Beauty out of context

David Shribman is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He is also a weekly columnist for the paper. Our daughters play violin together in an undergraduate string quartet, as the result of which I recently had the pleasure of meeting him and his family. In his column today, David responds to Gene Weingarten’s long, long Washington Post article (which includes an embedded video) telling the story of an experiment conducted by the Post. Would we notice anything special if we walked by one of the greatest violinists in the world playing for spare change at a subway stop? To conduct the experiment, the Post enlisted the assistance of the great violinist Joshua Bell and placed him at Washington’s busy L’Enfant Plaza subway stop.
What happened? Weingarten tells the story in an interesting, well-written article. The article is worth reading if only for Weingarten’s portrait of Bell. Weingarten concludes the article, however, with a labored thesis postulating that we are too busy to notice beauty in our daily lives. David Shribman respectfully disagrees:

…I am not sure what the Post proved with its gag, except to prove what we have known for some time, that it is actually possible to fool a lot of people a lot of the time and that some newspaper people are smart alecks who are absolutely sure they are smarter than the people they write for. I’m not sure that if Picasso were painting on the corner, or Lincoln were declaiming in the park (take away the stovepipe hat and the beard, just to make this a fair exercise) whether we would stop and take notice. I personally would not pause a moment if Christina Aguilera were singing in the square. I wouldn’t recognize her if she walked into my office. I kind of hope she doesn’t.
And yet the broader point of the Post exercise is worth acknowledging: We are not prepared to encounter beauty in our everyday lives. Very seldom in those everyday lives (at least in mine) do we run into Joshua Bell on the way to work. But it isn’t only Joshua Bell enhancing the morning commute. It’s the beauty of the cityscape draped in fog, or the way the sun hits the buildings Downtown, or the quiet beauty in the sidewalk drama when a toddler holds his grandma’s hand and crosses the street. I am talking about something deeper than raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. I’m talking about a way of looking at the world, and at life.
But here is another way of approaching the question of how we look at the world and at life. Mr. Bell, comfortable at both the Hard Rock Cafe and the L’Enfant Plaza subway station, is willing to bring art music to the people and to bridge the gap between the formal concert hall and the scruffy street. We may damn the people who passed him by, but we can only praise the man who wouldn’t pass by the chance to play in the subway.

David’s terrific column is “Out of context.”


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