with a brick. I know because I do it, and because I live in spaces designed by soulless theory and not visceral joy, and every day I interact with the frightened and shell-shocked, who have each chained up their childish joy in a hidden closet for their own protection—which is simply to say, I'm your average American.

If you want the proof that we believe experts and not ourselves, ask yourself why I am not legitimized unless I quote an “expert”, and why my expert (Mr. Burns) needs to be bigger than your expert, and why my music (Celtic) needs to be older than your music (Classical) to be legitimized? Isn't it enough for me to say, “Few people are capable of expressing...opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions. ” without having to reveal that Einstein said it? Why is it forbidden for us to simply like what we like, and say—clearly and directly—what we feel? What's with the battle of experts?

The real tragedy of this experiment is that the experimenters could not see that they themselves are getting orders from yet other experts instead of their own hearts. They are the people of whose noses they tweak. They are the expert-cowed ones, not the philistines who buy Joshua Bell tickets but are presumably too dense to appreciate him. Or perhaps in their passion for their own music they follow their hearts, but cannot accept that other hearts might differ from theirs, and that there need not be one standard of beauty for the world. And thank God for that, as otherwise we would abandon our spouses and mill about the last remaining “ideal” spouse. Please continue to love your spouse and your music with all your heart, and I will continue to love mine, and we can each discuss their relative merits over our favorite vintages, safely within our own unique happinesses.

So the Wall Street experiment needs to be revised. Rather they should ask, “What is the best live, solo music as measured by the speed of attracting a crowd in a particular Washington subway at 8:30 in the morning?” Because isn't that really a different question?

Thank you, Eric, for an exploration of the key topics I sought to raise. I agree with you that "experts", or perhaps more accurately, "group-think" is the key issue here, along with how we respond to that propaganda/persuasion/training, etc.

But your essay also made me wonder what sorts of politics of experience were at play which I missed in my own entry on the subject.

CHS comments:

It seems I need to revisit some themes I tried to explore in the original entry Crowds Ignore World Renowned Violinist: What Does This Say?

1. I don't just like classical music: I specifically mentioned rock and jazz, and noted that I enjoyed classical Persian music, which I'd never heard before. My point was that music works on a level beyond "likes and dislikes" and that in my view, the children's desire to stop and listen was proof of this.

If you know nothing of a musical tradition and structure, can you still want to stop and listen? I would say yes. I would also ask: if you've never heard classical Persian, for example, (or any other mode of music), then how can you even know what you like and dislike about it?

2. Children are also proof in my view that music transcends what "experts" have commanded or judged; the kids wanted to stop and listen even though they had not been told to like or value classical music.

3. Let's say someone says they don't like rock and roll: what exactly is he/she rejecting? A Day in the Life by the Beatles, or Jimi Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner? To say someone doesn't like rock is rather broad, isn't it? Ditto for classical music. I understand Eric's rejection of elitism, but we should recall that classical music was also popular music in its day; it was not tainted with an "elitism" tag. We should also be wary of falling for an anti-intellectualism that masquerades as anti-elitism.

The Chinese have embraced Western classical music; are they now a nation of pointy-headed intellectual elites we should loathe and scorn because classical music is a priori an elite interest? Or do they understand something we don't?

But my main point is that music played well expresses something immediate which requires no knowledge. So is it bias that deadens our sense of hearing, or is it being in a hurry, or both?

4. Let's estimate that at least 10% of the commuters passing by either liked classical music or were familiar with some strands of that tradition. This would be about 110 people. Let's also assume 10% liked Celtic music, and the Chieftains had donned the garb of street musicians and offered up an impromptu concert.

How many people would stop to listen to masters playing either music? Some readers suggested the pieces Bell played were too downbeat to attract an audience. Perhaps. But anyone with a passing interest in classical music would at least have noticed. So would more Celtic fans have stopped for the Chieftains? If so, what would that say? or would the Chieftains have attracted an audience of people who knew nothing of Celtic music but liked what they heard because it was more upbeat and rousing?

I don't have answers; this is my way of noting the subject is muddied. We could also speculate that only 1% of the commuters (11 people) even liked classical music, and thus half of them stopped. We could also speculate that 99% "don't like classical music." But have they ever heard enough to judge? How would you respond if someone says they "don't like rock"? Is it OK to dislike classical music and jazz because those are viewed as elitist, but not OK to dislike rock because it's so obviously a broad bias based on something other than the actual music?

5. My thesis was not based on elitism, but on the opposite premise: that music was universal, and that "not listening", for whatever reason, lay at the heart of the 1,100 commuters' disinterest in Bell's playing. Is Celtic music more appealing than classical or jazz? Maybe, but both jazz (Dixieland, swing, bossa nova, etc.) and classical were the popular music of various eras, and it is wrong to dismiss them as "elitist" because there are overtones of snobbery associated with them now. That is a cultural artifact, not a characteristic of the music itself.

6. My point (not well stated, it seems) was that if 10% of the random sampling of commuters had at some point been willing to pay to listen to classical music, or even shown up for a free concert, bought a CD, etc. then it was a pretty poor showing that only 5% of that 10% who had some appreciation of that type of music seemed to be aware of Bell's presence and gifts.

7. Is Shakespeare also an elitist interest? His work was very popular in its day, as entertainment, not as "heavy elitist lifting." Ditto Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, both of whom remain popular much as Beethoven et al. remain popular in some circles. Does that make Twain and Dickens elitist interests?

8. Our educational system seems to have done a poor job of doing anything regarding classical music except constructing a gargantuan bias against it as "elitist."

If you don't like classical music, why is that so? It certainly pleased crowds of non-elites for hundreds of years. Do we not like it now solely because it has been associated with those pointy-headed elites we love to hate, they of phony pretensions, etc.? Do we also hate Shakespeare and Melville and a host of other material we are taught are classics?

Or do we dislike them because they are presented in such a boring, dead-handed manner? Is music appreciation even taught in schools now? I suspect not. So are we disliking something for its elitist pretensions rather than the music itself?

It is certainly safe to like country-western music in the U.S., and politically hazardous indeed to like and value classical music. That alone puts you in the line leading to the "class struggle" guillotine.

9. We can thus discern a Politics of Experience at work here. Eric and other readers perceive an elitist agenda at work, as in, tsk, tsk, the zombie middle-class consumers have no ear for beauty, etc. This is certainly a healthy skepticism; we should be alert to this sort of fawning, pretension, etc.

But as someone who likes classical music in the same way I like Hendrix, some flavors of jazz, world music, raggae, etc. etc. etc. I also detect an anti-intellectualism passing for anti-elitism, i.e. a rejection of classical music as emblematic of an anti-elitist stance which effectively blocks the ears as well as the very independent thought we all claim to support.

10. It seems Eric and I agree that the goal is to foster and be tolerant of self-directed independent thought. But it seems to me the defenders of commuters' ignoring Bell are following a largely political script which casts classical music as an elitist construct which is rightly rejected and/or ignored as having no relevance. appeal, etc. except as a statement or "brand" of elitism.

Can classical music be heard in America without referencing political biases and scripts? It appears that is difficult indeed. It is certainly anyone's "right" to dislike classical music, along with disliking rock, jazz, raggae, rap, etc. etc. But I have to wonder if any adult is able to actually just listen to classical music as a child does: without political scripts interfering with the music "as it is."

Additional reader commentaries on the topic: Readers Respond to "Bell Plays the Subway".

"This guy is THE leading visionary on reality. He routinely discusses things which no one else has talked about, yet, turn out to be quite relevant months later."
--An anonymous comment about CHS posted on another blog.

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