By Ramona Pando Whitaker
Are people really “unprepared to encounter beauty,” as a syndicated op-ed columnist once contended in these pages? He was describing the “indifference” of early morning commuters to a performance by the well-known violin virtuoso Joshua Bell in the bowels of the D.C. subway. The young Bell, dressed casually and wearing a baseball cap, was both “ignored” and “rewarded” with a few coins tossed into his violin case.
If people are unprepared to embrace beauty, how else can we explain endless pilgrimages to beautiful, world-renowned attractions like the Taj Mahal or the Alhambra? Or cities like Paris or Venice? Or the Grand Canyon, our national parks or Niagara Falls? How else to explain the trek to a beach in anticipation of a magical sunset, detouring into an overlook to capture a spectacular vista, roaming museums and art galleries, or marveling at the beauty of gardens during Garden Walk or Buffalo’s great architecture?
More likely, we don’t know or are unsure how to respond to the beauty we see or hear, beyond using our camera. Awed, we often respond in silence. Perhaps, too, the venue matters.
I joyfully remember years ago when a group of us Arabic language students climbed Mount Sinai in the middle of the night to reach the summit by dawn to watch the sunrise. In that darkened wilderness as we trudged the serpentine path, in awed silence, we were loathe to take our eyes off the dazzling canopy of stars – many of them shooting across the sky. But at dawn, as the most enormous brilliant orange globe any of us had ever seen rose above thick haze at the horizon, we greeted it with cacophonous cheers, raucous applause and the repeated clicking of cameras. The two vastly different responses to beauty just felt appropriate.
No doubt many of those “indifferent” commuters wanted to linger, but “Sorry I’m late, Boss, but this guy playing the violin in the subway was really fantastic; I had to stay and listen” probably wouldn’t have cut it. I’d also wager that many a commuter told co-workers about the unusually beautiful music they’d briefly encountered that morning, while strains of it hummed through their head all day.
Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera manager, has said that people are unsure of whether to applaud after an aria or at the end of a concert movement. Except for a few perhaps embarrassed mavericks who applaud when others don’t, the protocol today is silence between movements, though Gelb says that wasn’t always so. Meanwhile, riffing jazz musicians are wildly cheered after their solo even while their peers continue to play.
Any number of times at the movies I’ve wanted to applaud a star performance, a great story or the whole wonderful cinematic experience. But when did you last hear applause in a movie theater? Perhaps it happens at film festivals, but I’ve never attended, so can’t know with certainty. I’ve read of show-stopping performances on Broadway, but the only applause for stage performances I’ve seen occurred at final curtain.
In this era of coarsened sensibilities, when singing has become screaming and volume seems a measure of appreciation, TV audiences, pop concertgoers and sport spectators are cued to scream their appreciation of everything: good, bad and greedy. That lack of spontaneity and sincerity diminishes both performance and response.
Thus, a quiet thank you or contemplative silence – accompanied by a nod, a smile and, yes, even a decent contribution dropped into an instrument case – is sometimes a better, more meaningful, way to register appreciation for the beauty in our lives.