A word on Joshua Bell and the Washington Post

I’d like to take a stab at this one.

The article is written in a breathless style, full of affected shock and dismay and artificial, strained drama. It’s predictable nonsense that follows the same template as every other cultural critic: people today are morons; everything was better in the past; the world is going down the tubes. Just look at the followup interview that the author, Gene Weingarten, did on the piece:

One of his points is that if you look at a telephone manufactured in, say, 1935, it is a work of art. It could be a museum piece. Today, phones are dreadfully ugly utilitarian things. Same thing with brooms from the 19th century. Beauty used to matter, even in the banal.

The fact that beautiful brooms existed in the 19th century does not imply that all brooms were beautiful then (they weren’t) or that there aren’t beautiful brooms today (I’m sure there are). Utility has always mattered to people who cannot afford to pay a premium for (for example) a beautiful broom, and stating that all phones “today” are “dreadfully ugly” is patently ridiculous. People remember and preserve the beautiful and forget the ugly, and this myopia leads inevitably to the conclusion that things are getting worse.

This has been true for as long as people have been recording their history, and is a feeling shared by social conservatives at every place and in every era. Humanity has done nothing except grow richer, freer, less violent, and longer-lived (despite periodic catastrophes), and people still find a way to complain about progress.

News flash: busy people at a subway station that normally bans live performance ignored a busker. Shocking: art appreciation relies on context and popularity. Dear lord.

And you thought you knew a tea

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