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in Filmmaking
on Feb 8, 2009

Mentalist and all around social theorizing provocateur Derren Brown posted on his blog a link to an interesting study chronicled in The Washington Post.

Brown writes:

A wonderful experiment conducted in a Washington DC Metro station. Playing some of the greatest music the human race has created, one of the finest violinists in the world anonymously busks: will his art cut through the rush and bustle of the commuters’ morning? Will a crowd form?

I love this article and find it very moving. It’s a splendid modern demonstration of the question of context and presentation in art, and what is required to form aesthetic appreciation.

Gene Weingarten in The Washington Post has all the details: the violinist is Josh Bell, recent winner of the Avery Fisher prize, the violin is a Stradivari bought for $3.5 million, the subway is D.C.’s L’Enfant Plaza station, and Bell is playing some of the most demanding classical string music, including Bach’s “Chaconne.”

Of the purpose behind the experiment, Weingarten writes:

It’s an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?

The result? Bell draws no crowd and only earns a few bucks thrown into his tip jar. Are the D.C. metro viewers just too plebian in their tastes? Not necessarily. Again, from the article:

Mark Leithauser has held in his hands more great works of art than any king or Pope or Medici ever did. A senior curator at the National Gallery, he oversees the framing of the paintings. Leithauser thinks he has some idea of what happened at that Metro station.

“Let’s say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It’s a $5 million painting. And it’s one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: ‘Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'”

Leithauser’s point is that we shouldn’t be too ready to label the Metro passersby unsophisticated boobs. Context matters.

Kant said the same thing. He took beauty seriously: In his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Kant argued that one’s ability to appreciate beauty is related to one’s ability to make moral judgments. But there was a caveat. Paul Guyer of the University of Pennsylvania, one of America’s most prominent Kantian scholars, says the 18th-century German philosopher felt that to properly appreciate beauty, the viewing conditions must be optimal.

“Optimal,” Guyer said, “doesn’t mean heading to work, focusing on your report to the boss, maybe your shoes don’t fit right.”

Unfortunately, the excellent video clips of Bell performing in the subways are not embeddable; check them out at the Washington Post link above. And feel free to extrapolate this study’s conclusions to your own thoughts about new forms of art-film distribution… or, if you think it’s a stretch, feel free not to.

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