Monday, August 31, 2009

Art is staring you in the face – Pearls before Breakfast

The Best Non-required Reading for 2008 included all kinds of interesting bits of writing. It had non-fiction essays on whale hunters and Bill Clinton. It had excerpts from graphic novels. It included an interview with Judy Blume. Stephen King had a story in there. There was even a list of some very interesting Facebook groups.

But the one piece that I found the most interesting was called “Pearls before Breakfast”. It was about one of those social experiments you read about sometimes. You know the kind, where they have a crowd of people and one person acts like a madman and the scientists see how the crowd reacts. This was very similar but with a little twist.

World famous violin maestro, Joshua Bell took a priceless violin, went into a D.C. subway station, plunked down the open violin case with some seeding money and treated anybody who walked by to a free concert. Of course the area was infiltrated with reporters keeping their eyes on the crowd and watching reactions. Then they would catch up with anyone whose reaction was notable and interview them.

The piece contains a myriad of reactions from all kinds people: from commuters trying to catch a train, to a man who worked in a small bakery inside the station. The results weren’t too surprising. Very few people noticed that Bell was even playing. Only one person recognized him at all. And he didn’t make much money at all.

I urge you to seek out the whole article if you can, it’s a fascinating read and one that disturbs and fascinates me all at the same time. What I want to explore a bit here is the way we seem to have been able to ignore our surroundings.

Many of the people interviewed didn’t even notice Bell was there. The few that did remember seeing a guy with a violin don’t really remember if he was any good or not, they just remember a guy with a violin. The few people that did actually notice Bell and knew he was good had backgrounds in music.

So even if most of the people there were indifferent to classical music (not hard to believe. Most people I know care little for it), you would think they would be able to tell if someone of genius level skill was among them, right?

Maybe not, maybe people are so conditioned to ignore their surroundings and focus only on their immediate goals that they won’t notice if a genius is there standing next to them unleashing a huge amount of beauty into the air for all to enjoy. I believe it. People walk around with their music players on or their cell phones latched onto their ears. Maybe they are thumbing through their blackberry or iphone. Maybe they are just going over the upcoming challenges of the day. But it’s safe to say that few of these people even notice the changes in the world around them, unless they directly affect them.

I keep saying they, but I mean me too. I have my trusty ipod in my pocket as I do chores around the house or yard work. I listen to what is familiar, I watch what is familiar, hell I even eat what is familiar. It’s a big deal when I leave my little box, and I think most people fall into the same boat.

But this has been going on for decades. I read an article from the 80’s talking about the Japanese and their trains. The writer was an American, from the east coast. He is used to trains and buses, but he had never seen anything like what he encountered on the Japanese train. Few people spoke or looked at each other. Instead most had some kind of newspaper or comic book (manga). And many of the younger passengers had the then new walkmans. The writer was filled with wonder at the fact that these people could basically step aboard a train, and then seal themselves into their own world of music and manga and not even interact with anyone else. He thought that kind of behavior would be strange in the US

Jump forward a couple decades and now it’s normal. People look at you strangely if you try to have a conversation on a train or bus. Isolation into the familiar has become typical.

What does this have to do with storytelling? Well it tells us writers that it may not matter if we write the greatest book the world has ever known. If we can’t get anyone to read it, it will remain unknown. And even if you step into a crowd and start reading it, don’t expect anyone to listen. Most of us aren’t Joshua Bell.

But if the article did tell me anything it pointed out that beauty can be right in front of you. Maybe we all need to take some time to actually look around us and see what we may be missing. What does the world sound like without your music playing?

Did you read the article about Mr. Bell and his DC train station experiment? What did you think of it? Would you have noticed a genius playing the violin right next to you? Can people even recognize beauty anymore?

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