Today’s Washington Post story about Joshua Bell posing as a street musician was so thought-provoking that it has been on my mind all day. Joshua’s magnificent playing apparently aroused so little attention that he himself was alarmed and the reporter certainly bemused.
Should we be so shocked? Does it really mean the end of civilization as we know it? Does it mean that no-one has time any more for great art and great artists? It’s certainly tempting to see it that way. Yet as my husband and I realized, context is everything.
Firstly, street musicians (or buskers as we Brits call them) are often seen as little more than beggars and are certainly commonly perceived as a nuisance. Any stranger asking for money is someone to be avoided. They have a low status in society. I’m not saying this is right. It’s just how things are.
Secondly, this was the subway during rush-hour. Even if the world’s greatest music-lover had been passing, they might not have had time to stop and listen.
Great art deserves our full attention. Placing an artist in a scheduled recital in a purpose-built hall allows the listener to come to a place inside themselves where they are receptive to the experience. They have to choose to be there. They have to make the time and take the journey, both inwardly and outwardly. The venue has an appropriate acoustic and facilities. The artist may wear special clothing and use dramatic lighting. It’s possible to choose to dispense with this ritual. However it can then be more challenging to still have a rewarding experience.