Saturday, January 10, 2009

I Don't Get It

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.


Vincent said...

One of the most wonderful pieces by JS Bach, BWV1004, played more beautifully than I have heard elsewhere, including George Enescu and his pupil Yehudi Menuhin. I've just been comparing! The piece must be fiendishly difficult (you can tell when those two were playing, though my version by Enescu is in his old age when his dexterity was waning: all the more poignant for that) but Bell plays like an angel.

That people didn't stop to listen merely speaks of their agendas at the time and the hideousness of the pressures on people who work so hard to maintain our absurd economy. I refuse to blame them.

Pauline said...

Hi Vincent. What you say is also the conclusion reached at the end of the article. If there is blame to be laid, however it rests squarely with all of us. Who else puts all that pressure on us but us? We allow it, we suffer it, and a good many of us do little to change it because we've agreed to believe that we can't change it. Depression breeds depression. I so agree - our economy is absurd but it's what you get when you choose capitalism and consumerism as a way of life, isn't it?

Vincent said...

I am not sure that anyone makes a free choice towards consumerism. It takes a great deal of strength and courage, or possibly luck and privilege, to go against that gravitational force.

We are not all turning the handle of capitalism, but we are all caught up in its mincer. The absurdity of the economy is that in order to distribute wealth (real wealth that buys the necessities of life) "we" have laid upon ourselves the burden of selling stuff that nobody needs, and giving no excuse to the person being sold to not to buy the stuff. "You don't have the money? I'll sell you the money (via credit)."

Economics says there is a balance between supply and demand but it has gone crazy because the real demand (in the West) is tiny, not enough to provide jobs for everyone in these days of automation and efficiency (which is another word for dehumanization). So people must be more or less forced to buy whatever is sold; otherwise the economy collapses and there is recession.

I don't know that the answer is to agree to believe that we can change it. There may be a million answers. But to me, the answer is to become sensitive: to feel the horrible clash that takes place in modern society. We have a primal human instinct to live in harmony with nature: I am not referring to the learned ability to admire "scenery" which I think Lisabeth was referring to, but something much deeper, that links us to all of earth, sky and our own bodies. But we have to go through a process of alienation in order to tolerate cities and meaningless jobs and endemic lies of selling and advertising and false hopes and false satisfactions.

In a sense the experiment with Bach's Partita was part of the falseness, because you do have to learn how to appreciate any form of music, especially one as complex and sophisticated as Bach's. Such music was written as a diversion for cultivated city-dwellers of the eighteenth century. (I am not a Marxist, forgive me if I sound like one.)

There are other ways to discover the sensitivity of individuals to "beauty" which don't depend on rarefied definitions of beauty but link us through our genes, if you will, to our ancestors, giving us the strong sense in the here and now of what our bodies, minds and souls can attain.

Only then I believe, in the insight gained, and dissatisfaction felt with the results of capitalism and consumerism, can anyone detach himself or herself from "the system" enough to change it whilst still living within it.

Meanwhile, corporations and governments will fight against this trend with our own money that they have extorted.

Gary said...

My comment was going to reflet what Vincent wrote about people needing to get where they are going and I don't think it is a comment on choosing beauty or not choosing it. I think given the choice we would all choose 'beauty'. But I do think we have allowed ourselves to schedule our appreciation somewhat. If a concert was on the daily planner then this would have been a whole different experience. I suppose the key is balance in all things.

Pauline said...

Hi Gary - the article pointed out that had the music been "scheduled" as a concert and money paid, the experience would have been far different. What the Post intended was "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, for most of the passersby, no.

Pauline said...

Vincent. I am in agreement with your thought that "...we have to go through a process of alienation in order to tolerate cities and meaningless jobs and endemic lies of selling and advertising and false hopes and false satisfactions." I also think many of us fail to teach our children to appreciate the arts in favor of appreciating the dollar. It makes me wonder why we developed "appreciation" in our evolutional development. Was it merely leisure time provided by a more sedentary agricultural life that prompted us to create the arts do you think or is there an "art appreciation" gene in us somewhere?

Lee said...

That is so sad.

Vincent said...

I think we should teach our children a great deal less about appreciation. Teaching them to appreciate the dollar results from allowing the dollar to rule in the first place.

The arts come from what for want of a better term we must call the spiritual impulse. Yes, they require leisure time but I don't understand the significance of your "merely".

I don't think we ought to teach our children to appreciate the arts, but to participate in them by learning an instrument; to draw, paint, sculpt, dance, act, write poems, prose, music.

Only then will spontaneous and informed appreciation arise.

Pauline said...

Vincent - merely meaning, was that the only reason. As for appreciation, I meant what you meant - the appreciation which comes with participation. Your points of clarification are both perceptive and helpful, thanks.

Lee, I thought so too.

Princess in Galoshes said...

Interestingly enough, while I was at the airport last week on my way to Florida, there was someone playing a violin at one of the empty gates nearby. I sat in an nearby seat just to listen to him. I doubt he knew I was listening, since I was at the next gate over near other people, but I did stop everything and just enjoyed the music. (Which was quite good, though nowhere near the calibre in this video, I don't think.)

I wonder how many people did appreciate this music going by, even if they didn't stop or acknowledge it.

meggie said...

It is a sad sight, to see all those people trussed up, in their own selfcosciousness, hurrying past.
I feel, that as we age, we learn to appreciate the gifts of beauty more, & also feel that it is wonderful, to take the hand of a grandchild, & spend time with them, just soaking the joy into our souls.

CrowDogs said...

Not to undermine the appreciation for the beautiful but having seen and heard I doubt very much that I’d of stopped to listen. No offense, it’s just that the music and the place aren’t a good fit. I’d be willing to bet that had he played The Devil Went Down to Georgia he’d have netted more than $32, though probably not $1000 per minute.

Pauline said...

An interesting point of view CrowDogs but the point of the experiment wasn't about making money or catering to tastes in music. It was about recognizing and pausing for beauty. Ask the kids... they recognized something it appeared the adults were choosing to miss.

Marquis de Sade said...

stunning, amazing, perplexing.

Pauline said...

thanks for visiting, M de S

and Meggie, I agree with you

firebird said...

As someone who would have been rooted to the spot for the whole concert (and missed work), I know how much it takes to appreciate the beauty in this music, and the stunning quality of the playing. Bach was a big part of my spiritual awakening in high school that started with long backpacking trips in the woods--my boyfriend and I would come back to the city, listen to Bach violin and cello (including this piece) and cry over how most of the world was closed off in spirit to these experiences.

I think to the average commuter he must have seemed like an ordinary street musician playing music that didn't relate to them. I don't think I'm being an elitist when I say that it often takes special training to bring back the sense of wonder that a child still has, and hear/see/feel the beauty around us. I just happened to be born into a family of professional classical musicians. But even they couldn't show me the soul of the music--I had to find that in the wilderness for myself!

I think this experiment was based on the wrong assumptions, but boy did they make their point!

etcetera said...

This reminds me of a bit from Sara Teasdale:

"I shall sit like a sibyl, hour after hour intent,
Watching the future come and the present go,
And the little shifting pictures of people rushing
In restless self-importance to and fro."

We so often overlook beauty in our desire to be important and punctual. But it is the ability to recognize and appreciate beauty that will liberate us, since beauty is an expression of love.

Pauline said...

Trine - exactly! Thanks ")