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.