Busker Blues

I’ve been thinking more about the Joshua Bell story and why it’s so uncomfortable to be the one person standing and listening to a street performer.

During the summer there was an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition where young country music star Miranda Lambert sang her #1 hit “The House That Built Me” to the people who had just received their dream house, mortgage-free. It’s a sentimental song, but she sings it with genuine emotion, and it’s a song that, if it catches you in the right mood, will leave you weeping.* These people sat on a couch watching her play the guitar and sing. They looked absolutely miserable. They had wept when they saw the house, wept again as they walked around it, but now they sat dry-eyed and looking like they couldn’t wait for the moment to end.

It was sooo uncomfortable. And I think I know why.

Art conveys emotion to its audience. When that art is something static, like a painting, we can absorb the feeling without self-consciousness. We know that it moves us, and we enjoy the experience because we have no expectations that the painting is watching us watching it or that the artist is nearby waiting for our reaction.

Performance art is different. When it’s you one-on-one with the performer, it feels like all of the emotion is directed at you alone. It feels personal, and that’s an intimacy that’s too intense to handle most of the time. You become self-conscious that the performer has expectations about a reaction from you, and you start to worry that you’re not conveying the correct one. That self-consciousness takes you out of the moment. I think we need a co-audience to deflect some of the emotion so that we can actually appreciate performance art.

I think if you re-did the Joshua Bell experiment and planted a small crowd in front of him you’d see a completely different reaction from passersby. I’m curious what y’all think.

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*This song always catches me in the right mood. It’s embarrassing, actually.

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