Most people tend to rate art on a “beauty scale.” But beauty is, and always will be, in the eye, ears, nose, mouth, hands, and brains of the beholder. A decision about beauty or lack of beauty in a particular work of art is instinctive and natural. In fact, you probably won’t even have to make that decision; you’ll either be captivated by a piece of art or you won’t.
Art critics, however, operate on a different level. They are not interested in mere beauty but also in characteristics like shapes, patterns, symmetry, colors, textures, composition, proportions, presentation, framing, inherent meaning, uniqueness, fulfilled intent, and skill of the artist. These are attributes that contribute to the overall “beauty” of a work of art, but there is more to the evaluation of art than meets the eye. The appreciation of a work (this applies to non-visual art forms, as well) is also influenced by the setting in which it is presented to an audience.
This became clear through an experiment conducted by the Washington Post in 2007. On a cold January morning, in a Washington, DC metro station, a man with a violin played six pieces by Bach (Johann Sebastian, not James Marcus). This lasted for about forty-five minutes. During that time, approximately 2,000 people went by, most of them on their way to work. The man played continuously. Six people stopped and listened for a short while. Twenty people gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. Only one person recognized the musician, and she couldn’t believe her eyes and ears.
Here’s the catch: That violin player wasn’t just an anonymous street busker. He was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest violin players in the world. That morning, he was playing the “Chaconne,” one of the most intricate pieces of music ever written, on a 300-year-old Stradivarius violin with an estimated worth of $3.5 million. He collected a total of $32 dollars. The night prior, he earned considerably more playing the same repertoire at the Boston Symphony Hall, where regular seats went for $100.
This experiment addressed some interesting questions:
- If we’re confronted with beauty in a commonplace environment and at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive it? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?
- What is beauty, really? Is it a measurable fact or merely an opinion—or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer?
- If a great musician plays great music that no one is hearing, is he any good? This is an old epistemological debate that continues to engage philosophers.
Each passerby had a quick choice to make: Do I stop and listen? Do I hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, heading for that first office coffee? Do I cough up some cash, just to be polite? Does it make a difference if the player is really bad? What if he's really good?
Lots of people didn’t bother to listen that January morning. Does that mean we should label all those commuters as unsophisticated yahoos? No, because when it comes to beauty, context matters.
The 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who took beauty seriously, said the same thing in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (1790). He argued that one's ability to appreciate beauty is related to one's ability to make moral judgments. Furthermore, to properly appreciate beauty, the viewing conditions must be optimal—and "optimal" doesn't mean heading to work, focusing on that report to the boss, or fetching the kids from school in time.
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