BOB GARFIELD: Not long ago, morning commuters at Washington D.C.'s L'Enfant Plaza Metro stop rushed from their trains to their jobs to a musical accompaniment. A street busker was standing in the covered plaza just outside the station, sawing away on his violin. The commuters didn't seem to notice. They certainly didn't notice that the violinist was Joshua Bell, the famed soloist who this week was awarded the Avery Fisher Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Classical Music.
The stunt was the brainchild of Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten who wanted to see if the rat race so deadens the soul as to inure us to genuine beauty. Writing about the Josh Bell experiment in last Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, Weingarten said the nearly universal indifference was a sight to behold. GENE WEINGARTEN: There were about eleven–hundred people who walked by. Exactly seven stayed to listen for at least a minute. Twenty-seven threw in money, for a grand total of $32.17. And yes, that does mean that people gave pennies.
And [BOB LAUGHS] what was really most astonishing was that the vast majority of the people who walked by didn't even look at him. It was as though he were a nuisance to be avoided. BOB GARFIELD: Buskers actually are not permitted within Metro facilities in Washington, so seeing one at the subway is not a common occurrence for Washington commuters and [LAUGHS], furthermore, this was not your ordinary busker. Let me just please play a passage from Joshua Bell's performance. [MUSIC: JOSHUA BELL PLAYING THE VIOLIN] GENE WEINGARTEN: Bell plays a four-million-dollar Stradivarius made in 1713. And we had this in a little arcade at the top of the escalator. It bounced that music right back and really gave it some reverb. It sounded symphonic. BOB GARFIELD: So your piece went to some lengths to divine what was going on there as people, one after another, passed by one of the greatest living [LAUGHS] violinists. What are the possible explanations? And, in the end, what do you think was happening that day? GENE WEINGARTEN: Yeah, I drew some conclusions, and one conclusion was that it would be unfair to say that these people were unsophisticated boobs. They were basically people in a hurry. The ones I talked to, who barely remembered that they had passed a musician, essentially said that; they – you know, they had a job to get to, they were late for a training seminar, or whatever.
The thing that I did ultimately conclude here is that there's a problem with this, with being so busy that you're blind to something this extraordinary that's happening eight feet away from you.
The piece quoted a guy – it was a hobo in London in 1917. He wrote a poem that begins, "What is this life if, full of care, we have not time to stand and stare?" His name was W.H. Davies. And, you know, that's essentially what he was talking about. BOB GARFIELD: Well, it raises the question, among others, about whether beauty really exists in a vacuum, and how much context affects the way we react to anything aesthetic. Having watched this with your own eyes, do you believe that the fundamental nature of beauty actually changes when it's taken out of a concert hall and put into a subway plaza? GENE WEINGARTEN: I don't think the nature of beauty changes. I think our ability to appreciate it definitely changes. One of the people I talked to in the story was a guy who is in charge of framing the paintings at the National Gallery, and he said he would have predicted this, absolutely predicted it.
And the example he gave, that I just loved, was, you know, what if he took a great painting from the National Gallery, something that's not completely representational, a little abstract, took it out of its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people have to walk up to get to the National Gallery, past those giant columns, walked into a restaurant in Georgetown, the kind of place that has original art on the walls with 150-dollar price tags, put that on the wall – let's say it's an Ellsworth Kelly, you know, worth about five, six million dollars?
And what he said would happen is nobody would notice it, and even an art curator might look up at the wall and say, boy, that looks just like an Ellsworth Kelly, please pass the salt. BOB GARFIELD: A number of people wrote to you in your online chat and said that they had wept as they read your piece, and they wept for the loss of beauty or for the loss of our ability to appreciate it, anyway. GENE WEINGARTEN: The mail was quite remarkable on this. There was a woman who wrote to me, and she's a government lawyer, and she said she read this story and because – and wept, and because of it she has decided to change her career, to do something not that she needs to do to make money but that she wants to do because she's always dreamed of it. I don't know what that is, but that one made me tear up a little bit. BOB GARFIELD: The obvious question would be for me to ask how this has affected you as a writer, having witnessed this, and how it's made you reevaluate your work and your life. But I'm not going to. I'm going to ask you as a last question, what did Josh Bell have to say [LAUGHS] when he was finished playing to a completely uninterested audience? GENE WEINGARTEN: Josh and I had breakfast afterwards, and he was laughing at himself. This is not a pompous guy. And, you know, when he performs at a concert hall, he said, you know, I'll get kind of upset if somebody coughs or a cell phone goes off. But after a few minutes here, I found my expectations really diminishing. [BOB LAUGHS]
And he said he was wretchedly grateful when somebody like threw in a dollar instead of a quarter. BOB GARFIELD: Wonderful. Well, Gene, thank you very, very much. GENE WEINGARTEN: Good. It was good to be here. BOB GARFIELD: Gene Weingarten is a humor columnist for The Washington Post and a staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine.