The sudden arrival of summer has multiplied the numbers of buskers and street entertainers working the streets of Oxford. Two caught my eye on Wednesday.

The first was playing acoustic guitar in the new percussive style that's proving popular: the guitar is laid over the lap in open-tuning, and is generally thwolloped and thwacked with palms and fingers, making for a dramatic and flashy effect. The crowd he'd pulled certainly agreed. I watched as his case filled up with coins, and not just shrapnel, gold too. I felt I ought to like it but, whatever the skill involved, it seemed too easy and after five minutes I was bored and longing for something more...musical. I found it twenty yards down the road.

A young Irish guy was propped up in front of HSBC playing hammered dulcimer. Now the dulcimer can be a sickly sweet instrument, all roses and castles and doilies and faldarol, but in the hands of a master it's a proper medieval groove box. As he played, his dancing hands unlocked shimmering layers of sound, trickling arpeggios and thundering rhythms. The only other person I've heard who played like that was Krismael from the Space Goats (with whom I played in Jabberwocky, back in the day). I was mesmerised.

Needless to say, but for the unwelcome intrusion of a wino, the poor chap was being largely ignored and had all of twenty pence in his case. I gave him some money, thanked him, and told him that he'd brightened my day.

There's a troubling but persistent myth about music and art in general, one that the present government likes to foster: that its worth can only be measured in terms of how much money it makes. If your art is any good, so the story goes, it'll pay for itself (and you won't be needing any government handouts neither). What rot.

Leave such things to the market and all we'll get is flash and blather, surface not substance. Can I put a price on what that dulcimer player did for my spirits that day? All art matters but the best eludes fashion and taste and the vagaries of the market because it comes from a place where such things are of little moment. It shows them for what they are.


  1. Yep. There's a difference between "art" and "the art market." (Allowing, of course, for some overlap.) Unfortunately, not everyone can tell the difference, or cares to acknowledge that there is one.

  2. I'm usually amazed when grant announcements in the visual arts in my state are announced each year. More and more its the guy banging on the guitar with his palms that gets the attention, and the masters of the craft, quietly working, creating work with integrity and beauty are ignored.

    I remember seeing a big-wig rock guitarist in concert long ago. He was a good player, a little too much of a cowboy for me. What struck me was that he had some incredible moments of playing, but the thing that got the crowd up and roaring was when he played the guitar behind his back - he could do that, but the music was nothing special. It was then I began to understand that, as Lynn said, "not everyone can tell the difference, or cares to acknowledge that there is one". Seems folks were more interested in a circus act that art.



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