Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Capps on Weingarten

All art is quite useless.
--Oscar Wilde

Once again, the Supreme Turkmen is right, giving voice to some of the same misgivings I felt when I learned that "Pearls Before Breakfast" won a Pulitzer.

Weingarten set this up like an experiment—how much will you pay to hear a world-famous classical musician if you aren't told he's a world-famous classical musician?

But the experiment trades on a second variable, too, though Weingarten doesn't recognize it: How much would you pay, etc. etc., during your rush-hour commute as opposed to during your after-dinner hour in which you enjoy leisurely pursuits?

Why, nothing at all, because you're on your way to work, and you like to think about the coming day or you like to read the news, because you don't like art before you've had coffee, because you're running late, because you hate it when people are standing around obstructing your perfect route to the metro, because you don't like sounds in the morning...

All very true. The piece is basically a high-falutin' version of "Jaywalking," that cheap laff comedy bit that Leno does on his show where he wanders around the streets looking for people who don't know that George Washington was the first POTUS. Here's a critical similarity: the "joke," of course, depends on the audience knowing the answers to the questions that the rubes in the street don't know. To appreciate the Weingarten piece, you need to be aware of the fact that ideally, people should be able to recognize the violinist's talent. So the whole thing doesn't really prove that Washingtonians are coarse. Where Kriston says that Weingarten is after a thesis of "How much would you pay," he really means that the thesis is "how much did they pay." The article is simply a valentine for the audience, who are allowed to feel smart and superior. When you think about it, the success of the article only demonstrates that the experiment backfired.

This is why i categorically reject Nikolas Schiller's comment about how Weingarten's piece says something about "art appreciation." It takes plenty of "art appreciation" to even grok Weingarten's premise. It also takes the appropriate time and space to read and absorb Weingarten's piece. If the violinist were afforded the same luxury Weingarten claims for himself, more people would have been able to appreciate the "art."

And that's the big flaw that Kriston identifies with the piece: the author more or less gamed the outcome to fit his premise. That's the long and the short of it. I hate to get quantum on y'all, but when you remove a violin virtuoso from a concert hall and stick him in a Metro station, the nature and the value of the art changes. Weingarten (and Schiller) seem to think that absolute talent should impress absolutely. But if The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay falls on my head from a very great height, it's just going to hurt. And if the cast of August: Osage County slip into my bedroom tonight at 4am and commence a performance of their play, I promise you, I am going to wake up and tell the immensely talented cast to get the fuck out of my apartment before I punch them all in the throat.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

But see, the experiment wasn't designed to test whether or not people "knew" good music, but rather whether "good" is intrinsic enough to be recognized everywhere. It was less "Oh, that's Composer X's masterpiece" and more "wow, what an amazing piece of music."

The Deceiver said...

"But see, the experiment wasn't designed to test whether or not people 'knew' good music, but rather whether 'good' is intrinsic enough to be recognized everywhere."

Well, if that's the true intent, then the article is of even less value, since it should be pretty obvious that "good" is not "intrinsic enough to be recignized everywhere." I'm pretty sure it never has been.

Nevertheless, I think the intent was a lot less global: what happens if we put this violinist in a completely incongruous setting and see what happens.

Anonymous said...

I think the article invited us to think about two issues:

1) One was just whether or not people are able to appreciate/recognize beauty when encountered in unexpected places. Some of the commuters saw a guy in baseball cap and figured "low value." That's the issue you focus on.

2) The other issue was, are we so wrapped up in our routine that we're unable to take the time to appreciate the kinds of things we like. Are we robbing ourselves of some enjoyment by having the head-down-on-the-way-to-work attitude you describe. That's a legitimate question to ask, by the way.

The Deceiver said...

"The other issue was, are we so wrapped up in our routine that we're unable to take the time to appreciate the kinds of things we like. Are we robbing ourselves of some enjoyment by having the head-down-on-the-way-to-work attitude you describe. That's a legitimate question to ask, by the way."

It may be legitimate, but it's vacuous.

There's a huge difference between art that is appreciated in the ways we've come to know versus art that intrudes into our space at incongruous times. The violinist really doesn't have the right to expect his work will be as appreciated in a subway tunnel as it is in a concert hall. There's nothing wrong, mind you, with confrontational art. There's just something wrong with the premise that confrontational art DESERVES to elicit a reaction that excludes the confrontation.

What's more, I find the idea that people need to supercede their morning routine and stop and appreciate music in order to not be thought of as a rube as a crazy, elitist argument. Yes, sure...stop and smell those roses now and again, but if I want to spend my morning alone with my thoughts or my newspaper or my iPod, why should I be ashamed? The whole article is a false narrative. Cleverly written, and, I suppose this very blog entry proves it to be provocative, but a false narrative all the same--remember, THE ARTICLE'S AUDIENCE GETS TO LET THEMSELVES OFF THE HOOK: "Oh my," they say, "Those subway riders sure are coarse fellows," they are allowed to say, "NOT ME THOUGH!"

And if Weingarten's experiment had elicited the opposite response, you and I would have never known about it. I guarantee you, the article would have been spiked.

Audrey said...

Yes, indeedy! Here's my favorite line from the whole affair:

If we can't take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that -- then what else are we missing?

The best music ever written. Sigh. This statement assumes that classical music is some force that is equally moving to all people –- a snooty kind of prejudice, indeed. What if two of the best soccer teams in the world were playing in L’Enfant Plaza? If no one stopped to watch, would that indicate some vile deficit in the population?

Note: South America, Africa, and Europe would probably say "yes" here.

Amy said...

I disagree. Weingarten's point wasn't that Washingtonians are coarse troglodytes. I'd argue that it was his PREMISE that no, of course, most of us AREN'T going to recognize the beauty of the music or the skill of the artist in such a setting, wrapped up as we are in our daily grind. He lets us all off the hook with the discussion of context and framing, how setting and expectations really do matter. So the point of the experiment, then, is does ANYONE recognize the beauty and skill? And the amazing revelation, in my reading, is that, yes, some people do get it, including some pretty ordinary folks with some seriously untrained ears. Anyway, I found that incredibly touching; couldn't understand why so many readers took this as a slam against busy commuters or whatever.