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Who Cares About Classical Music?

05/31/2007 11:09 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A couple of months ago, The Washington Post staged what it called an "experiment in context, perception and priorities" by bringing the celebrated concert violinist Joshua Bell and his Stradivarius to play Bach in the D.C. Metro. The experiment, as the Post reporter Gene Weingarten wrote, was "an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?"

The answer, of course, was, "No." During the forty-five minutes of Bell's rush hour performance, only a few people stopped to listen, and the artist, who routinely sells out the world's great concert halls, earned precisely $32.17 for his efforts.

What does this experiment teach us? Multiple choice:

A. Most people are ignorant and have bad taste.
B. Most people are too stressed out to appreciate great art or, by extension, life.
C. People who respond to classical music are more sensitive and thoughtful than others.
D. Nothing.

I know those of us who genuinely like classical music secretly believe "A" is correct but are too thoughtful and sensitive to admit it. It's fairly apparent that the author of the article believes "B" and "C" are correct, since he's surprised, bemused, and saddened by the commuters' failure to listen, and he refers to the person who lingers longest as "the cultural hero of the day."

To his credit, Weingarten also considers "D." It's possible, he acknowledges, that outside the concert hall, before an audience preoccupied with jobs and errands, great art will go unnoticed, but that this failure tells us nothing about the art or the audience. But he quickly rejects this answer, because -- well, because then the experiment would dissolve.

No, the experiment assumes that great art is great art is great art. How could people not stop and listen when suddenly presented with "one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made?" It's only on the basis of this assumption that the failure to pay attention to the violinist in the subway is any kind of "failure." People ought to pay attention.

Now a trick question: who cares?

So what if Joshua Bell plays Bach in the subway and no one listens? Among the general population, what percentage listens to Joshua Bell or Bach in any context? Isn't this whole stunt just an elaborate proof of what we already know: that some people respond to classical music, while most people don't? Even worse: Isn't it just a self-congratulatory ruse for the small minority of people who like classical music to feel better, smarter, more sensitive and thoughtful than others by demonstrating that they know something others don't know? And while feeling better and smarter, we can also feel pleasantly horrified at the sad, sad state of our culture, where Bach -- Bach! -- is ignored or placed on a level with those awful folk singers who can't even tune their instruments.

The title of the article -- "Pearls Before Breakfast" -- says as much: Playing Bach for commuters is like throwing pearls before swine.

So what does the experiment teach us?

E. People who stage stunts like this are self-satisfied elitist snobs.

I said it was a trick question.

Here's the trick: I care. I agree with Weingarten that it's a shame most people don't appreciate classical music and that Joshua Bell played for almost an hour and barely earned four times the minimum wage. If people walk by and fail to distinguish him and his Stradivarius from any old street musician, we have a right to feel sad that a performer as wonderful as Bell and music as emotionally powerful and culturally significant as Bach do not command the attention and respect of all who come within earshot.

But they don't, and never have. Bach wrote the Chaconne in 1720 while Kapellmeister for Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen. It is court music. It never had anything to do with popular taste, and the fact that it is an unparalleled achievement of creative genius hardly speaks for its "universality." Classical music has always been the taste of the minority, usually a highly privileged minority. What makes the members of this minority believe that their tastes are -- or ought to be -- popular, or that the failure to appreciate them is equivalent to a failure to appreciate life?

I wish I'd heard Joshua Bell in the subway. In fact, I wish he'd give more free concerts in all sorts of public venues. But to expect people to listen or to care just because I do is simple narcissism. In any field other than art, it would be considered doctrinaire or naïve. In politics, it would be called ideological or worse. It prevents you from understanding the thing you are ostensibly "assessing." And this is what happens here: as a thousand people pass by this man with the violin, the writer concludes, "He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts." But I'm pretty sure they're real, too. They just don't care about violinists.

So what, finally, does this experiment teach us? I'd answer:

F. There's no such thing as "an unblinking assessment of public taste."