Three years ago, the Washington Post and violinist Joshua Bell conducted a social experiment in a subway station of our nation’s capital. In one of the busiest subway stops, the violinist took out his violin and began to play. People flocked by, undeterred by the melody– “Chaconne” by Brahms, considered to be one of the hardest and most beautiful pieces to be played by a musician. Three minutes into the 14-minute piece, a man slowed down and sped back up after a few seconds; half a minute later, a woman dropped a donation into Bell’s hat.
For forty-five minutes, one of the world’s foremost violin virtuosos played– FOR FREE– in a D.C. metro stop and the only people who deigned to pay attention were children that constantly looked back at Bell as their parents swept them away amidst the bustle of the subway chaos. After a while, the violinist packed up his bags and left, leaving the city dwellers to their daily rush through life.
As humans, we pride ourselves on our elevated intelligence– on our emotional and philosophical capacity to appreciate the intangible beauty that surrounds us. We are better than animals because we have the ability to think beyond our physical and immediate needs.
Is this true? Can we truly recognize the beautiful?
In a museum, in a cafe with headphones, on Facebook watching Youtube videos posted by our friends– these are moments where we can “appreciate beauty”. Of course this must be beautiful– the setting is right, the music has actually be recorded, our friends have impeccable taste! If our perception of beauty is dependent on characteristics and circumstances extraneous to the work of beauty itself, do people know how to discern beauty on their own?
Or perhaps this ability is lost in the quotidian routine of life, where the beautiful to us becomes banal because of our inwardly directed perspective of life: “I’m late for this, I’ve already seen this before, I know he’s just another homeless person playing for money”. We begin to categorize the beautiful into the things that are worthy because of its particularity apart from the ordinary and the things that are no longer deserving of attention because of its mundanity.
In doing so, we miss out on the beautiful.
Today, we are constantly bombarded by information, chased by deadlines, surrounded by busy-ness. And it happens that we so often fail to just STOP. BREATHE. And recognize the beauty that surrounds us even in the commonplace.
Gabby Park is a triple concentrator in Communication Studies, French, and History of Art.