A few days ago, a commenter on one of my posts said, "The beauty we see in nature is partly something we have "learned" to see, I believe."
I answered with a cautious maybe. Then someone sent me an email with the Washington Post story of renowned violinist Joshua Bell who, without advertisement of any sort, stood one rush hour morning in DC's L'Enfant Plaza metro station and played six of the most beautiful pieces of classical music ever written on one of the most valuable violins (a Stradivarius) ever made.
It was a social experiment conceived by Post staff writer Gene Weingarten to see if people would take time in their everyday harried, hurried lives to pay attention to beauty. Of the 1,097 passersby, one man stopped for three minutes to lean against a wall and listen and a three-year-old boy, hustled along by his mother kept looking back at Bell. Only one woman in the Plaza recognized Bell and she, too, stopped to listen. A few people tossed money in the open violin case at Bell's feet. The man who sometimes earns $1000 a minute for his talent, netted $32 and change that morning.
The entire article made me feel discouraged beyond measure. The description of the line of folks at the lottery ticket machine shuffling forward without even noticing the musician made me sad and the mention of the fellow listening to a song on his ipod about severe emotional disconnect and the failure to see the beauty of what's right in front of his eyes (Calvin Myint's "Just Like Heaven") made me feel worse. But this line made me feel nearly hopeless: "Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away."
I bought a copy of "Cricket in Times Square" for my grandson's Christmas. In the movie, the whole of the listening area (a subway in New York City) is affected by the music the cricket plays. In a moving scene that never fails to bring tears to my eyes (I bought a copy for myself too, just to hear that music), people of all walks of life paused and listened and were momentarily changed. It's what Weingarten and Bell expected to happen, I think - that recognition of something so beautiful it halts a person in mid-step. Weingarten goes into the reasons why it didn't happen and all of them are discouraging. (For the full story, Google Washington Post and look up Pearls Before Breakfast by Gene Weingarten.)
I've often thought of humans as odd and incomprehensible beings. We are able to create works of astonishing beauty which we then ignore; we make great speeches about love and human rights and peace, then we plan and execute wars; we often save our appreciation of life itself for life's final few moments.
My cautious maybe of above is still cautious. I think, as much as we train ourselves to see beauty, we also train ourselves not to. Immanuel Kant says beauty is part measurable fact, part opinion, with both being colored by the observer's immediate state of mind. One must be paying attention to beauty, it seems, or at least to the possibility of beauty, in order to see it. Apparently, many of us would rather chain ourselves to something else. Call me Pollyanna if you will, but since I have my druthers, I choose on the side of beauty.