My friend Sue read the post I had on “Standards of seeing Beauty” and thought of an example where context makes an actual difference in whether we notice something or not, even great and otherwise widely admired beauty. This is the message she sent me and which I asked her to resubmit in the comments to that post:
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?”
My response was this (much modified, and including a bit that was prompted by Scott’s response to what I said):
I’d say that what this tells us is that today we too often treat beauty as a product to be consumed. We just don’t even recognize it unless its in the familiar package. Even when its staring us right in the face! Its as if we’ve lost the ability to look, unless we are being told where to look.
And this is because we are no longer curious. That child was. But the rest of us can’t always find the motivation to actively seek it out, to court beauty as if it were an opportunity for this moment in time at this place in the world. To cherish the possibility of beauty as if it were an unexpected and precious gift that with inattention will simply slip through our fingers. We need to be ready for beauty when it shows itself. We need to be prepared to shrug off our blinders, biases, and expectations. We need to stalk it when we see the spoor, the clues and hints. And we need to nurture it where we find it in the hidden corners and trampled surroundings of our too busy lives. Obviously we also need to discover it when its right in front of us as we blithely to and fro throughout the day.
These days, for the most part, Beauty is what we get off the rack. Since we have mostly forgotten what it means to produce our own visions for beauty we depend on what others give us. We are consumers rather than creators. Beauty gets marketed to us rather than actively explored. We have evidently lost our self determination about beauty and become puppets in the hands of others. Peons and pawns in a calculus of bureaucratic and marketing metrics. We become little more than cogs in the machine, rushing about on deadlines and agendas that other people force on us.
And this is not the picture of self determination. The more we buy into it the less we can lay claim to thinking and acting for ourselves, and the less we can make room for curiosity and creativity in our lives (Perhaps equally true the other way around?). And maybe that’s just the adult reality of our culture. Should it be?
And if you listen to a lot of career Arts advocates and bureaucrats in the non-profit Arts sector, our supposed supporters, they only seem to talk about Art as if it were a commodity, its value in how it is consumed by an audience. Clearly this is only one half of the picture, and perhaps not even the most important, except to corporate bottom lines. Art isn’t just an object but also a creative process. Its how that object got there, the only possibility for its existence. And too often we forget why that was important, or sometimes that it even happened…..
But that kid still knows what it means to be responsible for beauty. That kid is still at home in the Creative Universe, exploring and discovering. It takes a mind that is flexible enough to figure things out on its own, and bold enough to risk the unfamiliar surprises of the unknown. Maybe it also takes opportunity, the freedom of ‘time’ to investigate. Somehow we loose this capacity the more our culture ‘civilizes’ us as adults. Curiosity ends up more like a tool in our toolbox that we never use, or a muscle that atrophies with lack of exercise.
Perhaps its the case that our curiosity withers when we don’t give it the space to flex its muscle, and to grow up healthy and strong. We can’t easily retrofit or shoehorn imagination into a curiosity deadening and creatively dead end adult lifestyle. Not impossible, just difficult.
And clearly its not the whole truth for any one person. We all find ways to be creative, even as adults. Its just that this is no longer second nature to us. Its no longer our home. By living mostly as consumers we simply lose our fitness in creative endeavors. And with this lack of conditioning our overall creative health starts to decline. Our imagination relies more and more on what we read in books and what we see on television. Ultimately, I think the fullness of our ability to see beauty is intimately linked to our capacity for creating it.
And of course this is why art education is so important in primary schools. So that kids don’t lose touch with this vital energy. Once the switch has turned from creator to consumer its hard to get it back. Once we’ve forgotten what its like to be responsible for beauty we lose the knack for how to nurture it. We lose the ability to find it where it is secretly hidden. We fail to even see it when its staring us in the face. We are fed only what others give us in the familiar prepackaged forms, and this is all we know.
Sadly, it seems we are living in a culture of the mostly oblivious. And rampant curiosity is dead to us, a fatality of our blind ambition merely to consume, not add to the beauty of the world. And with it, undomesticated art and wild beauty disappear into oblivion. Can we afford to let things slide that far? Where amazing talents and real purveyors of The Beautiful can be so casually ignored? Like Sue asks, “How many other things are we missing?” What possible enrichment of our lives are we shirking by casting a blind incurious eye at the world?
Seeing beauty and appreciating art is a sensitivity. How do we foster this? How do we nurture the desire to seek out the mysteries of beauty in the world? As only consumers and inert drones, or as participants and active creators? More than merely the visual fate of the world seems at stake. And without curiosity how do we expect to effect change? The curiosity to build new things is an empowerment. Without it we are simply on the receiving end, alienated and impotent.
At most we typically only seem to care about what happens, in the sense of a consumer’s concern that the shelves will be stocked, or worried about what happens next to their favorite character on the daily soap opera. We are invested by what we can get, not what we can give. This is very different from caring for our world, which involves the stewardship and partnership of an active role in its evolution. Its like tending a garden or raising a family. Making things better by making a difference.
But it starts with how we see ourselves and our role in the scheme of things. Do we see ourselves as mostly active or as passive? As drones or as real agents? And what we see depends on what we believe. Its an attitude or stance about things. So if caring for our world is not just a mechanical activity but an attitude, then so also is curiosity, and so too is a willingness to discover unexpected beauty. To stop and listen. To slow down and be observant.
If this is what we are missing, surely we can learn to change our attitude? It can’t be so rare a potential, so scarce a gift. Its not like asking us to invent the ultimate cure for cancer. So perhaps it can start with an ‘attitude adjustment’. Maybe we are simply not pointing ourselves in the right directions. Taking responsibility starts with that, our attitude, and only ends with the difference we make. Its the first step, but perhaps the most difficult we will ever take. Surely it is sometimes worth a try?