Another lesson in seeing Beauty

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:


“On beauty:

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?

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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6 Responses to Another lesson in seeing Beauty

  1. Kevin Carter says:

    I don’t know if I should post here or on the ‘standards’ entry, so I’ll try here.
    This tendency is not restricted to ‘civilians’ as I might refer to those who do not create in some capacity. It also is apparently operating in those who make things, from the following evidence:
    At a clay forum that I frequent, they have various catagories in which you can post your topic, as is appropriate. For example, if you have a question about your kiln, you could post your question in the “Technical questions” section of the forum, if you have a question about a clay forming technique, you might post in the “Studio techniques and tips” section. They also have sections for design and aesthetics, business questions, exhibits and galleries, etc.
    In the “Studio techniques and tips” section, there are 6003 posts.
    In the “technical questions: section, there are 2,997 posts.
    In the “business” section, there are 900 posts.
    In the “Design and Aesthetics secion” there are 371 posts.

    There are fewer POSTS in the “Design” section than there are threads in some of the other sections, like
    “Studio”, or “Technical”, in fact, there are fewer posts in the design section than any other on the forum, save the “galleries” secion, which is more of a one-way announcement of events.

    It seems people, even those supposedly quite interested in creating craft or art, are much more interested in the nuts and bolts of making things, rather than WHY they are making something, or how best to make what they think or feel manifest. It’s much easier to ask why their kiln stalled at 1648F, or why their glaze is pinholing, rather than express any interest in creating a certain piece which would communicate beauty, doubt, anger, hope, regret, happiness, ecstasy, and so forth.
    I’m not sure why this is the case.
    If you don’t have anything to say about design or aesthetics, of what import are the technical aspects, in the end? Are the means justifying the means? “Look, my slab didn’t sag, and the glaze didn’t run!”
    Yes, but it’s kind of ugly, and I don’t see any message ther, what are you saying? Anything, nothing, what? Is THAT your point?
    Carter, it’s all so confusing sometimes.

    Woodturner Dave Ellsworth once taught a workshop where one of the participants asked “You’re not going to teach us any of that ‘design’ stuff, are you? I hope not.”
    If the people that are making things in whatever medium don’t care about beuty, ugliness, aesthetics, what hope is there for the geneeral public?
    I wish I was an answerer, Carter, and not just a questioner.
    Thanks for another thought provoking post, I wish more people would read your blog, and not just the blogs that post pictures of bisqued bowls, the studio dog, and what they had for dinner last night. You know what I mean, I know you do!

    • Awesome Kevin!

      That’s a great question! And like you, I’m a questioner more than an answerer (I hope!). But asking the right questions at least leads to some provisional answers and hopefully even more questions. If we are careful, it never stops.

      And the way I see art is that it has the function of asking questions. It is a capacity, a tendency, or a proclivity to ask questions of the world. That’s what I meant by curiosity in the post. But even for those of us trained to be curious about some aspect or parts of the world we are not immune to serious let downs of our imagination. We are not explorers all the time. We are not open minded all the time. We do not always have the bravery or energy to confront the unknown on all fronts at all times. And we are typically also not educated to see the potential value in doing it.

      But folks who have at least some familiarity with their own creative capacity may just be the ones who have a greater chance of approaching the world in this way. Thinking creatively in some capacity is an advantage in being able to think creatively in others. Its like the analogy of exercising a muscle that I used in the post. Its not a guarantee, but its a cause for hope.

      And that’s why I see our education in the arts as crucial. If anything can set us on the path of affirming these values it needs to be introduced as early as possible and with as much vigour as we can. Before society stifles it or points us in different directions. Show folks that something is possible and they will sometimes believe that it may be possible for them as well. Get them to practice what they can do and eventually it may become second nature to them. Start this at an early enough age and they will believe that this is a genuine possibility for the world. It may even come to represent a goal or stance of real value in the world.

      So part of what I see in the forum posts is symptomatic of how poorly we have been trained to think about what we are doing . Doing and thinking about the whys are usually separate in people’s minds. Like John said below, its both easier, and the communication is significantly contained in the act of making or the work itself. Additional whys are just meta-information. And I don’t think its surprising that we do such a poor job of it. Unfortunately….

      Of course the danger of not asking these questions is that we lead lives where the things we do are not illuminated by consideration or curiosity. We end up accepting the status quo because we are simply doing what we’ve been told, what our ancestors did, or what our animal urges direct us to. Why is slavery wrong? Well, if you don’t think about it its not. Its not really even a question. Its just the way things are. QED.

      And that’s why I think nurturing this curiosity about the world can only benefit us. It takes a question to open up curiosity, and it takes curiosity to give us questions. The less curious we are about the world….. well, what do you all think is gonna happen?

      Thanks for the great question Kevin!

  2. john bauman says:

    Interesting, Kevin. I participate in a music forum and noticed pretty much the same thing. It’s divided into “Gear”, “Players”, and “Playing”. Gear outstripped the others 2 to 1. The forum is now 12 years old and Gear is still the only forum section that gets any real action.

    But unlike you, I don’t conclude that disparity is because of what creative people LIKE to talk about (Gear in my forum’s case, Techniques & Tips in your case). It’s simply that:

    1. It’s easier to talk about how to than it is to talk about why. The how is objective and concrete. But beyond that obvious reason, perhaps it’s mostly because…

    2. The why is the communication itself. Our pots, our music ARE/IS the thousands-words-worth that we’re loath to even contemplate the exhausting effort of trying to express in words when we know words will fall short, and (more to the point) we already expressed what we meant to “say” so amply without words.

    And that’s probably as it should be. There’s a part of me that thinks that if the creation doesn’t speak for itself, then talking about it is futile. Or should be (hear that, critics?)

    And one thing that reinforces my theory is that the other forums (Players and Playing) came to life a bit when, over the past twelve years, technology advanced to the point of being able to share audio files. Ditto jpgs. Suddenly we could share out “thoughts” in a manner much closer to the means in which they were expressed in the first place. Oh, the verbiage didn’t increase, but the post count did.

    Or I could be wrong. I’ll have to run my theory past the dogs. I should have in the first place. They’re so much better at this stuff than I.

    • That was great John!

      I remember when I was just a few years into my education as a potter and my then house mate was a grad student in the painting program. I was so in love with what I was doing that I knew words would only fall short of describing it. When I told her that I didn’t think I could tell her about my pots she just rolled her eyes. Of course in art school they want you to talk about your work. Its a measure of self awareness in some sense, and they need that for the credential at the end of the gauntlet.

      But is it necessary? Obviously not. Seeing the beauty and communicating it materially has very little to do with our ability to string words together to somehow capture its essence. In a sense what each of us do is ineffable. That won’t stop some of us from wanting to talk about it, and it won’t stop the establishment industry from collecting artist statements and titles for our work.

      And unfortunately with the conceptual direction of some art the prejudice to be ‘about’ something spills over to us humble practitioners of the quest for beauty. We are better at showing the world what counts as beauty, not necessarily telling it. But conceptual art almost doesn’t count unless it also tells us what its about, whether the artist making a declaration or some critic interpreting it for us. And somehow this ‘rule’ is taken to apply to us as well……

      And appreciating a pot has as little to do with the words used describing it as words can capture the beauty of a song. And I don’t think that being able to dissect music with words necessarily adds to the enjoyment. Maybe its a different kind of enjoyment, and some would argue that knowing the composer’s history, etc, give a ‘fullness’ to the appreciation. But I’m not so sure. Sometimes the more we know the less we feel. If music and beauty often hit us on a gut level, then it is because its important to our intuitive and non-rational side. Subverting this with a bunch of wordplay may actually harm how we intuit the work. It may actually interfere with our intuitive appreciation. Words can sometimes gum up the works, convince us of their ‘truths’ at the expense of less vocal truths.

      Knowing that the artist was battling cancer when he recorded a work, or that George Harrison actually HAD “blisters on my fingers” may add poignancy and a different level of interest, but its still a question of whether the sum of two parts is greater than the whole, the same as it, or sometimes even less than it. Sometimes 2 plus 2 does actually equal 3.

      Don’t believe me? Just ask your intuition. How often do we even consciously wish we “didn’t know something”? Knowing can spoil our interest. The wrong knowledge is sometimes like knowing that meal we just ate was hamster meat rather than tofu, the girl we are dating a reformed gunrunner and psychopath, our priest a convicted felon, our surgeon just out of rehab for drug addiction. That knowledge may or may not be relevant, but knowing it changes how we feel about things at the present. And it doesn’t always add to our enjoyment. It can make it less, actually. Sometimes 2 plus 2 can even equal 1. Sometimes even 0…..

  3. Kevin Carter says:

    Oops! I think I inadvertently insulted John Bauman in my last post, i.e., dogs and such. I didn’t mean to, as John’s blog is in my top five favorite blogs, and I know he sometimes posts about his exceptional dogs, and “pickin'” ( and a-grinnin’). Which is all very good, so I hope I didn’t offend John, or anyone. I think I’ll shut up NOW.

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