Applying Simmel’s theory of “Metropolis and Metropolitan Life,” brings to mind a 2007 sociological study based upon context, perceptions, and priorities published in the Washington Post (Weingarten 2007). Joshua Bell, a world famous violinist, posed as a street musician in a Washington, D.C. metro station to see if early morning commuters would stop and recognize the quality music, or continue on their way without noticing. As a result, almost everyone that morning walked by. Only a handful of people stopped to appreciate the music. Therefore, the Washington Post (Weingarten 2007) posed the epistemological question, “If a great musician plays great music, but no one hears, was he really any good?” The Washington Post used Kant in their analysis of the experiment, “To properly appreciate beauty, the viewing conditions must be optimal (Kant, as quoted by Weingarten 2007).” People did not stop to listen to Joshua Bell that morning because they were worried about getting to work on time. Many employers do not tolerate their employees being even a few minutes late. Workers in highly specialized division of labor, “become a mere cog in an enormous organization of things and powers which tear from his hands all progress, spirituality, and value in order to transform them from their subjective form into the form of purely objective life (Allan 2007, p. 125).” Thus, they develop a blasé attitude toward urban life.
However, I ask myself, would I have stopped and listened? I would like to say that I would have; however, I probably would not have. People in the United States are too often in a hurry. We are always in a rush to be on time; we must not be late. We keep moving, never stopping, and do we even think about what we might be missing? We must also keep in mind Kant’s quote about context, “the viewing conditions must be optimal (Kant, as quoted by Weingarten 2007)”. If you took a Picasso painting out of its frame from a famous museum, and put it in another cheaper frame and hung it in a coffee shop, would that painting receive the same appreciation; would it sell for the same price? The answer would probably be no because context matters. The location and setting of a Picasso painting in a coffee shop would have been confusing. Neither is a Washington, D.C. metro a context where you expect to see a world famous violinist performing as a street musician. In Kant’s analysis, the viewing conditions would not have been optimal. Many people do not pay attention to their surroundings if they are not prepped for it.
How would people from other major cities around the world have reacted; would they have reacted differently? Are there cultural characteristics that some societies have that will allow them to stop and enjoy the music?
Allan, K. (2007). The Social Lens: An Invitation to Social and Sociological Theory. California: Pine Forge Press.
Weingarten, G. 2007. Pearls Before Breakfast. Washington Post. (April 8, 2007). Retrieved from: http://washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/
AR2007040401721.html. Accessed: February 14, 2009.