NPR recently teamed up with the TED people to present the TED Radio Hour which takes three TED talks on a similar theme to revisits them with the speakers. The one I heard run this weekend was about how our brains trick us and confuse us about what we value. It was the second segment with psychologist Paul Bloom which caught my attention because it deal with how so much of what we value about art depends on the context.
It started with the story about Joshua Bell playing in the subway station and no one paying him much mind or money, for that matter. When I talked about this experiment before, I mentioned that context and the environment played large roles in people’s enjoyment.
Bloom talked about the Dutch art dealer who was convicted of treason for selling Hermann Goring a Vermeer–until he confessed and proved the painting was a forgery–after which he was deemed a hero.
Bloom also spoke about Marla Olmstead who was painting works at 3 years old that people were paying tens of thousands of dollars for until 60 Minutes came to visit and it was discovered her father was prompting (and perhaps even helping) with the painting.
A common question was raised about each of these. If Joshua Bell is such a great performer which people pay great amounts of money to hear perform, why wasn’t his quality recognized as an anonymous performer in a D.C. subway? Why is it treasonous to sell a Nazi a real Vermeer but heroic to sell him a fake if you can’t tell the difference between the paintings? If you like the painting, why does it matter if a 3 year old or a 30 year old paints it?
The answer has to do with authenticity, the story which accompanies the experience and a willingness to receive. Classical music doesn’t have to be experienced in a formal performance hall or art in a museum gallery. There are successful programs that bring classical music and opera to bars.
But people go to those events expecting to listen to music. There are entirely different expectations and agendas as you move through a subway station which inhibits a person’s readiness to receive the experience.
Art like wine and food is more enjoyable and valuable when the authenticity of provenance is beyond question. You are buying the story as well as the physical object and that makes all the difference. According to Bloom, there are parts of the brain that light up when you believe you are drinking expensive wine that don’t light up when you believe you are drinking cheap wine even if it is the same wine. So it isn’t that you think it is better, you are actually having an entirely different experience.
The lesson for arts organizations and performers is to help your audience to that mindset. Whether you are in a formal performance space or not, there are things you must do in respect to the environment and interactions to help transition people toward the experience.
You could argue that flashmob performances don’t do that with their audiences and they are often well received. But I would say it isn’t the quality of the performance that people are necessarily responding to but the quality of the planning and execution that brought them the experience.
It is akin to crossing a stream and finding a diamond ring in the water. It is the enjoyment of finding an unexpected treasure that pleases. I think you would find people react just as delighted if an accomplished high school orchestra popped out of the woodwork as they would for the Philadelphia Orchestra revealing themselves in the same manner.
What I really appreciated was Bloom’s late addendum to his TED Talk. In the radio program he said the thing he didn’t emphasize enough in his TED Talk, and was pleased to be able to now, was that most people see it as a glitch or flaw that our perceptions and values can be manipulated by such factors. If we were perfect, these things wouldn’t sway us so easily.
Bloom’s view is that this “flexibility” actually allows us to experience more pleasure in life. He feels that taste can be developed through study and learning. The more you know, the more pleasure you can derive. So if you want to get more pleasure from wine or art, you need to do more than just expose yourself by drinking lots of wine and seeing lots of art, you need intentionally educate yourself.
That seems to align with the findings of the Knight Foundation’s Magic of Music report from six years ago which said exposure in the form of lecture/demos didn’t seem to have as long lasting impact on participation and attendance as participatory programs including instruction.
This, of course, reinforces the importance and sense of desperation to get art back into schools.