Busking Bell

There have been way too many blog comments already on that Joshua Bell busking article for me to pass extensive comment on them, but I’m a classical music blogger so I’m duty bound to say something on the article.

So here are some things I don’t think anyone else has picked up (apologies if you have).

First up, Gene Weingartner is the sort of person who writes

It’s an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?

We’ll go with Kant, because he’s obviously right …

and thinks that’s a strong enough argument to hold together a 7,500 word article. I’ll reserve judgment on whether sticking Joshua Bell in a rush-hour subway station is a sound experimental method for demonstrating whether people recognise beauty when they encounter it.

I have a huge beef with this early paragraph too:

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?

For one thing, there’s a fourth option, one that I imagine most people who’ve admired in passing a busker are most familiar with: you’re on your way somewhere, you don’t have the time or the inclination, but you want to give some money anyway, so you do.

Weingartner gets himself into quite a bind here. He’s working with an extremely complex equation in which musical beauty is balanced by some singular combination of time, morality and financial return. Would he (or Leonard Slatkin) be happier if more people stopped to listen, or if they gave more money but walked on by, or if they chastised themselves all day for their moral weakness? And what do any of these things have to do with art? What do they have to do with busking? And what does busking have to do with art?

These are really tricky questions that aren’t adequately addressed by the Post’s experiment, yet they’re absolutely central. Should we pay more for good art? How much? Are buskers looking for a static, rapt audience? What are they doing in train stations then? Are audiences walking past buskers expected to stand still and listen? Whenever I’m on the Underground, it’s usually because I have to be somewhere, by a certain time. That’s what I’m doing: buskers are great, and I often enjoy them, but it would take a hell of a lot more than Joshua Bell playing Bach to make me break my appointment and stop and listen for any length of time.


9 thoughts on “Busking Bell

  1. I too realized that the uncritical endorsement of Kant meant trouble ahead. First of all there’s no sense that anyone ever stops to listen to whomever is playing. I don’t see how the mere presence of GREAT ART would change this. I can say that as one who might be expected stop (without offering any evidence than the fact that I read websites like this one) that I probably wouldn’t have. In that kind of environment I just wouldn’t be receptive. I’m lucky enough be able to avoid the morning subway rush hour, because it’s overcrowded and dehumanizing and most people give the impression they’d rather be anywhere else and are doing something to distract themselves from the reality of there surroundings. And while music would be an excellent antidote, as Lester Bangs one noted the enjoyment of music is largely a solipsistic exercise and people aren’t going to react to this outside noise no matter how great it is. Like me any music listening would be done with headphones in order to have some sort of control over the environment. I’m also not surprised by the reactions of those who are spending longer amounts of time in the station, working or relaxing (lottery customers included). These are the people who would be most likely to notice something unusual is happening. The most telling reaction is that of the shoeshine lady who this time chooses not to call security. God knows what kind of crap she must have to hear as part of her work environment. Nor by the reactions of the children who want to listen or the parents who want to keep them moving. And please, who is this fool who recognizes Bell and gives him $20?

  2. I haven’t read the rest of the chatter (hadn’t even read the article until Carl Wilson mentioned it today), but I think the point was really that people in Washington DC are culturally ignorant, and that’s a statement that my experience would agree with. I think you could do this in other cities and get a very different reaction.

  3. Maybe, Mike (I don’t know Washington), but I’m certain you could do it in many places in London and get exactly the same reaction. And from the general way most Parisians ignore their buskers (who have to audition for licenses, and are all very good), I’d say much the same there too.

    Great comments, Fred – thanks!

    Gary – yes, I’d seen the Saw Lady post. I think she’s absolutely right in assessing the difference between busking, and playing on a concert hall stage. (I heard her while I was in New York, incidentally – now she is good.)

  4. Sadly, you’re thinking about this issue harder than Weingartner did: all he wanted was to write an article about people ignoring a Famous Musician. The stunt was designed to fit the premise, not unlike the woman journalist going out on the buses every couple of years with a pillow stuffed up her dress. Of course everyone is too selfish to give up their seat to the poor pregnant lady, what has become of our society these days etc etc (with accompanying photo carefully cropped to hide the empty seats).

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