Would you recognize true beauty if you walked past it on the way to work?

Andy Rau

A recent article in the Washington Post describes a fascinating experiment: what would happen if the world's greatest violin player set up camp at a Metro station in rush-hour Washington D.C.? Master musician Joshua Bell played anonymously for an hour on a $3.5 million violin in a D.C. subway station as part of an experiment to see how commuters would respond. Would busy commuters notice him? Dismiss him, toss him some spare change, gather to listen? Would anybody even notice that they were being treated to masterful renditions of some of the finest music in human history? The Post article sums up the questions:

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?

I don't want to spoil the experiment for you, so go read the article to find out what happened. Then head over and read some excellent commentary at Jeff Berryman's blog. He laments that our culture's busy-ness is killing our ability to appreciate true beauty when we see or hear it. From his post:

Beauty is common; the experience of it is rare. The idea of “refined taste” is way, way out of fashion these days and smacks of elitism and social construction, but maybe “refined taste” is nothing but the willingness to sit more intentionally with our own experience. Don’t they say that meals are better if eaten slowly? The point of the article in the Post was simply that great art usually requires a context. The sadness for me is that our lives rarely provide such contexts, and we seldom take the time or trouble to create such contexts. We miss so, so much.

Greg Wolfe told me once that there are multiple poverties. I can’t help but believe the poverties of beauty, of art, and of soul are deeply connected to the poverties of hunger and peace. Everyone understands the need for food. The same cannot be said of the need for beauty.

What's your response to the experiment? Were you surprised at the results? If you had been ambling through the Metro station that morning on the way to work, would you have noticed the musical brilliance off in the corner? Do you agree with Berryman's idea that we have become a "culture of glancers" who rarely stop to appreciate beauty, and who are experiencing a type of spiritual poverty as a result?

Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Art