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Art Without A Frame
A few days ago I received the following story in an email:
Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule. 4 minutes later: the violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk. 6 minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again. 10 minutes: A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.
45 minutes: The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32. 1 hour: He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition. No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.
The story is true, because I checked it out and read the Washington Post article about the experiment. It was fascinating and you can read it for yourself and see the video at www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR200704041721.html. The experiment and article raised excellent questions about societal priorities and how we perceive talent, beauty and art. One conclusion, from John Lane author of the book “Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life”, raised the following question: in a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?
If we took a lesser known Picasso, deframed it and hung it on the wall of a children ‘s art show, would anyone recognize it for what it was?
What I found most interesting about the experiment was the behavior of the passing children. In almost every case, kids were fascinated with the musician and wanted to stay and listen. It was the parent or parents who dragged them off in a rush. It reminded me of premise from “The Little Prince”- a children ‘s classic by Antoine de Saint Exupery- that grown-ups are only concerned with “matters of consequence.” It speaks volumes about the creative appetites of children and the lack of such in adults.
Perhaps the most significant question for me raised by this experiment has been, are we as arts educators doing enough to raise aesthetic awareness and recognition in our students? The foundation is certainly there as evidenced by the desire of passing children to want to listen to Bell play. But what happens to that desire with each passing school year? Maybe it is not just an arts educator ‘s responsibility, maybe all subject instructors should be taking part in elevating aesthetic and cultural awareness.
Left to their own devices, students decide what good art is based on media packaging. In their world of fast food and instantaneous technology, quality often equates with immediate gratification. Little time in school is spent on studying the humanities- the remarkable and rich artistic legacy that mankind has produced throughout the ages and the impact that it has all had on today ‘s culture and subcultures. The very fact that at some point a human decided to scratch an image on a cave wall has impacted the world of graffiti ever since.
People travel all over the world visiting distant and ancient cities, seeking not their politics, not their financial doctrines or current technology, but a desire to see the art and culture that was and is created there. Museums don ‘t house stock market indexes or cell phones, they are home to great art, great treasures, great literature, great culture. It is what makes us human. If we don ‘t teach kids the importance of aesthetic appreciation, what will they leave behind as their cultural legacy? And, will future generations even notice?
Tere Barbella is an arts educator in the East Side Union High School District of San Jose, California.