Several months ago, the Washington post wrote an article about Joshua Bell performing in a D.C. subway station. Almost nobody noticed him; he made some money (probably a good amount for a subway musician), but certainly didn’t attract any crowds or anything.
My first reaction was: I hope that I would recognize the quality of the performance, and even stop and listen for a while. And I’m enough of a snob that I still hope that I would recognize the quality of the performance! And on the surface of it, it does seem odd that people are willing to pay a hundred bucks to hear him perform in a concert hall, but walk right past him in a subway station. The more I think about it, though, the less sure I am that I wouldn’t walk past him, too.
The first answer to why some people walked past him while others paid lots of money to listen to him is, of course, that it’s not the same people making those choices. (And, in fact, they catch one person on camera who did see him perform in a concert hall recently, and who did stop to listen in the subway station.) There’s certainly something to that.
But I’m not happy with that answer. Yes, people don’t always notice beauty even if it’s sitting right in front of them. But if we take Joshua Bell as the exemplar of beauty, well, recordings of a wide range of his performance are a short Amazon search away; just how different is not buying one of those CDs from walking past him in a subway station?
Sure, it’s a few clicks and 15 bucks different, but I can scrape up 15 bucks without too much trouble these days and I’ve already done the clicks. They’re recorded performances instead of live ones; live performances are special, no question, but a recording studio has certain acoustic advantages over a subway station.
Which leads to this answer: access to beauty is, in general, not something in short supply in my life. What is in short supply is time, and a way to choose between the staggering amounts of beauty that are available to me. As ways to choose, stopping to pay attention to beauty that you walk past in a subway station isn’t a bad one. But back when I was a regular denizen of subway stations, my life wasn’t a soulless void that needed to be filled by famous performers: I was talking to friends or reading books in those subway stations, and the only reason I wasn’t listening to music was that I didn’t have as good portable audio options at the time. (Well, that plus I really like reading books.)
Saying that those are bad choices and that I should be listening to Joshua Bell instead is just being an elitist asshole. (To be clear, I’m not accusing the author of the article or Joshua Bell of being an elitist asshole: I have no reason to believe they are espousing that point of view. Though the author’s comment that “I bet Yo Yo Ma himself, if he were in disguise, couldn’t get through to these deadheads” makes me wonder, for a couple of reasons.) And, frankly, while I’m sure he’s a fine performer, I’d far rather have my current collection of CDs than an all-Joshua Bell collection of recordings.
By all means, pay attention when unexpected beauty enters your life, and go out of your way to fill your life with beauty. But beauty comes in countless forms; keep an open mind as to where you might find it, as to where others might find it.
And there’s something to be said for getting to your appointments on time, too…
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