The English Learners' Blog

A blog for English learners and their teachers everywhere, initiated in 2010 with the contribution of students from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. More about me on the On-line Profile below. Welcome!

Conversation Topic: Art

1.      What is art? Do you know any definitions of art?

 Comment on the two quotes from Brâncuși, the Romanian sculptor called the patriarch of Modern Sculpture, below.

'Sleeping Muse', bronze sculpture by Constantin Brancusi

“Art is the creation of what you don’t know.” 

“There are no foreigners in art.”

                                              (Constantin Brâncuși)

2.      Is it easy to recognize art? 

Read this fragment from the article Pearls before Breakfast by Gene Weingarten, then answer and discuss the questions posed in the second and third paragraph.

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, 2007, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as a violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L’Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats.

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you?

On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the violin player standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?

Here are more questions for discussion.  

  • Who was the musician? 
  • How much money did he make after playing for 43 minutes?

After an initial discussion, find the answers in the next fragments.

In April 2007 he accepted the Avery Fisher prize, recognizing him as the best classical musician in America. 

In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

  • How special is Joshua Bell’s violin?

Bell always performs on the same instrument, and he ruled out using another for this gig. Called the Gibson ex Huberman, it was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master’s “golden period,” toward the end of his career, when he had access to the finest spruce, maple and willow, and when his technique had been refined to perfection.

“Our knowledge of acoustics is still incomplete,” Bell said, “but he, he just . . . knew.”

Bell doesn’t mention Stradivari by name. Just “he.” When the violinist shows his Strad to people, he holds the instrument gingerly by its neck, resting it on a knee. “He made this to perfect thickness at all parts,” Bell says, pivoting it. “If you shaved off a millimeter of wood at any point, it would totally imbalance the sound.” No violins sound as wonderful as Strads from the 1710s, still.

The front of Bell’s violin is in nearly perfect condition, with a deep, rich grain and luster. The back is a mess, its dark reddish finish bleeding away into a flatter, lighter shade and finally, in one section, to bare wood.

“This has never been refinished,” Bell said. “That’s his original varnish. People attribute aspects of the sound to the varnish. Each maker had his own secret formula.” Stradivari is thought to have made his from an ingeniously balanced cocktail of honey, egg whites and gum arabic from sub-Saharan trees.

Like the instrument in “The Red Violin,” this one has a past filled with mystery and malice. Twice, it was stolen from its illustrious prior owner, the Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman. The first time, in 1919, it disappeared from Huberman’s hotel room in Vienna but was quickly returned. The second time, nearly 20 years later, it was pinched from his dressing room in Carnegie Hall. He never got it back. It was not until 1985 that the thief — a minor New York violinist — made a deathbed confession to his wife, and produced the instrument.

Bell bought it a few years ago. He had to sell his own Strad and borrow much of the rest. The price tag was reported to be about $3.5 million.

3. How affordable is art?

 4. What art objects or art works do you like to have around you?

5. What art are you a master in?

Here’s a selection from my students’ answers:

  • I am a master in the art of making tea.
  • I am a master in the art of making salads.
  • I am a master in the art of playing football.
  • I am a master in the art of taking photos.
  • I am a master in the art of spending time.

😀 How many masters in the art of making people smile are there among you, I wonder… Drop a smile here, if you please! 🙂

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