Human interest stories—they cloud the issues and fog the mind. ~ Kent Brockman, The Simpsons
If you are on social media at all, you have surely seen this meme by now: under the guise of a social experiment, concert violinist Joshua Bell stands on a DC subway platform during rush hour and barely anyone stops for him, save a three-year-old child who is impatiently yanked away by his mother.
True to its genre of inspirational Facebook memes, this one concludes with the sentiment, ‘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?’
Following in the commentary is a chorus of head-wagging and tongue-clucking at the aesthetic deadness of the drones hurrying to work.
I call bullshit on this experiment.
Or, to call it more aptly, a stunt, which had a point to prove and loaded the deck because it knew how the results would turn out.
Here are some reasons why.
1. The experiment is not scientific.
It did not place Mr Bell in a park, or even in a subway station on a week-end, to see how people would behave when at leisure. It did not replace Mr Bell with an equally attractive female violinist, or a blues guitarist, or any basis for comparison. It already knew what conclusion it wanted to arrive at, and chose circumstances that would bring that conclusion about with the most ease.
It also assumes an idea of universal standard of beauty that was popular in Enlightenment aesthetics: “How could a person not stop for Bach played expertly on a six-million-dollar violin?” we gasp in horror. As though those were universal values, like the singing of angels, that should spark an instant, causal, non-culture or non-personality-based recognition and appreciation.
2. It doesn’t even see the whole picture.
Maybe there was one person passing by who knew it was Bach but does not like Bach. Maybe there was one person passing by who loves Bach but not the piece Mr Bell was playing at that particular second. Maybe there was one person passing by who loves Bach but felt uncomfortable because she did not have pocket money or change to offer a busker. Maybe someone passed by who loves Bach, loves the piece, but does not like Mr Bell’s instrumentation style. Maybe they have passed four different buskers already that morning, and are worn out by them.
3. A three-year-old’s behavior is not a standard that an adult should be judged by.
I stop for beauty all the time, and arrive late because of it. I drive through beautiful fields on the way to work and am continually pulling over or turning around to take a photo of or gawk at some ravishing rural spectacle. Or I am late because I am having sex with my boyfriend. Or I have a morning yoga practice that goes long because of spontaneous dance breaks. I choose beauty all the time and I have probably lost at least one job because of it. But other people may take their responsibilities more seriously than I do. They may have children and relatives who are dependent on them. The fact that they are hustling to their jobs is to me a sign of their character, dedication, and sense of responsibility.
May I suggest also that Joshua Bell did not achieve his level of proficiency by jacking around and being late for practices. I’m sure he passed many beautiful things, on his way to study with his teacher.
4. Here, let’s try an experiment, on the experiment’s own terms.
According to the rules of the Washington Post’s game, or the moral conclusions reached by the majority of commenters on this Facebook meme, you need to stop for what I call beauty and value, drop everything you are doing, regardless of where you are, and listen to this right now:
Did you not? Why? It’s Mr Bell and Bach? Could it be that you are at work? That you do not have time to listen to a chaconne? What I am offering you is exactly the same thing that was on that platform, except for its being live. So why aren’t you listening to it right this second when I want you to?
So now you understand the plight of everyone on that platform, how presumptuous the experiment was, and how unfair.
5. Here is the most important thing for me: the stunt is merciless.
People should not be judged for not stopping for the performance of Mr Bell. Rather, condemn the system that keeps them enslaved so that they do not feel able to stop for a violinist. Or clock time which keeps them on the second, instead of other cultures where you can say, ‘I’ll be there in the afternoon,’ and that is fine. But leave them alone.
These harried people are the 99 percent. They are your brothers and sisters. They are working joes. They are your friends. They deserve more than to be experimented on and reached foregone conclusions about. Give people a break. That would be truly beautiful.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta