Ruth Ann Dailey : Found in subway -- What life's about

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Much was made, in certain circles, of a fascinating experiment that Washington Post reporters conducted several years ago.

They persuaded violinist Joshua Bell to play his Stradivarius at D.C.'s L'Enfant Plaza metro station during a wintry morning rush hour. They got this great artist to pose as a busker, to see if anyone would pause, "in a banal setting, at an inconvenient time," and take note.

They unobtrusively videotaped the 45-minute recital, they observed the passing crowd, and they pondered.

The results have sometimes been an invitation to condescension because, sadly, at the heart of the capital of the free world, almost no one stopped to listen. Our bureaucrats, one could opine, are too busy or self-absorbed or uncouth to notice a moment of beauty, even when it's soaring off stone walls and into their eardrums.

Capturing the nearly complete public indifference was the article's headline -- "Pearls Before Breakfast" -- a great riff on the biblical admonition not to "cast your pearls before swine," not to waste what's valuable on those who would disregard or even destroy it.

But there are numerous other, kinder conclusions to draw from the event, given the rich details the journalists uncovered.

The 2007 article is well worth reading -- an Internet search for "Joshua Bell subway" will take you there -- but one problem it explores, that's nagged at me for seven years now, is context. It really matters.

In covering the subway music experiment, writer Gene Weingarten cited philosopher Immanuel Kant's assertion that "to properly appreciate beauty," conditions must be optimal -- meaning not during rush hour, when you're late to work and have a big presentation to give.

Such circumstances could easily change, though; a more chronic challenge of context exists.

In modern society we simply don't expect to find beauty near at hand. It's not cost-effective (we wrongly think) so it's been compartmentalized. We rarely build beautiful buildings any more -- too expensive. Traffic arteries are far more often merciless stretches of gray than leafy boulevards dappled with flowers.

And it's been a couple of centuries since you could stop by your local cafe and listen to Mozart or Beethoven tickle the ivories while you slurped. In order to preserve the great art of our civilization, we've put it in secular shrines -- museums, concert halls -- which we visit only if we're so inclined and can afford to. Or if we're schoolchildren on a rare field trip.

The keepers of our culture know they have to break through the walls of the shrines they inhabit and somehow alert our earbud-wearing population that our shared culture isn't a collection of dusty old bones but a living flame.

If you asked me to name the greatest collective achievement of Western Civilization, I'd propose either manned space flight or the symphony orchestra. (Serendipitously, the Pittsburgh Symphony -- in which my husband plays, I must disclose -- recently presented Gustav Holst's "The Planets" accompanied by astonishing photos from deep space.)

Science of the arts? I choose the arts, hands-down. We all benefit from the scientific knowledge summoned to put man into space and derived from its success, but how many people really feel transcendence in it, how often and how directly?

Getting 100-plus oddball musicians to bring their decades of solitary work to a stage, to submit to one person's leadership in order to share the ineffable yearning of the Adagietto from Mahler's Symphony No. 5 or the triumphant sixth movement of Brahms' German Requiem or ... on and on -- there's nothing on earth to compare.

I want to live in a society where that joy is available to all and sought by many. Where a jazz pianist plays with an orchestra, breaks two strings and leaves blood on the keys. Where people flock to marvel at "The Goldfinch," a 17th-century Dutch painting, rediscovered because it graces the cover of a new bestselling literary novel. Where knitters "yarn-bomb" the Andy Warhol Bridge and people crowd Point State Park to visit a giant rubber duck docked on the river.

Each time a huge Powerball jackpot makes headlines, I daydream about all the charitable things I'd do with the money, after I'd had my fill of vacations and redecorating, of course:

Subsidizing concert and museum tickets, putting piano labs in every grade school, hiring music and art teachers and lengthening the school day -- that's what grips my imagination. Making sure that arts education is understood to be absolutely essential.

You know why? During the Josh Bell subway caper, the demographic whose members always turned and tried to stop and listen, even as they were being dragged on into the day by the unaware, were the little children.

Every single child turned to listen.

We have to feed that flame, instead of slowly extinguishing it. Else why be alive?

Ruth Ann Dailey:

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