Brain Pickings

Music Pioneer Brian Eno on Art

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“Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.”

“Make good art,” Neil Gaiman advised in his endlessly heartening counsel on the creative life. But what, exactly, is “good” art?

English musician and visual artist Brian Eno, born on May 15, 1948, is celebrated as a pioneer of ambient music and one of the most influential artists in modern musical sensibility. But he is also an insightful observer of contemporary culture, his ideas having populated the pages of various magazines as well as John Brockman’s fantastic Edge Question series. Nowhere does his dimensional mind shine more brilliantly than in A Year With Swollen Appendices: Brian Eno’s Diary (public library) — a curious dual tome, originally published in 1996, featuring a year’s worth of Eno’s diary entries during 1995 and thirty-six short essays on various aspects of culture, from music-sharing to pretension to the Duchamp Fountain. Gathered here are his most timeless insights on art, a wonderful addition to history’s finest meditations on what art is and does.

In an entry dated April 23, nearly twenty years before our present-day fame factory of manufactured attention, Eno makes a prescient observation:

Attention is what creates value. Artworks are made as well by how people interact with them — and therefore by what quality of interaction they can inspire. So how do we assess an artist who we suspect is dreadful but who manages to inspire the right storm of attention, and whose audience seems to swoon in the appropriate way? We say, ‘Well done.’

The question is: ‘Is the act of getting attention a sufficient act for an artist? Or is that in fact the job description?’

Perhaps the art of the future will be indistinguishable.

In a related meditation, he considers confidence as the conferring mechanism of value:

The term “confidence trick” has a bad meaning, but it shouldn’t. In culture, confidence is the currency of value. Once you surrender the idea of intrinsic, objective value, you start asking the question “if the value isn’t in there, where does it come from?” It’s obviously from the transaction: it’s the product of the quality of a relationship between me, the observer, and something else. So how is that relationship stimulated, enriched, given value? By creating an atmosphere of confidence where I am ready to engage with and perhaps surrender to the world it suggests.

Gene Davis: Night Rider (public domain via The Smithsonian Institution)

In one of the micro-essays, titled “Miraculous cures and the canonization of Basquiat,” Eno revisits the subject with a sentiment Greil Marcus would come to echo in his fantastic recent SVA commencement address on “high” vs. “low” art. Eno writes:

Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences. (Roy Ascott’s phrase.) That solves a lot of problems: we don’t have to argue whether photographs are art, or whether performances are art, or whether Carl Andre’s bricks or Andrew Serranos’s piss or Little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ are art, because we say, ‘Art is something that happens, a process, not a quality, and all sorts of things can make it happen.’ … [W]hat makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you — so the value of the work lies in the degree to which it can help you have the kind of experience that you call art.

This notion of “inside” and “outside” is in fact central to Eno’s conception of culture and something he notes on multiple occasions in the diary. He explores it at length in another essay titled “On being an artist,” where he ponders:

Where do you work?

Do you work ‘inside’ or ‘outside’?

To work inside is to deal with the internal conditions of the work — the melodies, the rhythms, the textures, the lyrics, the images: all the normal day-to-day things one imagines an artist does.

To work outside is to deal with the world surrounding the work — the thoughts, assumptions, expectations, legends, histories, economic structures, critical responses, legal issues and so on and on. You might think of these things as the frame of the work.

A frame is a way of creating a little world round something.

[…]

Is there anything in a work that is not frame, actually?

William H. Johnson: Nude Seated -- Front View (public domain via The Smithsonian Institution)

In a diary entry from February of 1995, Eno considers the essential role of evolving the tools of creativity by way of iteration, even if implicit to which is the frowned-upon notion of unoriginality:

How determined people seem to be to aim for exactly the same target again and again. A charitable interpretation: by doing so they evolve better tools for everyone else, creating vocabulary out of metaphor. Like those pathetic computer artists who are so thrilled when they’ve finally produced a picture of a daffodil with a drop of dew upon it — indistinguishable from a real photo. To me this would represent a total failure, but it’s probably those people who propel the evolution of tools.

Gene Davis: Davy's Locker (public domain via The Smithsonian Institution)

But beneath the tools and the iterative nature of much of what passes for the experience of art, Eno suggest, lies an existential longing for its opposite — for profound change, for transcendence. In the Basquiat essay, he writes:

Changing ourselves. Surely that must be what we’re after when we look at pictures and watch movies and listen to music. It sounds more Californian than it really is. Changing ourselves includes switching on the radio when we’re bored — to change from being someone who’s bored to someone who’s being less bored, or bored in a different way. But of course we would prefer to think that the art we venerate does more than feed us sensations to keep us from the gloom of everyday existence. (Why would I prefer that? What’s wrong with the opposite? I remember someone saying that all human creativity is a desperate attempt to occupy the brief space or endless gap between birth and death.) We would like to think that art remakes us in some way, deepens us, makes us ‘better’ people.

Pair A Year With Swollen Appendices: Brian Eno’s Diary with Susan Sontag’s illustrated insights on art, culled from her published diaries.

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