Wake up & smell the proses

Appreciating art in everyday life may depend more on people’s expectations than the art itself

Art is often considered a high-class commodity, but it can take nearly any shape or size.
Art is often considered a high-class commodity, but it can take nearly any shape or size.

On an early winter morning in 2007 at L’enfant Plaza subway station in the heart of federal Washington, the soaring melody of a street musician could be heard through the morning rush—a man of average height, mediocre attire, playing a classical violin with its case open for some feeble pocket-change.  The violinist’s music could only be described as breathtaking; the soothing voice of an incredible instrument weeping, wailing and belting for attention.  The passers-by rushed past him, giving no more than a half-second recognition to the six classical pieces he performed.

The musician was Grammy award-winning violinist Joshua Bell. Three days prior, Bell performed to a sold-out Boston Symphony Hall and two weeks later at the Music Center at Strathmore, North Bethesda.  His simple-looking violin cost approximately $3.5 million.  Bell was placed in a subway station during rush hour as a part of a social experiment.  That early January morning, Bell’s grandeur didn’t seem to be worth the attention of the 1,097 passers-by who scurried past him.

The experiment was conducted by Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten, who set out to document Bell’s performance to test the context, perceptions and priorities of public perception of art. Weingarten asked whether “in a banal setting at an inconvenient time, beauty [would] transcend.”   The article struck a note with many readers who were outraged and discouraged Bell’s talent went unnoticed.  Weingarten tried to prove society today doesn’t have time to appreciate passerby beauty and is unable to pause and hear the music.

Philosophy professor Adele Mercier said although Weingarten’s article is well written, it says next to nothing about people’s appreciation for music and beauty.  The experiment was primed and the answers were already evident, she said.  “We already know that we are busy. We already know no one would stop.  It’s a dirty subway. Put the guy in a park on a leisurely Sunday afternoon surrounded by flowers and butterflies and see how many people stop then,” she said.  “It’s kind of like the Internet, when we have unfiltered settings we are often smothered with silly blogs and stupid YouTube videos—we are drowning in a sea of mediocrity.”

Mercier said she appreciates her silence—in our society, she said, we’re too  exposed to a plethora of noise.  “Even in small places like stores and elevators, there is no silence in our world anymore,” she said. “This is something I see as a huge problem. When you hear all this noise all the time you begin to know it’s schlock and you don’t bother even filtering through what is worthwhile.  We are oversaturated with music and beauty and it’s losing its meaning.”

Drama professor Jenn Stephenson said she thinks people are witnessing a democratization of art.  “Anyone can put up art, create movies and publish,” she said.

Last year, Stephenson spearheaded the project Art is Your Story in response to comments made by Stephen Harper about the arts being irrelevant to ordinary people.

“I think when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see a gala of a bunch of people at, you know, a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough, when they know those subsidies have actually gone up—I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people,” Harper said.

 Organized by a number of staff and students from Queen’s, Art is Your Story was a blog that asked anyone from Queen’s, Kingston and across Ontario to partake in random acts of art to remind people that it’s a part of everyday life.  Stephenson said the project was a success, with participants expressing themselves through poetry, music, drama and art.

“The blog ran for a very limited time, only within the time frame right before the election,” Stephenson said. “It served a few purposes. One was advertising—we were trying to advertise perspectives to get the message out, to get people thinking about the program that we were promoting.”

Stephenson said the website also served as a method to collect people’s experiences.

“We asked people to go out and take part and perform art or to make it in any other way they could think of in the public eye,” she said. “We then asked them to come back and post their experiences on the blog. It was kind of a way to document what happened and how successful the project was.”  Stephenson said the project turned out to be very successful. “I don’t think we reached a wide-spread audience, but we were very successful within Kingston and especially within our own department,” she said. “Students put into practice the idea that art matters, that their studies do matter—and I think that’s a very important thing.

Stephenson said that the people who partook in the program were not alone in their efforts.

“Even professional actors and musicians were taking up the cause in different ways,” she said. Stephenson said a large part of the artistic community organized speeches, protests and YouTube videos in attempts to reflect the notion that art can be as much an every-day occurence as it is can a luxury.

“It was a mosaic of different artistic traditions and different ways of standing up for the importance of art in our lives,” she said.

 “Art today is so much more accessible,” she said, adding that 100 years ago, art was generally private or only accesible in churches. “We can invite people to become engaged in the arts in ways unimaginable—you can look at things like iPods, Flickr and so on. People are seeing more art than a generation ago; art galleries didn’t exist in the West 100 years ago,” she said.

How people perceive art is often based on our expectations, or what Stephenson calls the horizon of expectations—that what we see is mostly based on our expectations.  For instance, a play at the Stratford theatre almost always receives a standing ovation, Stephenson said.  “We are primed to expect that the play we spent $100 to see will be mind-blowing. Similarly, we expect a violinist in a pricey concert to be a musical prodigy whereas the street player mediocre at best. We need to always be prepared to appreciate beauty.”

Stephenson said the project’s efforts were replicated in other places outside of Kingston. “There were some events in Toronto under the Art is Your Story banner and we received some great e-mails of support from across the country,” she said. “We had e-mails from places like Vancouver and Montreal but also e-mails from friends abroad telling us what a great idea this program was.”

Weingarten’s article raises an old debate about the criteria which constitute beauty, questioning whether it’s measurable, a personal opinion or a combination of both of these notions.

Weingarten claimed beauty is coloured by the immediate state of mind of the observer. It remains a question, however, if it’s really a matter of whether beauty and art can be quantified and qualified.  It seems in order to be prepared to appreciate true beauty, people must always be ready to truly notice, take in and apprehend the beauty around them.

—With files from Alice Greenberg

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