The Price of Appreciation


I was surfing Facebook today and I noticed a photo and an article that several friends had shared. It was several paragraphs long and normally I wouldn’t even click on it.

I have a very short attention span.

Due, however, to a period of stress induced procrastination I thought “What the hell, might as well” and read through the synopsis of the story. I don’t know how to cite a source that is posted on Facebook, so suffice it to say that I didn’t write this, but in order for you to understand my story I am reproducing it for you here:

A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by, and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace, and stopped for a few seconds, and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping, and continued to walk.

A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pushed hard, and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money, but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste, and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:

If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?

I thought that was good enough to merit a “Share”. I don’t “Share” often on Facebook, but when I do I try to make it something that has legitimately caught my attention. In true social-networking tradition another friend on my list saw it and sent me a link to the full article. And since I was already invested in this topic for a penny I figured I might as well be invested for a pound: I read the whole thing. (Here it is in case you want to read it: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html)

The argument boils down to whether or not the average person on the average day in an average location has the capacity to perceive and appreciate beauty and, in this case, accomplishment. The tone of the article suggests that the average person is too wrapped up in average affairs for such things to even register, much less be absorbed, acknowledged, and enjoyed.

We all like to believe that we are exceptions to this rule, but as the evidence of the aforementioned experiment shows: it is an exceptional person who takes exceptional notice of exceptional beauty and accomplishment in an average environment.

Except for kids, of course. They seem to notice it anyway.

Does this mean that as we become older and wiser we see less and less? Are we less appreciative of our surroundings, beautiful or not, because we are focused on the business of life? Do we lose our sense of beauty and our ability to recognize greatness as a side-effect of living in modern society? Is the framing of greatness, the context, as important to directing our attention to something we should appreciate as important as the inherent greatness in an object of beauty?

The question, as posed by this experiment, seems to be reduced to two answers: either the average person is unable to perceive beauty in the the face of the overwhelming demands of modern society or else society dictates what we find beautiful by controlling how and when we perceive it. Do morning commuters ignore a virtuoso performance by a violinist because they simply failed to notice it? Or Do morning commuters ignore a virtuoso performance by a violinist because the average person doesn’t have the capacity to recognize greatness out of context?

I think there is a third option that the article only brushes upon. I think that we are able to perceive beauty but we are not always able to acknowledge that we have perceived it. Just because people didn’t drop everything they were doing and stand in rapt silence in a Metro station to listen to a violinist is not evidence that those people were incapable of recognizing beauty; it meant that their priority was something other than standing in awe of greatness. Imagine all the greatness around us every day at every moment: towering magical skyscrapers, gorgeous and delicate atmospheres, thunderous rhythms, miracles of science… we would do nothing but gape in awe at all things and at all times. If we had nothing better to do than admire beauty and accomplishment we would live short, appreciative lives as we all starved to death.  Beauty may transcend the everyday business of life, but it doesn’t make life stop in its tracks.

I also think that one’s ability to perceive beauty exists differently when one is acting as an individual and when one is acting as part of a group. I think that what we perceive, while in a public space during an activity like commuting which is extremely time, space, and goal oriented is going to be different than what we perceive while seated in an individual space such as an office or a coffee shop where time, space, and goals are more fluid and flexible. I’m going to be frank: if I’d been one of those morning commuters I probably wouldn’t have stopped either. It’s not that I wouldn’t have recognized the beauty of the work (it’s possible, though) it’s just that I would have needed to make the conscious decision to sacrifice part of my day- perhaps missing a train or being late for work- in order to acknowledge this moment of beauty as being of greater importance. To stop in the middle of the morning commute would be a choice, not an involuntary reaction. What’s more it would be a stand. I would be sending the message to the other commuters that I believed that this music was more important than anything else I had to do right then in that moment.

When you have the advantage, as we do, of knowing that the music is, in fact, being performed by a famous violinist on a famous violin, it would be an easy judgement call to make. It would be an opportunity that we recognized as an opportunity. If we don’t know any of that then we have to make a split-decision judgement about whether the opportunity to listen to some music that sounds nice is worth dropping everything for. There’s a pretty good chance it won’t be anything special and won’t be played by anyone we know or want to know and maybe getting to work on time will mean keeping our job for the next year. And maybe we split the difference and quietly appreciate the music for the fleeting seconds as we walk by and then move on with our lives.

~ by Gwydhar Gebien on February 17, 2012.

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