Crowds Ignore World Renowned Violinist: What Does This Say?   (November 13, 2008)

Last year The Washington Post asked one of the world's finest violinists to play the part of a street musician in a Washington D.C. subway station. Pearls Before Breakfast: Joshua Bell plays the subway.

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L'Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.

No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. 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?

A onetime child prodigy, at 39 Joshua Bell has arrived as an internationally acclaimed virtuoso. Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston's stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. But on that Friday in January, Joshua Bell was just another mendicant, competing for the attention of busy people on their way to work.

Bell always performs on the same instrument, and he ruled out using another for this gig. Called the Gibson ex Huberman, it was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master's "golden period," toward the end of his career, when he had access to the finest spruce, maple and willow, and when his technique had been refined to perfection. Bell bought it a few years ago. He had to sell his own Strad and borrow much of the rest. The price tag was reported to be about $3.5 million.

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.

OK, so what does this say about American culture and society? First, let's start with all the excuses. It was rush hour, people were in a hurry, Bell was standing in an inconvenient spot for listeners, commuters couldn't hear because they were wearing their iPods, etc. etc., blah blah blah.

Bell played from 7:51 a.m. until about 8:34 a.m., which left commuters a full 25 minutes to get to work even if they'd stayed to hear the entire free concert.

Perhaps it required some deep knowledge of classical music to grasp that something special was happening? Then why did children want to stay and listen while the adults hurried past?

Was it distaste for mendicants and beggars in general? Did the commuters lose their sense of hearing in their haste to hurry past the street musician?

Let's cut the excuses: all these middle-class Americans ignored Bell and his music because no "expert" was there to tell them he was good. As the Post article put it: IF A GREAT MUSICIAN PLAYS GREAT MUSIC BUT NO ONE HEARS . . . WAS HE REALLY ANY GOOD?

As an amateur musician, I believe music transcends "learning" or even familiarity; that's why the kids wanted to stop and listen, even though they knew nothing of Bell or the music he was playing. He could have been playing bluegrass, or classical Persian music or a banjo, and his ability to showcase the music would have burned brightly.

A few years ago I attended a concert given by some of the world's finest players of classical Persian music, an ancient and quite complex heritage with which I had absolutely no familiarity. Nonetheless, I was as transfixed by the music as those in the audience who clearly knew the music if not by heart then certainly intimately.

I saw Joshua Bell in concert in San Francisco last month, and was stunned by his mastery, fluidity, "attack" (verve, if you prefer) and ease while playing complex pieces (Tzigane by ravel and Rondo capriccioso, Opus 28 by Saint-Saens), neither of which I had never heard before.

There are many other superb violinists (I've seen Midori play, and hope to see Hilary Hahn some day) but Bell seems to combine the suppleness of Oistrakh with the clarity of Heifetz. I'm not trying to get fancy here; I'd be just as happy to enthuse about various versions of Little Wing (Jimi Hendrix) or Spain (Chick Corea).

My point is simply this: the level of musicianship and pure power/emotional expression created by someone of Bell's abilities will sink deep into any human being's limbic core, regardless of the music or instrument, unless their defenses have been hardened to an impenetrable state.

Maybe the urban environment of American cities is so dreadful that we've all constructed defenses so thick that we literally don't hear street musicians.

Of course I wonder: would I have stopped? (Only one person actually recognized Bell.) I would hope so, but maybe not. I often give street musicians a buck or some quarters, because even though most are no better musicians than I am (i.e. mediocre) I always feel some live music is better than none, expecially in gloomy, barren subway stations and street corners.

I've even fantasized about trying a street-musician gig with my Les Paul guitar, just to see what it's like. Last time I rode the Paris Metro, (2004), a violinist and his girlfriend boarded the train and played short pieces between stops; the girlfriend squeezed through the crowd with the ubiquitous hat to collect spare euros, and then the couple departed for another train. All rather charming; perhaps the same type of subway players can be found in U.S. cities.

Would I have stopped to hear Bell if I had kids in tow and was trying to get them to school? Probably not, but again, I would hope that I'd sacrifice three minutes to hear Ava Maria played live by a virtuoso--on fiddle or guitar or what have you. Or hopefully I would have relented and lingered had the children resisted my single-minded haste.

Or just maybe, Bell's soaring music would have shaken me free of my usual goal-driven blur. At the very least, I hope I would have recognized, "Wow, that guy's good."

The painfully obvious conclusion--that we have little ability to make their own assessment of what's "good" and beautiful and moving--is supported by the abject state of the other arts and literature, where dreck is hyped by "experts/critics" and willingly bought by consumers aspiring to the finery of "culture." It's more like the "experts" and critics are raving about the Emperior's new clothes and consumers are nodding earnestly, even as the Emperor is parading around buck naked.

Which brings us to Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man. Polymath Richard Metzger, who was kind enough to interview me for the immensely popular BoingBoing site (Of Two Minds: An Interview with Charles Hugh Smith) recently reminded me of Marcuse's work.

One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society posits that the Model 1.0 industrial society member (and we can extend this rather safely to Model 2.0 post-industrial society member) has been reduced to a one-dimensional consumer who is manipulated into a type of serfdom via marketing of what Marcuse terms "false needs" and what I have called Manufactured Aspirations Empty Dreams, Manufactured Aspirations, Marketing Poverty: the Positives of Poor (October 27, 2008).

Here is wikipedia on One-Dimensional Man:

Marcuse argued that "advanced industrial society" created false needs, which integrated individuals into the existing system of production and consumption via mass media, advertising, industrial management, and contemporary modes of thought. This results in a "one-dimensional" universe of thought and behaviour in which aptitude and ability for critical thought and oppositional behaviour wither away. Against this prevailing climate, Marcuse promotes the "great refusal" (described at length in the book) as the only adequate opposition to all-encompassing methods of control. Much of the book is a defense of "negative thinking" as a disrupting force against the prevailing positivism.

I would also add our "education industry" to the list of pernicious influences, as this middle-class crowd's inability to even sense "this guy is something special" calls into question our educational system's support of critical thinking "for oneself."

It seems inescapably obvious to me that this random crowd of by world standards well-educated middle-class workers was utterly clueless largely because the "signs" provided by context and "experts" were lacking. They were perfectly happy to shell out $100 to see Joshua Bell perform in a symphony hall with marketing announcing his greatness with snippets of critical praise.

But left to their own two ears (or even one good ear), they failed to recognize or "decode" the purity of the instrument's unparalleled sound, the brilliance of the violin or the aching beauty of the compositions.

The Post coyly hinted at the all-too-obvious conclusion to be drawn: Joshua Bell playing for free in the subway was casting pearls before swine. Note their title: "Pearls Before Breakfast."

There are many other examples of this same "tell me what to value, tell me what to buy" phenomenon--the very antithesis of "individual critical thinking" we hold in such esteem. For example: famous authors submit their latest manuscript under a false name and are promptly rejected by dozens of publishers.


Critics rave about books by Haruki Murakami, and so aspirants to "culture" dutifully buy copies which soon gather dust, a bookmark at page 19 marking their final progress in a work which offers so little reward for the great effort of attempting to make sense of it.

Now as the entire mainstream media is being swept toward "everything is free" oblivion, mainstream "experts" (critics) may well be losing their grip on aspirants' hunger to be told "what's good" and "what's important."

So we step down a rung, so to speak, or if you prefer, up a rung, to youtube's popularity ratings: if a million other people watched this video, it must be good.

How will this affect the one-dimensional reduction of "citizen capable of self-generated critical thinking" to consumer? To the degree youtube has stolen mindshare from the print media, not at all: youtube is merely the latest, most compelling iteration of mass marketing.

Now you turn to youtube and other Web-based venues to be told what's cool, what's hot, what's good and what's not.

I will freely confess to being a poor choice for "critic of reductive consumerism." I tend to listen to one song or piece of music 100 times rather than listen to 100 songs once. I tend to buy (yes, foolish me, buy) classical pieces played by different musicians so I can hear various master's interpretations of the same music.

As a writer, (by all available critical and popular evidence, a thoroughly mediocre one), I wonder what separates us 99% of authors with virtually no exposure, sales or critical "stamps of approval" --yes, this guy/gal is good, go buy their work--from those whose work is "decoded" as "good" because cultural experts have deemed it so.

You know the drill: Herman Melville's ground-breaking The Confidence Man The Con in Confidence (October 4, 2006) was rejected as garbage in 1857 in favor of some reputedly "fine literature" which is now utterly forgotten. Popular "experts" get it wrong so often it's amazing we don't just blindfold ourselves and throw darts to choose "what's good."

If the average middle-class American can pass blithely by greatness and beauty without even the slightest shred of recognition--7 out of 1,070 is essentially statistical noise, i.e. zero--then what hope does any creator have for appreciation, recognition or (gasp) sales? I think the answer is clear: zero, unless the gods of popular taste/marketing deem it so, ubiquitously and relentlessly.

Joshua Bell at $100 a ticket: good. Joshua Bell for free: worthless.

New essay by Chris Sullins: "The Good Life", a thought-provoking mediation on hunting, living off the land, resource depletion, delusion, weaponry, war and much more--highly recommended.

"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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