To each his own

The affluent class has patronised the arts through history, perhaps more to differentiate their class rather than their deeper understanding, which has, forever, alluded the commoners

To each his own

Time out from the hum drums of political and economic intrigue. Below is a rather longish message, which was being circulated on Whatsapp and, unfortunately, since I am not aware of the author, due credit to the anonymous person, who made this effort. Albeit I have always wondered who has the time and the wherewithal to originate content on the social media, especially the humour, which, at times, is refreshingly laughable. Personally, even forwarding content on WhatsApp is a humongous effort in terms of time; kudos to them all for providing entertainment to the world at large free of cost. Anyway, for the sake of better understanding, the entire post is reproduced below verbatim, with slight punctuation changes; I also checked with Google and by and large, this happened:

In Washington D.C., at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning, in 2007, a man with a violin played six bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After about 3 minutes, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to meet his schedule.

About 4 minutes later, the violinist received his first dollar. A woman threw money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk. At 6 minutes: a young man leant against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again. At 10 minutes: a 3-year-old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head the whole time. This action was repeated by several other children, but every parent — without exception — forced their children to move on quickly. At 45 minutes: the musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32. After 1 hour: he finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed and no one applauded. There was no recognition at all.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold-out a theatre in Boston where the seats averaged $100 each to sit and listen to him play the same music. This is a true story. Joshua Bell, playing incognito in the DC Metro Station, was organised by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities.

This experiment has raised several questions: do we perceive beauty in a common-place environment; at an inappropriate hour? If so, do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognise talent in an unexpected context? One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this; if we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made, how many other things are we missing as we rush through life?

Okay, at the outset, I must confess my ignorance. Before this WhatsApp message, I had no idea who Joshua Bell was, and if I had come across him playing at a metro station I would also have kept on walking which has nothing to do with my ear for music. The key word in the above message is an inappropriate hour; while going through the metro station you are in the middle of going from one point to the other, hardly the time to stop and appreciate music. Frankly, even if perchance I came across a famous musician I did recognise, playing at a metro station, I might still have kept on walking wondering whether he had gone nuts or something. Life is all about priorities, and in this busy world, only the affluent class are idle enough to pursue art, those striving to make ends meet have better things to do. On a separate note I would like to advise Bell that if he does conduct a similar experiment in the developing world, it would be sensible not to advertise that the violin is worth USD 3.5 million!

Frankly, not that I am not a lover of music, albeit the commercial kind, intricate music would probably go over my head. How many of us have kept nodding our heads while a certain class of friends kept harping on about Ludwig and Wolfgang during a social tête-à-tête, while all the time we remained absolutely confident that these pseudo were as clueless as us about intricate pieces of music?

On the parallel level, most of us have probably never figured out what Pulitzer, Booker, Newbery and the rest look at when they dish out awards in literature. I always figured that I could not appreciate classic literature, as much as most claim too since I lacked the firsthand experience of that era. However, the fact that modern literature is a bigger challenge is rather embarrassing; and I have tried. Even lately, determined to overcome this particular shortcoming, I read through, page for page, a couple of publications by Pulitzer prize-winning authors. In the case of “Drown” by Junot Diaz, I just could not figure out what was riveting about a story relating to a boy originating from the Dominican Republic. In the case of “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy I fared worse, I gave up somewhere in the middle; why had the book been acclaimed as a masterpiece is beyond my realm of imagination. While at it, I might also confess that the best I achieved with “War & Peace” was a 100 pages; I have a theory that no one has actually read Tolstoy’s masterpiece end to end and therefore it’s easy for everyone to nod heads while discussing it. On the other hand I am a fan of Robert Ludlum and generally enjoyed the Clifton Chronicles authored by Jeffery Archer.

And there remains more of me than them! The affluent class has through history patronised the arts, perhaps more to do with differentiating their class rather than a deeper understanding, which has forever alluded the commoners. However in recent times, perhaps art has met its most formidable challenge, technology powered by the market economy. To venture a guess within a few generations, the definition of what is art might even change radically; if Deep Blue can beat Kasparov in chess and DeepMind Al can beat the top ranked human in the game of GO, why won’t Deep something or the other, top the charts, or win the Pulitzer, in the near future? And it is simpler to listen to music on your smartphone passing through the metro station than stop and listen to a guy playing the violin.

This is a different world. Technology has changed our habits and our tastes. Even today, some of us are lured more towards commercial music, which the critics categorise as junk, compared to a magnificent performance by a violinist. Before the market economy delivers the fatal blow, perhaps for those who understand and enjoy great music and prize-winning literature, it would be worthwhile to stop and listen, whilst they have a chance. After all as far as music and literature go, to each his own!


The writer is a chartered accountant based in Islamabad and can be reached at