Monday, April 09, 2007

A Different Take on Critics vs. Audiences

It's not everyday that you read a newspaper article discussing Kant's views on the relation between moral understanding and aesthetic judgment, but yesterday's Washington Post has such an article. Joshua Bell and the Washington Post agreed to collaborate on a little experiment. They wanted to find out what would happen if you took a highly regarded violinist and had him play during early morning commuting time at a subway station. Would his talented play attract a large audience if he appeared anonymously and dressed just like any other street musician?

Surprisingly, at least to the Post, he was treated like just any other musician.

I read the Post article and was impressed with the questions that the writer asked, and especially impressed that Gene Weingarten took the time to ask a Kantian scholar about what the lack of interest had to say about the aesthetic tastes of the audience. In a nutshell, the Kantian answer is that surroundings matter and that not appreciating high art when it is in a common setting is no moral failing. But I was surprised by how Weingarten, even after presenting the Kantian defense of the "masses," rejects the premise wholesale. From the title to the closing sentence, I could almost read Weingarten's disdain for the commuters.

"Pearls Before Breakfast," is quite obviously a reference to "Pearls Before Swine." Weingarten's title implies that the audience, who failed to recognize Bell's importance, are swine. He doesn't consider the fact that people are genuinely busy (though he does mention that about one of the people who stops for the 3 minutes that he had available). Weingarten also doesn't seem to truly understand the relation between context and appreciation. Certainly Bell's performance is wonderful, at least what is available on the Post site, and I am rushing out to buy his most recent CD today in response to the article, but it is also being performed at a subway station during commuter hours.

Weingarten mentions that all the children want to listen and implies that this means that they still have a pure "poetry of the soul." How about a different analysis? How about the fact that the children haven't fully developed a sense of time and obligation? For many of the commuters, it may have been a moral act of the highest order to not stop and listen. What if Bell performed during a time the subway was filled more with tourists than commuters? Would the results change? I don't think they would change significantly, but I think they would be mildly better.

What is evident here is that Weingarten, like the film critics who can't understand why audiences rush to see 300, doesn't seem to understand the way most people behave. Movie theaters aren't cathedrals of high art in the same way that the Disney Music Hall is, nor is a Metro station Carnegie Hall. When people go to see 300 they know they aren't watching high art and music at the Metro is likely to be ignored as commuters mentally prepare for their day.

I find it ironic that Weingarten, in judging others to be ignorant of the pearls thrown before them one January morning, throws aside the thoughtful examination of a leading scholar.
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