Top | Sift

Musical context

(article, Caroline Cummins)

Several months ago, the Washington Post talked Joshua Bell, an internationally famous violinist, into becoming a stuntman.

The concept: Bell, who normally plays to sold-out concert halls, would plop down his violin case in a D.C. subway station and play. Meanwhile, Post reporters would fan out around the station and, well, observe what happened.

Gene Weingarten's article about The Day Bell Went Slumming appeared in the Post's Sunday magazine in April — and readers are still yakking and blogging about it.

So what happened? Well, Bell was assigned to play during rush hour at a busy commuter station. More than 1,000 people hurried past him on their way to work. Few even turned their heads to look at him, much less stop. In 43 minutes, Bell earned $32.17 in bills and coins, flipped into his violin case.

Bell was mostly bemused and a little embarrassed by it all: "'Actually,' Bell said with a laugh, 'that's not so bad, considering. That's 40 bucks an hour. I could make an okay living doing this, and I wouldn't have to pay an agent.'"

Weingarten, however, was shocked, shocked that all those people simply Walked On By. So he asked Mark Leithauser, a curator at the National Gallery, what happened. Leithauser was not surprised in the least:

bq. 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."

Context, of course, turns out to be everything. Does your steak taste better because you know it comes from grass-fed beef? Does it taste worse because it doesn't? And — here's the real clincher — if you took the Beef Challenge, and tried steak without knowing where it came from, would you like it at all?