Culture clash

This is apparently Joshua Bell
- the Brian Cox of the classical music world?
I was interested to read on Jen Campbell's blog about a Washington Post experiment where Joshua Bell, who is apparently a world famous violinist (I'm afraid I'd never heard of him), playing a violin 'worth $3.5 million' busking in a subway (admittedly only for 45 minutes - come on Josh, where's your staying power?) raised a mere $32. Apparently 'only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money'. He was playing some Bach, apparently including 'one of the most intricate pieces ever written.'

Now the interesting thing about this experiment is that it was supposed to give insights into how we perceive beauty and recognize talent. But what I got out of it was quite different - it seems to me it shows how we over-value a form of entertainment that frankly isn't to most people's tastes. And that often there are more important things in life than art.

Before I explain that, I ought to stress that I love Bach myself - this argument isn't based on a dislike of the music played.

Here's the thing. I think this 'experiment' is hugely flawed on a number of points.
  • It demonstrated the lack of popularity of serious classical music, not the lack of attention. When I was at university, my mate Helmut (now Professor Jakubowicz), who was a great amateur violinist, used to go out busking. Back in the 1970s, he could raise several times as much as Mr Bell did (admittedly on a longer session). But he would play fun virtuso pieces (probably something like Monti's Czardas). He entertained, he didn't try to do 'art'. 
  • The experiment was back to front. I think what it demonstrates is that most of the money in high art (in this case classical music) is down to showing off and being seen. Only a relatively small amount is down to the desire to hear the music. (Have you ever watched an audience at a classical concert?) I'm not saying some people don't want to listen to this kind of music - they do. But they are a relatively small percentage of the population, and most of those who do, don't value it as highly as ticket prices suggest.
  • They missed the importance of the location. I love music. I hate buskers on the tube/metro. They really irritate me. I don't want to listen to music when I'm trying to negotiate a railway system. It gets in the way. It's not important to the task. Listening to music has its place, but it's not as important at that moment as getting to work or whatever else you are trying to do on the underground railway.
So there we have it. Same 'experiment', totally different results. They say we should appreciate Bell's busking performance more - I say we should value his stage performance less. For me this just demonstrates that the arts aren't as important as those who work in the arts think they are...


  1. there is a parameter you forget:
    we are in the middle of a global financial crisis


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