Last week Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post, one of my favorite columnists, wrote about a little experiment he conducted in D.C. He managed to convince Joshua Bell, one of the most celebrated American violinists, to play for quarters in the D.C. Metro. For 45 minutes, dressed in jeans and a ballcap, Bell played some of the greatest Classical music of all time.
Weingarten wanted to see what the reaction of commuters was. He had no preconceived notions. In the end, almost nobody stopped to hear Bell play. Out of thousands, only eight took even a moment of their time to stop and listen to his music.
Weingarten did not intend this to be an indictment of Washingtonians, although he felt the result said something sorrowful about the human condition. Mail poured in. Many were defensive, others replied that they had had a strong emotional response to the piece. I fall into the latter category, and I felt I should write a little about it.
What is the purpose of life? Everyone has a different answer to that question. For me, part of the purpose of life is to create and sustain the good in our time on Earth. Great music is one of those goods. In a way, it seemed like this was a test. Many of the defensive reactions I think stemmed from the same instinctual response — although they argue that it was an unfair test. There certainly is an interesting issue of framing — most people recognize “art” by the way it is displayed. If something is important, you put it in a special place, not in a subway station, right?
I don’t know if it was fair, but I wonder how I would have responded. I like to think I would have stopped. Is that important? I don’t know. I don’t think someone who didn’t stop is a bad person for not doing so. Yet I constantly wonder whether I as a person and us as a society have our priorities straight. Do we make time for the beautiful, the lasting, and the significant in our lives? Or do we let ourselves be borne away by the ephemera of existence? I am not a spiritual man. Yet music comes the closest to generating a feeling of spirituality in me. There is something ineffable about great music — moving, yet intangible; immortal, yet fleeting. Watching the commuters pass by this musician caused me to think of all the opportunities we blithely ignore in our brief walk through this cosmos. We say there are more important things to worry about, but in the end, what is really important?
A few days ago, I went out and bought a Joshua Bell CD. I don’t know why. Perhaps I thought it had been long enough since I had paid my respects as a member of this planet to the greatness of human achievement.