Earlier this year, I read an article about Joshua Bell, a violinist who played at a Washington D.C. subway station during the morning rush hour. Unlike most buskers, this musician was one of the most accomplished virtuosos in the world. Three nights before, Joshua Bell played in Boston’s Symphony Hall for patrons who paid over $100 a ticket. And the instrument he played? A violin from 1713, handcrafted by Antonio Stradivari, that cost Bell $3.5 million.
You would expect that one of the best musicians on the planet to garner some attention. But during his 43 minutes of playing time, only seven people stopped to listen, and he earned a total of $32.17.
This experiment, the brainchild of The Washington Post, raises all sorts of questions, including: Can we appreciate beauty in unfamiliar settings? Are we able to recognize talent without signposts? And how do we know when we are in the presence of true art? Banksy must have considered these questions last weekend, when he set up a vendor stall in New York’s Central Park.
You may be wondering, “Who is Banksy?” But like Joshua Bell in symphonic circles, Banksy, in the art world, is a household name. We don’t know his real name, but Banksy is an English artist, who has literally taken contemporary art to the streets. Yes, he’s a graffiti artist, whose primary tools are spray-paint and unsuspecting walls. Banksy is known for painting socially conscious and politically poignant images, mostly with dark and satirical undertones. And while his art can be viewed for free in various locations around the world, his original stenciled prints have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
So when Banksy set up a stall in Central Park to sell 25 pieces of original art for only $60 a piece, you would expect that at least one or two people would have gobbled up his signed works, particularly in such an art conscious city. Instead, he sold only eight pieces for a total of $240 (one woman bought two works, but she haggled the vendor down to half price).
Like Joshua Bell’s musicianship, people either did not appreciate Banksy’s art, or it was passed off as fake. Either way, these experiments force us to consider some unsettling ideas: that our opinions are not our own, that circumstances may be more important than talent, and that everyday things we take for granted, may be more beautiful and valuable than we ever considered.
P.S. When you stand on the Northeast corner of Columbus and Broadway in San Francisco, look toward the Transamerica Pyramid, and you will see this original Banksy: