Validation and the courage to keep going

Jazz musician Bill McGee posted this on Facebook recently. I picked it up from a friend’s feed. Feel free to skip ahead if you’ve seen this article already; discussion after the jump.

Bill McGee THE SITUATION – In Washington, DC, at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, this 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 leaned 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 theater 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 D.C. Metro Station, was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities.

This experiment raised several questions:

*In a common-place environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?

*If so, do we stop to appreciate it?

*Do we recognize 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?
(Thanks Gregory Branch for forwarding this to me – I understand THIS!)

The point Mr. McGee and his friend Gregory are making has to do with our ability to stop and appreciate beauty; a very important point, and well made here. But because of my preoccupation with the other side of the equation that is art, the creation and the creators, I received a different set of insights:

How much of the appreciation an artist or a work receives depends on his or its perceived importance? The argument can be made that nobody paid much attention to Mr. Bell because they had to get to their trains: fair enough. But if we map this situation onto a writer and a book being offered in a crowded marketplace (which, being a writer and a publisher, I must do), then I see a similar-but-not-identical conflict: competition for attention.

An even bazillion books were published last year. Yes, that’s a fact: oh, look up the numbers if you must, but the salient point is that more books were published, in terms of titles brought to market (rather than number of physical books printed) than ever before. (And for all I know last year was the peak of number of books as well; I haven’t checked.) In addition to those who Made It, a conservative bazillionty-bazillion aspiring writers tried to Break On Through To The Pro Side last year, too. Everyone’s got a book in them, it seems, and the surgeons can’t get to them all.

How many of these books are inspiring, moving, even just entertaining? How many of these writers should be household names but aren’t? We’ll never know; there is simply not enough attention in the world for all of them to get notice from someone besides their own mothers.

The issue of how to create audience attention has been a mystery since Eris rolled that apple into the Cocktail of the Gods (which is kinda like Valhalla, only better dressed and with canapes). I don’t propose to solve it here: I can’t. All those gods know that if I had the secret, every book I published would be a best-seller, every author I worked with a household name.

But here’s what I do know: an artist or a work that can’t get enough attention is not necessarily undeserving of our respect. As the number of artists and works of art mushrooms (and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, I suspect) it will fall to each of us as potential audience members to spot the Wonderful for ourselves. And it will fall to each of us as artists to remember that recognition does not necessarily equal worth, and to do our own art for our own reasons.

I understand Mr. Bell Doesn’t Want To Talk About This Anymore. Maybe I can guess some of the reasons why, maybe I can’t. I do know how difficult it is to labor in obscurity, to receive the impression that no one cares about one’s work. Worse, it’s all too easy for us to assume that just because something hasn’t crossed our radar before, or isn’t appearing in a fashion or venue that leads us to believe it’s Important, it isn’t worthy of our respect.

If you don’t receive the validation you need for the art you do, how do you manage to carry on? Will you manage to carry on? So often that is what separates those who finally get recognition from those who don’t: perseverance and the courage of their own convictions. Sometimes it seems the world is just testing us to see how badly we want it.

Illegitimi non carborundum, my pretties. Figure out what your art means to you, and pursue your goals accordingly.

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