Joshua Bell Experiment Issues Discussed

Via Americans for the Arts ArtsBlog is a three part discussion about Joshua Bell’s experience playing anonymously at a Washington, DC train station back in April.

The three parts were actually recorded on the same day but have been posted periodically on the Polysemy Woodshed podcast/blog page. (Links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Their discussions were some of the most thoughtful on the event that I have come across. The participants tackled a lot of the same issues about respect and recognition of talent, appropriateness of venue and curiosity of the children that I and others who have blogged on this topic have.

Among the specific ideas I found intriguing was the concept of an agreement existing between the performer and listener. Another was comments in part two by one of the participants where she talks about how discouraging it was that people walking by Bell seemed determined to ignore him. A short time later she acknowledges the common practice of tuning out information that is not immediately pertinent when she admits that she has only just noticed there were a lot of birds singing in her backyard and she has no idea if they have recently taken up residence there or if she has been tuning them out for a long time now.

The idea that you have have to have a frame of reference of some sort to assist your evaluation of art also came up in relation to art appearing in familiar and unfamiliar situations as well as simply having had enough prior experience that you can make a deliberate choice between stopping or walking away.

Part of the allure of Joshua Bell, one commenter argues is that there are a series of actions one engages in prior to attending a performance that create a sense of excitement and anticipation. Having circumvented these preparatory stages by appearing unannounced in a train station, Bell divested himself of much of the framework that make his performances so valued. He became merely a good violin player in the subway.

For those of you who recoil at the idea that Joshua Bell has much less value unannounced outside the symphony hall as he does inside let me point out that the U.S. dollar has no value outside what we invest in it. It is not backed by gold or silver–just belief. Print the exact design of a dollar bill on the exact same paper using only black ink and it is worth only the paper it is printed on. Add the blues, greens, yellows and reds and suddenly it is worth a bit more. It isn’t perfect analogy but in the same manner do tickets, clothes, dinner arrangements and nice performance halls contribute additional value to Joshua Bell.

As those discussing the situation point out, all these ancillary elements that enhance the value of the experience in our minds don’t actually improve the art. They are just things we as attendees have convinced ourselves are important to improving our receptiveness and enjoyment of the event.

One of the people talks about Matt Haimovitz who looked be one of the next great concert cellists but gave it all up because he felt he was disconnected from the audience and instead started playing in rock clubs, ice cream parlors and malls.

As the third segment ended, they pondered whether it was worth having orchestra musicians busk from time to time in the hopes that some ideas about how things might be changed to reach the man on the street would emerge.

I am not quite sure if there will be another installment or not. Each episode didn’t really indicate either overtly or imply by incomplete discussion arc that there would be additional sections posted. Since each segment was posted in two week intervals, I may just have to wait a couple weeks to find out!

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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