Joshua Bell, a world-class violinist, teamed up with the Washington Post for a social experiment in which he played his $3.5 million Stradivarius one morning in the L’Enfant Plaza subway station in Washington, DC. During his performance, which ran about forty-five minutes, seven people stopped to listen for a minute or more, twenty-seven contributed money, and he made a total of $32 (not counting the $20 thrown in his hat by the one woman who recognized him). More than a thousand people had walked by him without stopping. In the aftermath, it was easy for many people to shake their heads at the perceived shame of it all: how could music so valuable—some of these same individuals might be paying as much as $150 a ticket to watch him play the same program at the local symphony hall the following night—become so worthless on the street?
Amanda Palmer illustrates that sometimes, art needs context in her book, The Art of Asking. In the above example, the passersby were going to work during the busy hours of the day to pay even attention to the excellent music that was played on the street way. The author mentions that she never takes for granted when people stop by to see her perform as a living statue. She just feels grateful.
That said, there are instances when art doesn’t need a context. The author recollects her experience as The Bride as follows:
It was like breaking down a compound into its essential elements, then down to an atom, then down to an irreducible proton. Such profound encounters—like the deeply moving exchanges I’d have with broken people who seemed to have found some sort of salvation in the accidental, beautiful moment of connection with a stranger painted white on a street corner—cannot happen on a safe stage with a curtain. Magical things can happen there, but not this. The moment of being able to say, unaccompanied by narrative: Thank you…I see you. In those moments, I felt like a genie of compassion, able to pay attention to the hard-to-reach, hidden cracks of someone else’s life—as if I were a specially shaped human-emotion tool that could reach way under the bed of somebody’s dark heart and scrape out the caked-on blackness. Just by seeing someone—really seeing them, and being seen in return—you enrealen each other. What is possible on the sidewalk is unique. No song needed, no words, no lighting, no story, no ticket, no critic, no context. It cannot get any simpler than a painted person in a box, a living human question mark, asking: Love? And a passing stranger, rattled out of the rhythm of mundane existence, answering: Yes. Love.
Every chapter in the book ends with the lyrics of Amanda's songs as though the narrative in each chapter is the story behind the songs. What a beautiful way to put art into context.
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