Punking the Public

Posted: April 19, 2007 in Classical Music, Culture

The Washington Post recently published a fairly lengthy article called “Pearls Before Breakfast” that answers a question no one in particular was asking: would subway commuters take better notice of music performed in a subway hallway if the busker were a world-class concert artist? I’m late getting to this topic, so there have already been plenty of bloggers offering their two cents. Of those I’ve read, none really speaks to my take on the subject, which is this: what on earth is The Washington Post doing punking the public so that it can then report on it?

As the article partially admits, ripping high art — in this case classical music — from its normal context and putting it in the lowly confines of a subway hallway is a disingenuous set-up of the would-be audience. Off the top of my head, I can think of many reasons why chiding the public for its failure to stop and take notice of a world-class concert artist (Joshua Bell) playing violin in the subway is a mistake. For instance, commuters on their way to work are far more likely to be on a fixed schedule than those on the way home. Many have iPods or the like playing in their ears already and simply don’t hear the environment. In fact, commuters may adopt a studied desensitivity to the environment of frequently traveled routes and never notice changes that don’t read as threats.

Music busking is also a considerably different activity from playing the Bach Chaconne, which was Bell’s main piece. I would have recognized that work instantaneously and Joshua Bell almost as quickly, but I don’t know that I would have stopped. It might even be true that I’m a better target for this prank than the general public precisely because I am discerning. But does it really mean that I’m uncultured if I don’t stop? I don’t think so. It could mean that I’m in a hurry, that I don’t want to pay him undue attention, or that for all his expertise a 14-min. impromptu concert isn’t compelling to me at the time. Part of the point of high art is the ritual and setting, which isn’t the case with busking. That’s closer to performance art.

Almost all of the comments I’ve read and heard about this stunt have been about what a fascinating sociological snapshot it is, even if the results are discouraging. Pshaw. It’s not a sociology experiment; it’s the media goosing us, tsk tsking us over our presumed lowness (which was to be expected), and stepping well over the bounds of ethical journalistic behavior. So don’t take any shame on yourself if you were (or might have been) among the passersby who failed to stop and smell the roses. Instead, shame on The Washington Post for staging such an outrageous set-up and reporting it as though it were valuable news.

  1. greywhitie says:

    and i would recognize itzhak perlman playing the tchaikovsky anytime, anywhere!

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