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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

Some thoughts on those eyeglasses at San Francisco's MoMA

You may have seen this story circulating in social media, and the general mood of that has been as a humorous thing, mocking how easily people can be duped or the absurdities of modern art. But I think that misses the point of this story. I think there's actually something quite profound going on here.

I remember taking a philosophy of aesthetics course when I was in graduate school, and of course we spent a lot of time discussing that age-old question: What is Art? The question is something of a trap, because as soon as you try to define what it is (or isn't) you can find an example that confounds your definition. So does that mean there's no answer? That art can be anything? That something is art if I say it is?

In the end I came to the conclusion that the answer to that last question is...not quite. I came to understand something becomes art when it is contextualized as such. And that context in turn encourages us to think and find meaning. In the case of the eyeglasses "prank," the glasses became art when patrons saw it as art. And sure thing, as soon as they did that they began to search for meaning: what might eyeglasses on the floor symbolize? What do the eyeglasses themselves represent? What is the statement being made? And, as with most art, opinions varied from person to person; each individual brings their own perspectives, beliefs, and experiences to their evaluation of what the work might mean.

In short, as with so many things, context is everything.

As a classical musician, and one who thinks a lot about how to revitalize the traditional concert experience, I find that context is an often-neglected component of concert planning. Most classical music programming starts and finishes with the repertoire: what will be played and in what order. Usually (but not always) there is some thought given to how the pieces on the program go together; perhaps there is a unifying theme or an overall arc to the program. But if that's the extent of our consideration of context we've missed a huge piece of it. That's because thinking of context only in terms of repertoire assumes that everyone in the audience will experience the repertoire in the same way. But as the eyeglasses example shows, that's rarely the case.

Thinking about how we contextualize our performances beyond the repertoire can help us find a different way to address this challenge. Contextualization forces us to think about every aspect of the concert experience: the venue; the lighting; how patrons interact with each other, staff, and perhaps the artists; what happens before and after the performance; what other media (if any) is employed. Thinking about context is this much broader way will reveal ways in which to welcome and engage the attention of the that they can in turn find their own meaning for the music they're hearing. A concert is about so much more than just the music being played; rather than leaving that "much more" to chance or to the default of the "usual way," being intentional about how we contextualize the music we perform can transform the experience for the better.

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