Context And Environment Matter

NPR recently teamed up with the TED people to present the TED Radio Hour which takes three TED talks on a similar theme to revisits them with the speakers. The one I heard run this weekend was about how our brains trick us and confuse us about what we value. It was the second segment with psychologist Paul Bloom which caught my attention because it deal with how so much of what we value about art depends on the context.

It started with the story about Joshua Bell playing in the subway station and no one paying him much mind or money, for that matter. When I talked about this experiment before, I mentioned that context and the environment played large roles in people’s enjoyment.

Bloom talked about the Dutch art dealer who was convicted of treason for selling Hermann Goring a Vermeer–until he confessed and proved the painting was a forgery–after which he was deemed a hero.

Bloom also spoke about Marla Olmstead who was painting works at 3 years old that people were paying tens of thousands of dollars for until 60 Minutes came to visit and it was discovered her father was prompting (and perhaps even helping) with the painting.

A common question was raised about each of these. If Joshua Bell is such a great performer which people pay great amounts of money to hear perform, why wasn’t his quality recognized as an anonymous performer in a D.C. subway? Why is it treasonous to sell a Nazi a real Vermeer but heroic to sell him a fake if you can’t tell the difference between the paintings? If you like the painting, why does it matter if a 3 year old or a 30 year old paints it?

The answer has to do with authenticity, the story which accompanies the experience and a willingness to receive. Classical music doesn’t have to be experienced in a formal performance hall or art in a museum gallery. There are successful programs that bring classical music and opera to bars.

But people go to those events expecting to listen to music. There are entirely different expectations and agendas as you move through a subway station which inhibits a person’s readiness to receive the experience.

Art like wine and food is more enjoyable and valuable when the authenticity of provenance is beyond question. You are buying the story as well as the physical object and that makes all the difference. According to Bloom, there are parts of the brain that light up when you believe you are drinking expensive wine that don’t light up when you believe you are drinking cheap wine even if it is the same wine. So it isn’t that you think it is better, you are actually having an entirely different experience.

The lesson for arts organizations and performers is to help your audience to that mindset. Whether you are in a formal performance space or not, there are things you must do in respect to the environment and interactions to help transition people toward the experience.

You could argue that flashmob performances don’t do that with their audiences and they are often well received. But I would say it isn’t the quality of the performance that people are necessarily responding to but the quality of the planning and execution that brought them the experience.

It is akin to crossing a stream and finding a diamond ring in the water. It is the enjoyment of finding an unexpected treasure that pleases. I think you would find people react just as delighted if an accomplished high school orchestra popped out of the woodwork as they would for the Philadelphia Orchestra revealing themselves in the same manner.

What I really appreciated was Bloom’s late addendum to his TED Talk. In the radio program he said the thing he didn’t emphasize enough in his TED Talk, and was pleased to be able to now, was that most people see it as a glitch or flaw that our perceptions and values can be manipulated by such factors. If we were perfect, these things wouldn’t sway us so easily.

Bloom’s view is that this “flexibility” actually allows us to experience more pleasure in life. He feels that taste can be developed through study and learning. The more you know, the more pleasure you can derive. So if you want to get more pleasure from wine or art, you need to do more than just expose yourself by drinking lots of wine and seeing lots of art, you need intentionally educate yourself.

That seems to align with the findings of the Knight Foundation’s Magic of Music report from six years ago which said exposure in the form of lecture/demos didn’t seem to have as long lasting impact on participation and attendance as participatory programs including instruction.

This, of course, reinforces the importance and sense of desperation to get art back into schools.

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.


2 thoughts on “Context And Environment Matter”

  1. Speaking of wine, did Bloom mention Rudy Kurniawan who was arrested last March for selling counterfeit wines? Kurniawan’s authority was enough to fool even the wine connoisseur who were sampling the wine and not just collecting. Context does matter!

    A couple of relatively recent (2011) commissioned NEA research reports reinforced that prior arts education exposure is still the most reliable indicator of later arts attendance/participation:

    In their analysis, NORC researchers Nick Rabkin and Eric Hedberg test and ultimately confirm the validity of an assumption made with prior SPPA data, that participation in arts lessons and classes is the most significant predictor of arts participation later in life, even after controlling for other variables. They also show that long-term declines in Americans’ reported rates of arts learning align with a period in which arts education has been widely acknowledged as devalued in the public school system. Nor are the declines distributed equally across all racial and ethnic groups. Working along quite different lines,

    Mark Stern similarly concludes that arts education is the most important known factor in influencing arts participation trends.

    the above is from the intro to Mark Stern’s paper:

    • Jon-

      No, the episode actually first aired in April and was replayed this week. I suspect it was recorded even earlier than that. He did talk about the fact that people will enjoy the wine more if the price/label indicates that it is an expensive wine.

      He also indicated that people can be discerning even if the product doesn’t meet their expectations- the food wasn’t as good as you expected for the price or perhaps it was even better than the price would have lead you to believe.

      He cited Trader Joe’s “Two Buck Chuck” wine which was actually a good wine being sold for $2 because the owner of the winery wanted to undercut the competition by offering a lower price point.


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