You Probably Don’t Know How to Appreciate Art

On learning to recognize value no matter where we see it.

There’s a famous social experiment, in which a very, very talented violinist, using a very, very expensive violin, sat on a subway platform in Washington. For 45 minutes, he played to an uncaring audience of travelers. Of the 1097 people who stopped, 27 gave him money — only seven stopped to listen for any actual length of time.

“These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls. “ — Gene Weingarten, Washinton Post columnist, on the music Joshua Bell played.

This same violinist can command whatever prices he wants and play to a sold-out concert stage. So how come, stripped of his fancy outfit and impressive arena, playing for free, did people treat him the same way you’d treat any other moderately talented busker?

He made slightly more than half of the price of one of the seats at the Symphony Hall he’d filled just three days earlier.

We don’t recognize quality unless we’re in the right frame of mind.

Think about the last time you took public transport, probably for a commute. You were hurried, maybe you had headphones in. You were trying your best not to deal with or notice any of the other travelers. If anyone asked for money, most people turn a blind eye.

Compare that to when you go to an art gallery. You’re leisurely choosing to enter a fine establishment. Perhaps you pay money for the entrance. Each piece of art is exhibited with name and creator. People are silently and importantly looking around, absorbing the culture. You might see a particular painting, framed and in its own spotlight, and marvel at the skill of the master.

At art galleries, fancy restaurants, museums, fashion shows, we’ve been told — by the posh surroundings, richly-dressed people, by the placards at the door — that what we’re looking at is very, very valuable. It’s worth our attention. And we react accordingly.

When we’re not informed, we prioritize the run-of-the-mill aspects that make up our day: a faster commute, an easier journey. Our eyes aren’t open to quality because we’re not looking for it. And if we saw it, we wouldn’t recognize it unless we were told ahead of time.

Imagine if that same piece of art hadn’t been in the museum at all, but rather in someone’s home, or a hotel, unframed and unnamed. Most people wouldn’t notice at all.

Humans assign value almost at random.

If you tell someone a wine is worth a lot, they tend to say it tasted better.

There’s the myth that because something is more expensive, it’s worth more. Sometimes this makes sense — you pay more for better materials of clothes, higher quality of instructor, fancier ingredients.

Photo by Caroline Attwood on Unsplash

The problem comes when we extrapolate this mentality. It happens when people force themselves to like something because they’ve already spent money on it — see the sunk cost fallacy, or throwing good money out after bad.

But it can also go the other way. See, if we think expensive things are better, then what do we think free things are worth? If more money means more quality, then what does it mean when something costs you no money at all?

Suddenly, you’re not paying for a wonderful aural pleasure. You’re instead doing a favor to a busker who should get a real job.

Suddenly, Joshua Bell, internationally-acclaimed violinist, simply by virtue of not asking for money, was worth no money.

Suddenly, with just a change of outfit and scenery, a 3.5 million dollar Stradivarius violin is exactly as common as the scruffy man playing it.

What this means is we’re bad at recognizing quality unless we’re told it’s quality. But we can get better.

Don’t pay attention to the opinions of others.

Immanuel Kant said that recognizing beauty is a mix of fact, opinion, both mediated by the immediate state of mind of the observer.

As a very social species, our opinions are heavily influenced by what’s popular — specifically, what other people say is popular. When you hear on the radio or read in a book, that this person’s thoughts are valuable, or that this song is truly incredible, we give it more consideration, and we’re more likely to be impressed.

This is why we think expensive things are better — an expensive price tag, to our minds, means someone else, someone really smart and well-versed in wine-tasting or art curation or sculpting saw fit to assign a high value — and who are we to argue?

As soon as something has this external stamp of approval, it gains this intangible quality that makes us more likely to find it quantifiably good.

To learn to recognize value or beauty, try to cultivate the skill of ignoring others’ opinions. If someone says wine is good, take it under consideration but don’t let it decide you. If someone hates a particular artist, don’t automatically assume they’re awful.

Make a conscious choice to clear your own mind of external influence, and decide for yourself whether it’s good. There’s no right answer, but there’s an answer that’s yours.

Be ready to see magic.

One of the unusual things about Bell’s performance was that every child who passed him that day strained to stop and listen to him. Every child was fascinated by the music, desperate to get closer.

I believe that as we get older, we become jaded. It’s hardly a revolutionary thought, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about more, especially in relation to appreciating beauty.

When I was younger, I used to believe that there were fairies in the flower garden. I’d carefully go out and look, convinced that I was unable to surprise them and that was the only possible reason I never found them. They heard me coming, and they’d disappear.

As an adult, I don’t look for fairies, because it’s ridiculous and they clearly don’t exist. But I’ve found that along with my willingness to believe in fairies, my willingness to appreciate unexpected magic has decreased as well. I think that if I’d been on that metro that day, I too would have walked right past without stopping.

If you truly want to start appreciating and noticing beauty everywhere you look, you first have to be open to the possibility that it exists. Believe that an award-winning musician might be a busker. Believe that the cheap wine is actually a priceless vintage.

Believe that the unexpected magic in life is real. Let go of your cynicism and start seeing the world clearly as a beautiful place, filled with beautiful things, because right now? You’re missing out.

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