Where the Beauty Is (or Isn’t)

A few years ago Joshua Bell, a Grammy award-winning world class violinist, played a brief concert in a Washington DC subway for 43 minutes and made $32.17 in donations.

He usually makes around $1,000 per minute.

The Washington Post conducted the experiment. A short excerpt from the full article:

“His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

The 43 minute concert, played on Bell’s $3.5 million dollar Stradivarius, was captured on video…


After reading The Washington Post story and viewing the video, my takeaway is this: I will slow down everyday to see at least one beautiful thing… and enjoy it.

I will also create meaningful works which carry beauty, inspiration and joy to those that take the time to stop.

What’s your takeaway from the Joshua Bell story?

(read the full Washington Post story)

Author: Andrew Zahn

I'm a son, husband, dad, business owner, actor and good sleeper/eater. On this blog, I pave a highway for creative growth by providing food, water, and shelter for those wishing to live, work, and play with creative zest.

  • Diane Zahn

    Amazing that only one (perhaps two) people stopped to embrace the beauty. I have been grabbing those moments more-perhaps that is why birds, flowers, clouds, laughter and precious children are my gifts of late. I am becoming INTENTIONAL to see it all as a treasure and water to quench the thirst of my soul. Thanks, ADZ


  • Daryl

    Most people seem chagrined at the obvious inability in our culture to enjoy aesthetic beauty. This experiment raises a lot of other interesting questions for me:

    1. What does this say about the difference between good art and great art?
    2. Is art really about skill and talent? Is virtuosity overrated?
    3. What kinds of musical performance might have enticed people to stop and listen?
    4. What is the difference between art for ambience (aesthetics) and art for entertainment (exciting social event)? Should art be both?
    5. How important is the time and space for appreciating art?
    6. Why can a couple kids with violins and hula hoops busk in downtown Lancaster and pocket $80 and Joshua Bell can’t get $40 in NYC?
    7. Why do we have this dichotomy of artist and non-artist in our culture? It is not this way in many other countries. In fact, in many cultures, music and dancing are the same thing, and it is to be experienced with the whole body, not simply consumed.
    8. Has the ability to record and reproduce art over-saturated our lives with great art, such that we are numb to the effects?
    9. Sensationalism often seems over-the-top these days, but doesn’t the best art grab our attention, temporarily remove us from the bustle of life, and help us see things in new ways?

    I’ve thought a lot about these things since I first saw this story. I’ve done a little busking and some of my coffee shop gigs have not felt much different. At the time, I was exploring how it felt for me to play in public and make myself completely vulnerable… and how people responded. In my graduate studies, I’m learning that, throughout human history, art has been a vehicle for transformation as much as a ritual for social unity, and often both. Art is how we adapt our selves and our culture to the realities we experience.

    Geesh, sorry to blog within your blog comments, Andrew! I’m curious what others here think about these questions.

    • Andrew Zahn

      Daryl–the questions you raise are fantastic discussion starters! (and please, feel free to ‘blog within a blog anytime)

      I love performances. I love it all. But some styles lend themselves to different platforms.

      I love street performers. Magicians, jugglers etc. I saw a guy in Seattle do a show with a rubik’s cube that was astounding. I stood mesmerized. Read: I love what some would deem as cheap and flashy entertainment. I’d pay for that too.

      Perhaps I’m not creative enough to think outside the box to realize a virtuoso who’s NOT juggling in the subway? Maybe we’re so conditioned to what ‘high art’ is vs the ‘low brow’ stuff?

      I’m not sure I would’ve stopped either… but I know I’ll think twice now.

  • I couldn’t agree more. When I read that article the other day, I was immediately convicted. How many times have I walked past street musicians? How many times have I been too rushed to see the beauty of a moment? The happiest people take time to absorb beauty. And it’s everywhere in this world.

    Great post.

  • Oh my goodness. I was going to drop in quickly to put in my two cents but then I got absorbed in Daryl’s incredibly meaty questions. Thank you, Andrew and Daryl, for making us think about these things. They are important.

    Now I feel in danger of being flippant, but here’s what went through my mind about the Joshua Bell story.
    1) The intersection of what your soul is moved to create and what the world responds to is the rare sweet spot. Same principle applies to art as to business (if you run your business with your heart and soul, anyway).
    2) Money coming in cannot be taken as the be-all and end-all reflection of your art’s worth.
    3) Conversely, price your art higher if you want its perceived value to be higher. Give it away for free only if you’ve already established its value, so that people who receive know to appreciate it. Sure, Joshua Bell already established his artist’s value, but not in that particular anonymous instance. Which is great, as an experiment that we all learned from.
    4) There really is such a thing as lowbrow and highbrow art. Alas. Wish it weren’t so, but it’s so. So know your venue/target audience if you want to reach into the souls of as many people as you can in your 43-minute timespan.

  • Pingback: Aesthetics, Entertainment & Transformation | singbiosis()

  • Jim

    1. Platform matters. (People give money/applause/attention to hear this same artist in the concert hall, but won’t listen for free to the same performance in another venue. The only thing that changed was the platform in this experiment. I do wonder if another factor is that this is a different audience; that might need to be considered as well.)

    2. Perception skews everything. (Remember many extremely influential artists from Van Gogh to Poe were often in poverty and didn’t become famous until after death.)

    3. Money does not equal real success. (We ALL need to tell ourselves this, over and over and over. Everyday. Unless all you live for is $$.)

    • Jim

      Confession- I don’t intentionally listen to classical music unless I force myself to listen to it, as a kid is forced to eat their vegetables. I would have walked by like many others did. But if I took my wife to the symphony and heard this performance, I would have been clapping as well.

      This almost is a study of how masses of people act together versus each individual walking by.

  • I think what we see is that we take so much around us for granted. We have a community center where a lot of amateur Bluegrass musicians play weekly. People throw in $5 or $10 a week to just hang out and listen. If a famous group showed up, would people throw in more? I doubt it. They would rather pay a cheap rate for decent music than top dollar for top notch talent.

  • I read this story a few days ago and it blew me away. Personally it shows the importance of being more observant. I have been reading Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and it has been helping a lot.

  • Diane Zahn

    Fantastic, your right, we’ve allowed ourselves to be directed to pursue empty stuff that does the heart and soul no good.

  • Slowing down requires intentionality and focus. Put another way, “them as seeks, finds.” There is a correlation here between noticing beauty and seeing God. We are trained to disregard the numinous, and deny the transcendent.

    Why is this?