Bowing Before the Inevitable

Amusing and sweet article in the Washington Post about a prank in which superstar violinist Joshua Bell performed in a Metro station for 45 minutes during morning rush hour as a busker.

Kind of a stunt, though, and I don’t know how anyone could have expected any other outcome. I think every artist who has been at it seriously for any length of time has figured out how few people perceive any artwork or performance for exactly what it is, and how much most people depend on past habit and on context and on the opinions of others to determine what they pay attention to.

It’s unfortunate but heck, most of human nature is unfortunate.

The flip side, though, is that once you’ve got habit and context and popular opinion working for you, you don’t have to work very hard to keep the attention. The very same trait in human nature that results in Joshua Bell’s playing being ignored in the subway station at rush hour also makes it possible for him to sell out concert halls so consistently and so often. You couldn’t have one without the other. Invent a race of humans who will stop in the subway and really listen to every busker and you’ve invented a race of humans who will not turn a small few of them into superstars.

So I don’t see much irony in the idea of the superstar being ignored in the subway during rush hour. He’s a superstar precisely because we’re the kind of creatures who ignore him in the subway during rush hour.

It would probably be better for everyone if that were not the case — if we really listened to everything without having to be told first what we should pay attention to, and if we didn’t create superstars who so many people want to see simply because so many people want to see them. But it ain’t that way and it ain’t going to be that way any time soon.

Anyway, the article is charming.

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