No frame, no art?

The Washington Post set up an interesting experiment: they had a world-class violinist (Joshua Bell) play a famous Stradivarius outside a Washington DC metro entrance. Pearls Before Breakfast describes what happened. There is a video, too.

In a nutshell: he made 40 bucks in an hour, and hardly anyone stopped to listen.

The Post argues that nobody stopped because it was morning on a work day in Washington DC, and passers-by were all in a hurry to get to work. It was just not a good moment for them to indulge in art appreciation. The Post’s conclusion: we are all too stressed, we need to find more balance in our lives, etc. Breaking news, I know.

But the Post also mentions an alternate explanation, offered by Mark Leithauser, a curator at the National Gallery (the Washington one, not the London one):

Leithauser’s point is that we shouldn’t be too ready to label the Metro passersby unsophisticated boobs. Context matters.

I find this not only a better explanation, but also a more interesting one.

What would have happened if, instead of wearing jeans and a baseball cap, Bell would have been dressed as for a formal performance at a famous venue? What if there already was a small crowd planted around him? Would that validate passers-by desire to stop and listen, driving more people to the crowd? If there would have been some journalists taking pictures of him, asking questions and treating him like a star, would have people stopped then?

I think that if Joshua Bell’s “frame” during his performance in the Washington Metro would have clearly indicated that there was Something Big Going On, many more people would have stopped. It would have called their attention, and it would have also made it OK to stop for a couple of minutes. After all, what are a couple of minutes less work, if it will give you something to talk about at the watercooler?

(Article found via The Online Photographer, who writes his own commentary on the experiment here.)