Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Value, Beauty, and Perception

Three years ago, a world-renowned violinist named Joshua Bell dressed himself in nondescript clothing, took his 3.5 million dollar violin to a crowded Washington D.C. subway, and started playing as if he were a talented panhandler. After forty-five minutes he had performed 6 classical pieces in front of just over 1000 morning commuters and collected 32 dollars for his work.

You can read the entire article here.

Some of the points in the article really grated me because here in one place are so many things that I completely disagree with in the topics of beauty, art, and music. I've seen this article mentioned on occasion in my internet wanderings since the social experiment, and it is often cited to criticize common people for not recognizing beauty in the world. And then depending on what part of the human condition is your hobby horse, you're going to want to mention something about how we move along too quickly in life or how we're not attentive enough to our surroundings or whatever.

"If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made . . . How many other things are we missing as we rush through life?" - Bill McGee

Sounds really meaningful, doesn't it? Doesn't it make you want to just slow down in life, and try to take in everything around you?

I'm not one for that kind of sentimental stuff and what really pisses me off is how people who read things like this just nod in agreement without even thinking for a second about the presuppositions undergirding this experiment's conclusion. I believe the same exact experiment would yield completely different results if we moved the fixed point from the artist to the common people, and here's what I mean.

What assumptions are made? One assumption is that this guy is world-renowned, therefore he must be one of the best in his craft. One assumption is that because he sells out concert halls at more than $100 dollars a seat, he's definitely got the talent. One assumption is that because he plays a violin which, in a market, is worth more than 25 of these, he must be really good.

We can keep unraveling assumptions. We can go into how often people today automatically correlate quality with price and then I can spend the rest of this space ranting about gearheads and their fixation on expensive musical toys. Honestly, I judge someone whose musical skill is lower than the worth of their instruments. It may be something I have to work on, but if you went out and bought an $800 electric guitar with a $400 pedalboard and you don't know what powerchords are, please don't speak to me ever again.

In the experiment, the control was the musician. The quality of Mr. Bell's music was not a variable; it was fixed. We just assumed that he played really well. I am curious how the results might have been interpreted if, instead of assuming that Joshua Bell was a GOOD violinist, we assume that the MAJORITY is always right? Then what can we conclude?

We can perhaps conclude that to some stuck-up, snobbish, elitist classical music connoisseurs, Joshua Bell's name (and his 400 year old Stradivarius violin) means something, but to the average joe he sucks. We can perhaps conclude that good "high-brow" music only has substance in a very specific, artificially-constructed environment and that out in the real world, it's meaningless. We can maybe venture that good music is 25% objectivity and 75% elitist culture. And don't even get me started on hipsters.

I've stated before that musical quality does not occur in an objective vacuum. So whereas there are objective values that make art good or bad, it is fruitless to discuss it without taking into consideration culture and socio-historical situatedness. Simply put, we do not judge artistic quality from an impartial judge's standpoint; the critic is always and already in motion.

I love classical music but I cannot tell the difference of interpretation from one artist to another if my life depended on it. I love cheese, but put a gun to my head and blindfold me and ask me if I am tasting Munster cheese from Munster, Germany or from Monroe, New York and you'll have to shoot me. I love coffee, but I have a really hard time believing that there is an objectively better way to pour hot water over ground up seeds. And make no mistake; when you call something good or bad, you are making a value judgment.

I will not pay for Belgian sea salt or ask for Fiji water. I do not believe the North Face will keep me warmer than that jacket I bought for 20 bucks at Jembro. I will gladly eat "authentic" Mexican food made by Chinese people in the kitchen. I don't need key limes from Florida to make an awesome margarita. Itzhak Perlman does not create hauntingly beautiful music; he just follows instructions and plays the notes on the page. For every John Mayer or Eric Clapton, there are a hundred 17 year-old kids on youtube who are just as technically gifted on the guitar. Leonard Bernstein does not wave a wand better than Harry Potter. And for crying out loud, please do NOT get me started on female vocalists.

We do it in every area of life that is meaningful to us, be it cuisine or music or fashion. We construct value; we arbitrarily assign it. We don't deceive on purpose; most of the time we do it we're really just lying to ourselves. We so desperately want there to be more meaning on this earth than we see. We need the things we care about to bear significance, and all significant things have value; have good and bad. So we try to find value in everything.

And when we can't find it, we make it up...

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like this is the "classic" struggle of modernism v. post-modernism. Does technical giftedness and ability to read sheet music make soemthing "good", or is the reception of those sounds what makes it "good".

    If sound waves did not exist, and no one could hear the violin...would Mr. Bell still play with excellence?

    If a tree falls on a classically trained musician, and no one is around to hear it...does anybody care?

    Hope things are well in Australia. Throw a shrimp on the barbie for me.