Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Great writing about great art

Today I was pleasantly surprised to read that The Washington Post's Gene Weingarten won a Pulitzer Prize for his achingly wonderful account of what happened when world-famous violinist Joshua Bell spent a morning busking in a Washington D.C. subway station.

Not only do I feel Weingarten's fundamental question, "In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?" is one anyone interested in art should ask themselves from time to time, but his piece was one of the things that inspired me to start this blog. (Transcendent beauty it is not, but at least I've got the banal setting part down cold.)

In all seriousness, I believe Weingarten's question is so fundamental to what we do I plan to make a point of raising it at the festival — I can't wait to hear what our artists have to say on the topic.

If you're interested in joining our discussion — or starting one of your own — I suggest you read the prize-winning piece.


Anonymous said...

Yes, Andy! That Gene Weingarten piece was definitely a great piece of journalism!!!

I don't want you to experience what was experienced by the fabulous-yet-ignored, -unrewarded,
-unrecognized Josh Bell.....so here's my two cents worth and my round of applause for you starting this blog! I'll be your fan!!!

Erik said...

Congratulations on the festival! I have my spies telling me such wonderful things. Wish I could be there.

As for the Pulitzer Prize, I'll respectfully disagree. I do not think that this article was a good commentary on art or music. To start that line of thought, I'd like to share a response by a colleague of mine, originally written as a letter to the Post:

"In Gene Weingarten’s article, many questions were asked: A “performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities-- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?” “If a great musician plays great music but no one hears…was he really any good?”

Music is an emotional response to sound. A transformative musical experience can happen to a listener in a concert hall, by a child in a metro-station, or by a person remembering the music she/he heard the night before. The meaning of music cannot be reduced to whether it is ‘beautiful’ or ‘good’. These are limited notions of life’s experiences. From a performer’s perspective, the goal of our work is communication. This is the miracle of music—that emotional responses can be shared by different people through sounds.

Whether or not you recognize the performer as being talented, famous, an owner of a rare violin, or as someone who you would otherwise pay a lot of money to hear, is not any indication of the meaning of an artistic experience. Indeed music can only be experienced by an individual—we are all alone when it happens. If the moment could be translated into words, amounts, or criticism, the music would not be necessary. It is for people to experience in the only way that they can: they’re very own way.

The overriding perspective of this article, using the experiment as a ”test,” reduces music to a commodity: obsessive preoccupation with the worth of the violin, realizing how much one would otherwise have had to pay to hear the same thing, and reducing people’s appreciation of and need for music to an attention-grabbing phenomenon. Mr. Mortensen (the first commuter mentioned in the article who stopped to listen) was, perhaps, in a Kantian "optimal" condition to take in the music, while other commuters were not. This is the same in any concert hall, even with an audience full of paying concert-goers.

For all the people who were caught on the video camera and implicated as not having the sense to form a crowd of listeners, we all have lives outside of the Post’s whimsical experiments, and some of us may have been traveling through the metro that morning, perhaps with grave matters on our minds, perhaps not. The point is this: if you wish to invest yourself for a moment in order to allow for a magical experience to happen to you (“music”) you will find the way that is right for you. If not, you may be experiencing life in myriad other ways which the web of life contains just as validly as Bach’s, Brahms’, and Schubert’s.

The article said: “Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet…On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way”. My response: The miracle of the musical experience remains indefinable. It is deeply personal, mysterious, and is at grave risk of being overrun by definitions, assumptions, categorizing and comparisons."