In 2007, world renowned violinist Joshua Bell set up shop in a Washington
DC subway station and played. A video of it went viral. It was part of a social experiment for an article in the Washington Post to see if people could, or would, recognize artistic excellence in their midst. As you might imagine, few people even acknowledged him.
In the fall of 2013, British street artist Banksy set up a stall in New York’s Central Park, selling signed prints of his work for $60 under a sign that read “Spray Art.” Some of the pieces sold there are estimated to be worth over $170,000.
What if you later found out that the violinist you heard peripherally along your commute, or the stall of spray art you disregarded as knock-offs was actually a world famous performer playing a multi-million dollar Stradivari violin, or one of the most elusively famed street artists in the world? Would you think you missed out? Would you regret not stopping even for a moment? Would you feel cheated out of the experience because of the lack of pomp and circumstance surrounding their art?
Buskers, or street performers, are still common in cities and tourist areas around the US, and like the Klezmers of Gershwin’s roots, we, as audience members, place a monetary value on their performance; we toss some change, maybe a dollar or two into their hat, or cup, or instrument case. American capitalism would remind us that the market dictates the value we place on things like art, and I’m sure you could apply concepts like supply and demand, but for art and artists, this monetary value is largely arbitrary. For example, tickets to Hamilton on Broadway (currently the hottest ticket on Broadway) are going for anywhere between $600 – $1,100 a piece. A busker out in front of the Xcel Center during a Wild game would likely make a fraction of a dollar per person who happens to catch a part of their performance on the way to wherever they may be going. But for argument’s sake let’s round up. With due respect to the cast, crew, and producers of Hamilton, is their work 600 times more valuable than the buskers? Some might say yes, some might say no. Some of the aforementioned capitalists would also say that Banksy is crazy to be willing to part with his work for $60 when he could make as much as $169,940 more. This is, of course, ignoring the fact that at the level of Hamilton or Banksy these prices are often not set by the artists themselves; there are producers, art dealers, and scores of others who stand to make a cut of the money that comes in. On the other hand, the busker cuts out the proverbial middle man and gets to keep all the money dropped in his or her hat/cup/case, no matter how little it may be.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, I’m sure many of us out there have paid a pretty penny for performances that, as we left the ornate halls, theaters, and auditoriums, we thought to ourselves “well, that wasn’t worth it.”
But if we are able to separate the ideas of value and cost, then perhaps we will begin to place a different value on the art in our communities. Perhaps we can cultivate a greater appreciation of those who, like Gershwin, play in the cafes, bars, and on street corners. And whether or not they practice enough to get to Carnegie Hall, we can expand our view of where great art happens. It’s not just in the dimmed houses where we sit silently, surrounded by other silent, nicely dressed art lovers who set aside time and money to consume art. It may very well be in the most unlikely of places, and if we’re not paying attention, we might miss it.