Washington DC, at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, this man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. People rushed past on their way to work. After about 3 minutes, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to meet his schedule.
About 4 minutes later:
The violinist received his first dollar. A woman threw money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.
At 6 minutes:
A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.
At 10 minutes:
A 3-year old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. This action was repeated by several other children, but every parent – without exception – forced their children to move on quickly.
At 45 minutes:
He finished playing. He had collected $32.17 contributed by 27 of 1097 travellers. He collected $32.17 contributed by 27 of 1097 travellers. Just seven stopped to listen and only one recognized him.
The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world.
He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a handcrafted 1713 Stradivarius violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, he had sold-out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100 each to sit and listen to him play exactly the same music.
This scenario was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities.
The UK Sunday Times ran a similar experiment.
In 1971 VS Naipaul won the Booker Prize for ‘In a Free State’, his novel about displaced colonials on different continents. Dennis Potter, the TV dramatist of it at the time, wrote: “Do not miss the exhilaration of catching one of our most accomplished writers reaching towards the full stretch of his talent.”
The Sunday Times sent out the opening chapter of ‘In a Free State’ to 20 London literary agents.
Only the names of the author and main characters were changed.
Typical was the polite rejection from PFD, a major London literary agency, wrote: “Having considered your material, we do not feel, we are sorry to say, sufficiently enthusiastic or confident about it.”
How do we perceive quality? Would any of us recognize talent in an unexpected context? Do we find something worthwhile because it is good – or because others say it is?
Incidentally The Washington Post won a Pulitzer prize in the feature writing category for Gene Weingarten’s April 2007 story about this experiment.
I wonder if he’d win it if it was published in the Bayou Bugle?