An unassuming man in a T-shirt and baseball cap stood playing a $4 million violin near the Washington DC subway station entrance. For 43 minutes, he played beautifully on his nearly 300-year-old instrument. This is no surprise since Joshua Bell is one of the world’s most talented violinists. He is used to standing-room-only audiences and adoring fans asking for his autograph. Just days earlier, he had sold out the Boston Symphony Hall where seats averaged $100. But on this day in 2007, the people hurried by hardly noticing the virtuoso giving a free public performance.
His public performance was a social experiment done in collaboration with the Washington Post. Writer Gene Weingarten described it as “an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?” The answer was a resounding no. There were no adoring fans, only commuters rushing by on their way to work. A few dropped some small change in his violin case as they hurried by. A handful stopped to listen for a few minutes. But most did not even slow down or even glance in his direction. Of the exactly 1,076 passersby, only two were visibly moved by the master musician sharing his gift. At the end of his 43-minute performance, Bell, a man that is used to getting paid a thousand dollars a minute, collected just $32.
The normally confident musician described butterflies in his stomach. Being ignored was a new experience for Bell. He said, “At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up.”
Weingarten spoke with art curator Ellsworth Kelly about the social experiment. Kelly believes we shouldn’t be too quick to judge all the passersby as uncultured and incapable of appreciating beauty. The correct context is necessary for appreciating art. A commuter hurrying to work is not in a state conducive to appreciate culture. And a master musician working on the street is like an exquisite painting without a frame.
Bell’s music fell on deaf ears. He was invisible to almost all of the passing commuters. They had places to go and work to be done. But there was one demographic that heard and saw. Without fail, children stopped and stared, and without fail, their parents would hurry them along.
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