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Saturday, April 07, 2007

Pearls Before Breakfast

By Gene Weingarten, The Washington Post

He emerged from the Metro at the L'Enfant Plaza station and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

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...Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?

On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. 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....


Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON, with thanks to Mike Sisk


Blogger erlik said...

This is a superbly written, interesting article and I really thank you for posting the link.

I wanted to say a lot of things, thoughtful and profound, about alienation, appreciation of beauty, John Ruskin and many other things. But my writing ability betrays me...

So I can only say that the article is about the same thing as your post on critiques of famous photographers - preconceptions and expectations. Preconceptions and expectations which plague so many Internet forums dealing with photography and art.

Would all of us recognize a diamond if we found it in the street? Most probably not. Who'd expect a diamond lying in the gutter? Diamonds are not found on sidewalks! So we'd probably pass, thinking it a piece of glass.

No, I don't consider myself an exception.

Thank you, Mike.

1:38 AM  
Blogger Ernest Theisen said...

Mike all I can say, I have said before, thank you. Such a great story, so well written. It raises so many issues on the subjects you and your readers discuss on this blog. I must pass it on. Simply remarkable. Ernie

2:44 AM  
Blogger Mike Kayton said...

I hope every reader of this blog will take the time read this story. As photographers, we are in the business of beauty. Not in the sense that we all shoot glammed-up models in the studio, but for the fact that we freeze moments of beauty, color, symmetry, elements perfectly aligned for the intended or unintended emotional response, etc. We must always, as this article reminds us, take care not to let the "frenetic pace of modern life" overwhelm our latent curiousity and out in-born appreciation of poetry - literary, musical, or visual.

3:26 AM  
Blogger bobrapp_in_oz said...

Welcome to the new real world. For me, with a hearing loss, my greatest loss is the ability to hear such music.

The world is becoming deaf to the artistic quality of music. If it is now loud and pounds deep with in ones chest, it is not noticed.

The same relates to art. I happened across a painting that was awarded a medal at the Royal Easter Show in Sydney. It was obviously taken from Lang's "Migrant Mother". I was appalled and then it sank in. Art has been lost - there has not been a Mozart since the 1790's and it is unlikely there will be in the future.

For me, because of my mind, I can play what ever music I choose. It is, indeed, very unfortunate that today's society fails to appreciate true art - whether audio or visual.


4:09 AM  
Blogger adooma said...

There is a great response to the Joshua Bell article on the blog of a NYC subway performer:
She interprates the situation differently, basically saying to be noticed as a busker you need more than just to be a good or even a great musician.

4:37 AM  
Blogger Leahcim said...

Wow, thanks for such a fascinating link. I particularly like the quote in it from Billy Collins about babies and poetry. Wonderful stuff.

5:14 AM  
Blogger Son of Food said...

I saw this yesterday and thought you might pick it up. The tone of the article is a little precious, but it's a great piece.

David A. Goldfarb (Blogger is logging me in with my Google account, and I can't seem to switch to my Blogger account).

7:24 AM  
Blogger Armondo Krellman said...

Thank you Mike for posting that. Brought tears to my eyes for the sadness of those poor souls who are so distant from their surroundings.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Rider said...

Thanks for sharing this, Mike. So applicable to our art, as well, and it reminds me of the "Great Photographers on the Internet" post. I don't necessarily agree, however, with the Kantian view that art must be presented in optimal conditions to be recognized as art. Rather, I believe that the general disinterest revealed in the article, and that we can see every day in people's reactions to art, is the result of so few people caring about art in any serious way. As such, they neither make the time to recognize virtuosity unless it is as blatantly presented to them nor do they have the experience to recognize virtuosity, and conflate excellence with the merely mediocre.

At the same time, I think that much of what is blatantly presented as virtuosity (in the visual arts, particularly) is the result of trends in the art world, with some artists arbitrarily plucked from obscurity not because of their virtuosity (or not simply because of their virtuosity), but because the work they are doing fits with what is "in" at the moment, and/or because they have better connections. This is not to doubt that Joshua Bell is a virtuoso (he certainly is), nor is it to doubt that Henri Cartier-Bresson was a virtuoso (he certainly was as well). Rather, much of their success can be attributed to their connections and to what they were doing at the time of their nascent success "fitting" with the art world, and then being presented to the general public as virtuosos. Hence the importance of things like the "Random Greatness" posts here on TOP.

This has gone on a bit long, but in any case, thanks for the article link, Mike.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Steve Muskie said...

Sometimes I hate our society.

I get frustrated trying to sell my photos on for 20 cents apiece. And Jonathan Bell is tossed quarters by a few passersby. Although I don't equate my abilities with his, I sure do get angry that there is so little room for art in our society at the level of daily life.

8:07 AM  
Blogger Dr Hiding Pup said...

Bach Humbug!

Back in my teenage years - fifteen years ago now - I was a street musician in Cambridge, playing classical guitar with an atrocious battery-powered amp. I came to expect £30 per hour ($60 now, $45 in those days, when the dollar was stronger).

That said, I think I got a better "spot" than Bell. Street musicians are ferociously competitive when it comes to good spots, that is, all those places where, for whatever reason, the pace of people's lives slow down rather than speed up...

Perhaps, it's for this reason, that photographs such as Robert Doisneau's Le Baiser endure so well:

It's wish-fulfilment photography - two people slowing down in spite of the world around them: it's what we'd like to happen but never does.

(Probably why Doisneau had to pose the couple!)

8:14 AM  
Blogger thechrisproject said...

Wow, that was an amazing article. I logged into my music service to listen to that Bach piece and Joshua Bell's latest album after reading that. He's fantastic. Thanks for off topic the article.

9:26 AM  
Blogger ostman said...

Fascinating article, with implications that are scary.

Perhaps this is why many of us photograph... our own attempt to explore beauty.


9:44 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Extremely interesting, so much to think about.
I'll just point out something that is pretty relevant to photography too.
200 years ago, if you heard a violin playing, there was a player for sure. If it was playing an intricate piece of classical music, it was a well educated player (and highly committed to his craft too). These days, a very similar sound can be produced by a 20$ boombox and a 2$ cd almost anywhere (I mean similar as opposed to street noise). And obviously any comitted artist wannabe can get enough free info to produce something tolerable.
I just say that the increasing "noise" quality is taking away our "awe" abilities.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Ed Z said...

That's a very sad article. it's funny, because it made me think that one of the reasons I love photography so much is that it has trained me to slow down and "look" at the world around me. I could only hope that if I were there I would have stopped for him... (I have run into some surprisingly good street musicians)

10:15 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...


I also liked the John Picarello quote, when he was asked if had regrets about having given up the violin:

"If you love something but choose not to do it professionally, it's not a waste. Because, you know, you still have it. You have it forever."


11:08 AM  
Blogger Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Dear Mike,
I cried when I read the article. I don't know why. Some emotional chord.

Thanks for directing me to it.


1:46 PM  
Blogger rhythmimages said...

It's hard enought to filter out all the noise we're bombarded with (I was going to say whenever we step outside, but even our homes have unwanted noise, like my refrigerator).

This experiment seemed to make it as difficult as possible for us to identify this music as worthy of our attention.

A previous poster who actually has some experience as a street musician might want to let us know what percentage of the people who make a contribution actually stick around to listen for a few minutes. I interpreted the story as a commentary on the overall quality of street music, but also on the amount of music we have to listen too everyday whether we like it or not. Like photography, much of the best music requires our full time and attention to digest its' contents.

3:43 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The author invokes the philosophy of beauty, but I think a more pertinent theoretical discussion of this could even be photography related. Walter Benjamin (Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) talked about the "aura" of visual art as its been experienced and consumed throughout history; about how only one painting ever existed but for inferior copies, and that access to said painting was limited and exclusive. That "aura" is created through a "domain of tradition"--in this case, we pay big bucks to sit in a fancy hall to experience a performance that will never be exactly reproduced. But, take that performance outside its domain of tradition and you've robbed it of all that makes it special, at least in terms of the experience. The music is the same! The experience is decayed, and only those who could valued the artistry of Bell's playing understood how to value the new experience. Benjamin thought that the contemporary decay of art's aura was a logical conclusion to reproduction and society's desire to democratize art, but it's ultimately a seriously depressing idea -- I bet a whole lot of us would have walked past Bell, too. ~g

4:31 PM  
Blogger Michael Seltzer said...

That was great! Reminds me of John Dewey, though, who said that what we see is determined by what we believe, and our expectations. It's not so much that seeing is believing, but that believing ins seeing. Having Joshua Bell play on the streets is so out of context, that for most their expectations would drive them to experience him simply as another street musician.

Another thing I wondered about is the numbers. Apparently about 30 or so people actually gave money and/or stopped to listen. that's out of 1100 people total. That's about 3%. I wonder what percentage, of the total population that exists, go to see him in concert. It may b e that he reached a bigger audience (percentage-wise) on the street than in the concert hall.

4:55 PM  
Blogger ANDREW! said...

An interesting read. Thanks for the link. A brief comment:

There are very few people who know enough about any particular artistic field to identify greatness. We just know what we like.

So, we rely on those in the know (scholars, critics, curators) to tell us what's great.

What's wrong with that? A work being in the canon of great art has little to do with whether I want to hear or see it when I get off the subway.

5:45 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I had 5 years of violin training as a kid, hated every minute of it, but in hindsight it has done so much for me - thanks mom! A physicist by training, people look at me funny when I marvel at the astonishing beauty of a mathematical concept or a bio-chemical reaction. I wish so much to have been in that crowd, to discover how I would have reacted! I could have learned so much about myself.

Thanks for posting!

11:48 PM  
Blogger Eolake Stobblehouse said...

The test of Josh Bell's impact was not fair: the audience for classical music is very small!

1: If the commuters had consisted only of people regularly listening to classical music, how would it have changed the reaction?

2: If the musician had been Kenny G singing, instead?

3: If the show had been in a park on a Sunday?

I think all those scenarios change the picture radically.

5:27 AM  
Blogger Brambor said...

cool article. thanks. I was slightly surprised that people didn't really listen more than with regular street performer but not utterly shocked at the lack of acknowledgment. I know many many people who consider works or art or music as utter nonsense. One friend described to me with misty eyes how he purchased a great painting of a Coyote howling at a moon, moon made of an american flag and a tear coming out of the coyote's eye...

what can I say? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The rest is in the details.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Viz said...

I normally love Weingarten's writing (check out his piece on "The Great Zucchini" from a couple years ago), but I thought this article was pretty silly.

1:50 PM  
Blogger witek said...

"What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare."
"He was a hobo"

--All the Chaplin's breathtaking movies come to my mind -- a sad tramp millionaire who knew what live is and how to celebrate it.

"Billy Collins (...) observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry"

--I was told on my painting lessons that all the children are born with an
incredible sense of composition and feeling of colour -- true, true, true. My over en years experience with kids and the paint confirms that.

"Every single time a child (...) tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away."
"life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us"

--Whatever happens... I must not... cry.
Same with the poetry, same with the music, same with the painting...
If there is no-one to explore the wold with, all that fades and dissapears.

"Hessian (...) gave Bell a long, hard look before walking on (...) I was analyzing it financially."
"My father told me never to wear a suit with your shoes not cleaned and shined."


4:23 PM  
Blogger witek said...

"What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare."

--about time for the Wista ;)

4:24 PM  
Blogger robert e said...


If this had happened on a balmy Sunday afternoon in lovely Rittenhouse Park, in the heart of Philadelphia and just steps from a world-class conservatory (The Curtis Institute of Music), Mr. Bell would have been instantly cited by police for performing without a permit and, if he'd persisted even a minute, would have been arrested and jailed and his violin checked into evidence, all before he could have finished playing the Chaconne.

Fair enough?

12:30 PM  

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