Art, Craft, and “Pearls Before Breakfast”

April 13, 2007

The Washington Post ran a little psychological experiment described in their article Pearls Before Breakfast. They had world renowned violinist Joshua Bell play at a Washington Metro station to see what the reaction would be. It turns out that the reaction was next to nil and the article is a lengthy examination of how this could be.

I’m sure some people are disgusted with humanity at this point but, for me, the results point out two important points about art. First, art is 50% aesthetic and 50% social. It is the social part that is the kicker. Second, we often confuse craftsmanship with art.

I wish I could listen to recordings of all the music Bell played but I could only find Chacone (Johann Sebastian Bach) played by violinist Hyman Bress. The article includes a short video clip with Bell playing “Chaconne”. Bell describes the piece as:

…not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect. Plus, it was written for a solo violin, so I won’t be cheating with some half-assed version.

For me, Chaconne is all about craftsmanship. It is a piece meant to challenge and ultimately show off a talented violinist. Like a great deal of music written for a solo violinist with accompaniment (I’m thinking piano or string quartet) it does not have a melody you find yourself humming as you walk away. This style of music often mimics conversations between people, with swings in emotion, tempo, and intensity. Like the multi-million dollar Stradivarius that Bell plays, it represents the best a craft has to offer.

The music itself does not fill me with emotion, at least not the way Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata consistently does. You recognize the sound of emotion in the music but it does not convey emotion. The emotion that you might feel comes from the realization that you are witnessing the best of the best perform his craft. It is the social part of art that kicks in. You have to know who Joshua Bell is and be able to recognize his superior talent before the social “wow” factor appears.

If Chaconne is representative of all the music Bell played then I’m not surprised by the results of the experiment. In a context free environment like a train/subway station you need to select music that conveys a powerful emotion, not music that sounds like it is played by someone experiencing powerful emotions.