Context Matters

by Levi Weinhagen • Oct. 28

The vom |

Roughly every six months someone will post on Twitter or Facebook or mention in real live conversation a Washington Post article from 2007, usually accompanied by a tone of ‘American culture is on the decline’ or ‘everyone is in too much of a hurry.’

On January 12, 2007, the Washington Post staged a stunt wherein Joshua Bell, world famous violinist, spent 45 minutes playing some of the most enduring classical music compositions ever written. Bell performed these songs by Bach and Schubert and the like at a busy Metro station in Washington D.C. at around 8 in the morning on a Friday. The Washington Post billed it as “an experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste.”

You can read the whole article, in fact I encourage you to do so, it’s quite interesting, but I’ll give away the outcome cliffs notes style and tell you that of the 1,100 people who walked by while Bell played that morning only 7 stopped, even if only for a minute, and listened. Much is made of the fact that 1,070 people walked by apparently without even noticing the musician playing whom just a few days prior had played to a sold out audience of people paying on average $100 a ticket.

Are people in too much of a hurry? Too focused on where they’re going to notice the world around them? Would the reaction be different in Europe or anywhere other than the United States? Is this a sign of a cultural decline?

One of the stated goals of the Washington Post experiment, and the thing that seems to be the main takeaway for people, was that it served as “an unblinking assessment of public taste.” That was not achieved by this experiment. No one should conclude based on this 45-minute performance that there’s a lack of interest in violin music. Even stating that the people who passed Bell performing that morning without noticing him aren’t interested in classical violin music is a stretch.

To assess the musical taste of people at that Metro station they would have had to arrange for multiple forms of music and entertainment to be performed and ensured that all the other variables remained consistent for each performance. An experiment that in actual practice would be essentially impossible. Plus, finding out what music people are least likely to ignore in a public space when they are hustling to get to work, while interesting, isn’t terribly useful.

The most salient aspect of this article is how it reinforces the idea that context really matters when it comes to consumption of art. The value of an art performance or a piece of art is highly dependent on its context. Particularly with live performance the artist or artists have created their work with an intended performance context.

A musical composition was written, learned, and rehearsed to be performed for an audience that wants to hear it. A dance piece is choreographed and staged for an audience that is seeking out dance. A stand up comic writes jokes in the hopes that her audience will want to hear what she has to say. Live music, dance, comedy, theater can and are all performed outside of their intended contexts and sometimes those performances still manage to capture an audience's interest and illicit a response and other times they fail to gather an audience at all.

There’s nothing surprising about people not consuming someone’s art when it is thrust upon them. And there’s nothing disheartening about people being focused on what they’re doing.