What is beauty?

My friend Rosa Ojeda sent an intriguing email about a top violin musician playing at one of Washington’s subway stations and not being noticed. So I dug out a very nice piece from The Washington Post, Pearls Before Breakfast by Gene Weingarten, and discovered about a curious experiment. I’ll just share the basics here, the original article is much more enjoyable, if somehow long.

Weingarten, the WP journalist, devised an experiment to be performed by with one of the greatest living violinists, Joshua Bells.

So, we have Joshua Bells, one cold morning of January 2007, playing incognito in a Washington Metro station, with his violin case open on the ground to get the money passersby would give him. The question was: would beauty be recognized by hurrying and busy people?

Some had thought that it sure would: one music expert said Joshua would get over one hundred dollars and at least a small crowd would form.

Wrong. After 43 minutes of playing, performing six classical pieces, on a Stradivari of 1713 valued 3.5 million dollars, Bells collected just $32.17. 1,097 people passed by, and no crowd ever formed there. A couple of kids wanted to listen but their parents hurried them away. Did I say he began with Bach’s “Chaconne”, one of the most difficult violin pieces to master, considered by many one of humankind’s greatest achievement?

Gene Weingarten jokes:


Then he quotes Kant:

It’s an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?

Sure, context matters! Still, what joy is there in this people passing by and not even listening?

By the way, Weingarten reports a similar experiment was performed 20 years earlier by Bruce Springsteen playing incognito in the streets of Copenhagen… with similar results. (Watch the Video of Bruce Springsteen performing on street in Copenhagen)

About Antonio Vantaggiato

Professor, web2.0 enthusiast, and didactic chef.
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