Do You Know Art When You Hear It?

“Pearls Before Breakfast” is a Washington Post article about a qualitative research experiment to see how commuters would respond to professional musician Joshua Bell playing his $3.5 million Stradivari violin beside a garbage can in the L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. It’s a high pedestrian traffic area and more than 1000 people pass him during the 45 minute free concert.

The findings did not support the predictions of how people would respond and only one group of people consistently noticed him and it isn’t the group you’d expect to take notice:

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

The article follows up with a lot of the people who passed him by and they offer up a variety of reasons why they didn’t stop and pay more attention. Time constraints were cited as the most common reason for not stopping, but watching the videos, it seems more likely that the people were not open to the experience of observing fine art during their daily commute.

What I found very interesting from watching the videos is that even when someone did stop, it didn’t seem to motivate others to stop. Very often we use the principle of social proof to determine what is appropriate behavior in unusual circumstances, this didn’t occur here. Even when others gave them permission to stop, people just kept on going, ignoring the free show by one of the worlds best violin players.

I’m not sure why children were the only group to consistently take notice of him, and the article doesn’t go into this finding. It could be that they have yet to learn appropriate commuter behavior, it could be that this was their first real life experience with someone playing a violin or it could be that they heard beauty and Joshua’s playing struck them significant enough to warrant their full attention. I kind of hope it’s the last one and that the innate tendency to identify and appreciate art is something that we unlearn as we become more socialized because then all we have to do is stop unlearning and enjoy. But I’m pretty skeptical of this hypothesis. Most likely the children look because a guy playing a violin is an odd thing to come across on the way to day care.