Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Art Out of Context, Life Out of Balance

by Robison Wells

Last Sunday, the Washington Post ran an article which was one of the most fascinating things I've read in a long time. It was essentially an experiment in art: take one of the world's greatest musicians, dress him in jeans and a t-shirt and have him busk in the subway--and then watch and wait.

Joshua Bell is a world-reknowned violinist, a recent winner of the Avery Fisher prize and often referred to as the best violinist in America. With him in the subway was his $3.5 million dollar Stradivarius.

From the article:

So, what do you think happened?

Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked the same question. What did he think would occur, hypothetically, if one of the world's great violinists had performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people?

"Let's assume," Slatkin said, "that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician . . . Still, I don't think that if he's really good, he's going to go unnoticed. He'd get a larger audience in Europe . . . but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening."

So, a crowd would gather?

"Oh, yes."

And how much will he make?

"About $150."

So, what did happen?

Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man kept walking, but it was something.

A half-minute later, Bell got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened.

Things never got much better. 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.

No, Mr. Slatkin, there was never a crowd, not even for a second.

The article is fascinating, and raises some very interesting questions. What is art when it's out of context? The curator from the National Gallery addresses this:

"Let's say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It's a $5 million painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: 'Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'"

What does all of this have to do with writing? Here are a couple of thoughts:

First: Art out of Context

When I was first writing, I rarely told people about it. If I ever brought it up, more often than not people would smirk and make the cliche comment "You'd better keep your day job." And this was before I was even published! The gist of it all was that writing was a silly waste of time. (However, when that exact same manuscript got published, those same people lauded me with praise.)

Likewise, I was talking with a group of authors recently, and a small issue of grammar was discussed. One author, to back up his position, cited one of those "How to write" articles on the web. In response, the other author dismissed it entirely. Why? Because the article's author had very few actual writing credits.

Josi Kilpack tells a story of how an acquaintance was shocked to learn she wrote a book. His astonishment knew no bounds. "You mean, like a real book?" "Was it just a book for little kids?" "Was it a real publisher?"

In the first example above, people were judging the quality of my writing based solely on the fact that I hadn't been published--and then they later judged the quality solely on the fact that I was. In other words, until someone else--the publisher--thought I was good, everyone else I assumed I wasn't.

In the second example, the author dismissed the writer's advice because of a lack of writing credits--not because of the quality (or lack thereof) of the writing itself. In the third example, the acquaintance had an idea of what a "real" writer was, and Josi didn't fit the bill.

Really, though, I don't know if anyone can be blamed in these examples. Statistically speaking, most published manuscripts are probably better than unpublished. And, statistically speaking, being published is quite rare, somewhat justifying peoples' surprise and doubt. (Though, I suppose, Josi's friend is guilty of a lack of social skills.)

Of course, it's not a perfect analogy to the violinist in the subway. In my case, no one had read my book--they were judging the situation, not the writing. In the violinist's case, people heard every bit of his Avery-Fisher-award-winning art, and yet they still passed him by. The question is: why did they?

Second: What is art?

Now, I won't pretend to answer this question. Philosophers have discussed this for millenia, and they can certainly do a better job of it than I can. As the article states, Immanuel Kant explained that beauty is both measurable fact AND opinion, "colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer". To put it crudely, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

In the violinist's example, he was not only out of context (he wasn't in a concert hall, and people hadn't shelled out $100 per seat) but he also had to compete with people who had a lot of other things on their mind. They were in a hurry, they were going to work, they were planning their day. If they gave any thought at all to the violinist, it probably wasn't with a mind clear enough to appreciate who he was and what he was doing.

The article mentions one woman who gave him a long thoughtful look, but she wasn't thinking about the music:

"I really didn't hear that much," she said. "I was just trying to figure out what he was doing there, how does this work for him, can he make much money, would it be better to start with some money in the case, or for it to be empty, so people feel sorry for you? I was analyzing it financially."

If a requirement for art to be properly appreciated is the full engagement of the viewer, then think of the problems we authors have. A reader might only read a few pages at a time, waiting at the doctors office or before going to bed. Can our art truly be appreciated with that kind of reader mindset? The answer, of course, is that it it could be better appreciated if the reader read it straight through with no distractions -- but we'd better not expect that.

Third: Koyaanisqatsi, "Life Out of Balance"

When I first mentioned this article to some author friends, I said that it was about Art Out of Context. Annette Lyon immediately called me on the carpet and said that it was a lousy experiment (given what I'd described of it), and she was right. The more I think about it, that's not the point of this at all.

The experiment doesn't really show that we're all cultureless buffoons who don't recognize quality music when we hear it. Nor does it show that Joshua Bell's music is indistinguishable from that of less-skilled musicians. But what it does show--and clearly, I believe--is that society's priorities are wrong.

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

-- from "Leisure," by W.H. Davies

We live in a world where free time is minimal, and our minds are always focused on deadlines, urgent tasks, and immediate goals. Henry David Thoreau wrote that he "wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life". Why does that conflict with our eagerness to get ahead? What is the point of the constant hard work and effort, if it makes us unable to appreciate art and music and life?


At 4/17/2007 2:55 PM, Blogger Evil HR Lady said...

It just goes to show you how important context is. I wouldn't expect a world class violinist to be playing in the subway, so I wouldn't listen hard enough to determine the skill level.

Plus, when I'm in the metro, it's because I'm going somewhere. I'm not interested in stopping for much.

At 4/17/2007 3:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the buskers in the NYC subway. I also follow the blog of one of them and she posted about the Joshua Bell article but from her unique point of view. You might find it interesting:
Also, there's a comment there from a scientist which leads to his blog where he had an interesting take about 'framing' and the Bell experiment.

At 4/17/2007 4:05 PM, Anonymous Jennie Hansen said...

Something can also be said concerning casting pearls before swine. Just as no one really hears the gospel until they prayerfully and thoughtfully prepare themselves, those who know nothing of music, have hearing problems, are distracted by personal cares, wearing earphones or telephones, etc. are not going to hear the music, no matter how great it is, when they're not prepared to listen. This is true, I think of any art form. Brilliant art or writing speaks to those who are prepared to see or read it; presented to the wrong audience it loses its brilliance. That doesn't mean someone who doesn't appreciate a world-renowned artist is somehow less appreciative of quality, it simply means tastes and backgrounds vary bringing an appreciation for different forms or styles of art. Lucky for those of us who write, not all readers have the same mindset as to what makes a novel great, so-so, or a plain waste of their time. As much as I admire some authors, there isn't a one that can distract me if I'm intent on making a flight connection, or meeting a child or grandchild I haven't seen for some time.

At 4/17/2007 5:41 PM, Blogger Josi said...

What worries me is how much I don't WANT to do those kinds of things anymore. Life is so busy, there is so much to get done and once it's caught up, I want to get a step ahead of tomorrow. I don't want to take walks, plant flowers, go to a museum. The only time I listen to violin music is when someone preforms in Sacrament meeting.
I know this isn't so good, and part of me wants it to change, but then I know I'd just fall behind on other things that I DO want to do--like catch up the laundry, write, read blogs :-) This experiment doesn't surprise me in the least. If I heard some guy playing the violin in the subway I would think how sad it is that he didn't pursue his talent to the extent to make a living off of it--I mean, look at that Josh guy, he's almost as good as this subway player and he's doing great :-)

At 4/17/2007 8:55 PM, Blogger Matthew Buckley said...

The most important few lines of the article, IMHO.

"But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away."

At 4/25/2007 9:30 AM, Blogger Julie Wright said...

Mathew I agree that this was a point of concern. I love the subway system entertainers, but i'm usually in a hurry when I take the T. I'm one of those that would have dropped a dollar, smiled at the performer, and scooted my child along, so I could run to the next task of the day. Life is indeed out of balance.


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