While I was home in Cincinnati during our all-too-short winter break, I had the opportunity to see Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.” Of course, being in Cincinnati means you don’t go just anywhere to see a performance — you take a trip to the sleek and luxurious Aronoff Center.

Going to a show at this massive space is an evening-long affair. You must first drive to the heart of downtown Cincinnati, park a few blocks away and take a vibrant nighttime walk past the lights, sights and sounds that make up the soul of the Queen City. After passing through the venue’s glass doors, up its marble staircase and around its winding hallways, you finally emerge in the magnificent performance gallery known as Proctor & Gamble Hall.

As I snuggled deeper into my plush red seat while watching my fellow patrons awkwardly shuffle into theirs, I anticipated what would come next: Soon, all 2,719 spaces would be filled. Next would come the magical, collective hush that accompanies the dimming of the lights. The pause between darkness falling and the beginning of the show would hang over all of us, uniting a roomful of strangers into an audience — the audience.

I came to see the show — to see art — but would it have been the same without the elements that made up the whole experience?

Artistic context has always been a thought-provoking topic for me, and it’s come up more and more frequently in the art community over the past few years. For a long time, it lurked unaddressed in the shadows of academic conversation — until a journalist (of all people!) decided to put it to the test.

In a famous 2007 experiment, Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten asked world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell to perform anonymously in street clothes in a Washington D.C. subway. After 43 minutes of notoriously difficult pieces played on a $3.5 million dollar instrument, 1,097 people passed by — and barely a handful of people even slowed down to listen.

Would I have stopped to watch? Would you have thrown him — a guy who’s played in more high-class venues than most people would expect to visit in their lifetime — your pocket change? I guess we’ll never know for sure. But one thing I do know is that context plays a much bigger role in appreciating a piece of art than I’d ever consciously realized before.

The atmosphere, the architecture, the social prompts (how close should you stand to that Monet?) — all of these aspects craft an artistic display, providing the cues that tell you you’re looking at something that’s meant to be meaningful. The solemn design of a museum, the velvet ropes and Plexiglas separating you from its treasures, even the day-long museum pass you paid for make you feel as though you’re looking at something special.

It’s the absence of this delicately constructed atmosphere that would probably prevent you from giving an unframed Van Goyen landscape a second glance if you saw it hanging in your dentist’s office next to a sleepy receptionist.

Of course, context is more crucial to some pieces than others. Even seasoned art critics would probably not recognize the importance of Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” if it was hanging in a Starbucks or lurking in the bargain bin of a Pier 1 Imports. Physically, it’s — you guessed it — a square piece of canvas covered with black paint.

But it is physical and historical context that brings it to life: A look at its juxtaposition against the white museum walls tells you that the bold but isolating vibes you’re getting are intentional. A glance at his other pieces hanging nearby tells you it was part of an intentionally geometric series of works. A quick look at the plaque tells you it was painted by a Russian on the eve of the October Revolution.

It’s the presence of these elements that transforms Malevich’s “Black Square” into more than the sum of its intentionally simplistic parts. It can now be envisioned in context as an expression of despair, a visionary leap into Suprematism, a pre-revolutionary break with Russia’s ornate and imperial past. It’s the surrounding context that brings the canvas to life.

Art isn’t a singular visual or auditory piece; it’s a carefully crafted experience in which the construction of an environment to support that art is often just as important as the art at its center. The hustle and bustle of our daily lives can sometimes drown the extraordinary in the ordinary, allowing us to gloss over beauty or talent without a frame in which to see them.

So enjoy the show — the entire show — from the time you pick out your dress shirt and put on your heels, to the time you spend goggling at a theater’s intricately painted ceiling, to the time you spend raving to your fellows about your favorite actress on the car ride back home.

Because there’s no denying that art should be insightful, inspirational and thought-provoking at its core. But sometimes, picking the right pedestal is just as important as the statue you place on top.

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