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What Is Beauty? An Experiment

Does context matter for beauty? Do people need to be told what is beautiful? Or, does beauty stand out no matter where it is?

The Washington Post did a simple experiment to try and answer this question. They got Joshua Bell, one of the world’s most famous violinists who can charge $1000 a minute for his services, to play in a crowded pedestrian area in Washington D.C. during rush hour. They had crowd control measures in place in case things got out of control and let him loose. He played for 43 minutes.

Any guesses as to the outcome?

The Post went to the director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin, and asked his prediction.

"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."

There was a shoeshine place nearby and the lady running it usually calls the police on musicians because they drive away her business. She didn’t call the police that day even though the music was far too loud for her liking because the musician was pretty good. A postal worker stops at the top of an escalator when he hears the music. He has to go back and find the source. He gave $5 and still didn’t recognize who Bell was even though he was a fan.

In total for that day he collected $32.17. Some people gave him pennies and he was recognized once. No crowd control was needed.

I think this just goes to show the importance of context for art. Also, it shows how much other people depend on experts and crowds to tell them what is good. Most people like what other people tell them to like. They don’t have time to find beauty on their own.

I’m betting if he played there for every single day for a year, by the end of the time he would have fans and crowds. Eventually the early adopters would find him and then the rest would follow.

Kind of sad to think of beauty as a commodity that needs to be marketed instead of beauty having its own appeal.

There are great videos taken of the experiment embedded in the article.

Read the article and watch the videos here

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