Brain Pickings

Oblique Strategies: Brian Eno’s Prompts for Overcoming Creative Block, Inspired by John Cage

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“If a thing can be said, it can be said simply.”

“Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences,” ambient music pioneer Brian Eno wrote in his diary. It is precisely this ethos that explains Eno’s medium-blind, experience-centric creative impulse underpinning the visual arts career that he undertook in the 1960s, which developed in tandem with his growth as a musician. That is precisely what Christopher Scoates, director of the University Art Museum at California State University, explores with unprecedented depth and dimension in Brian Eno: Visual Music (public library) — a magnificent monograph spanning more than four decades of Eno’s music projects and museum and gallery installations, contextualized amidst a wealth of exhibition notes, sketchbook pages, and other never-before-revealed archival materials.

Brian Eno lecturing at the MoMA, 1990.

In a 2005 interview for the British Arts Council, Eno came to compare his work to that of John Cage:

John Cage … made a choice at a certain point: he chose not to interfere with the music content anymore. But the approach I have chosen was different from his. I don’t reject interference; I choose to interfere and guide. . . . The music systems designed by Cage are choice-free, he doesn’t filter what comes out of his mind; people have to accept them passively. But my approach is, although I don’t interfere with the completion of a system, if the end result is not good, I’ll ditch it and do something else. This is a fundamental difference between Cage and me. If you consider yourself to be an experimental musician, you’ll have to accept that some of your experiments will fail. Though the failed works might be interesting too, they are not works that you would choose to share with other people or publish.

Indeed, one of Eno’s most interesting projects is a mid-1970s collaboration with the German composer Peter Schmidt, who had just finished a set of 64 drawings based on the I Ching — the same ancient Chinese text that so inspired Cage. Eno and Schmidt created a series of art instructions — an underappreciated art genre unto itself — titled Oblique Strategies. The project consisted of a set of 115 white cards with simple black text in a deck subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas. Though a conceptual art project, the cards were essentially a practical tool for generating ideas, breaking through creative block, and breaking free of stale thought patterns.

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Eno even employed the cards while producing David Bowie’s iconic 1977 album Heroes, using Oblique Strategies on the song “Sense of Doubt.”

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Oblique Strategies, 1974

Eno first confronted this interweaving of music and visual art in his formal arts education, amidst the groundswell of the avant-garde and the Fluxus movement with its bold proclamation that “anything can be art and anyone can do it.” He empathically embraced this inclusive model of creativity in defiance to the specializations and constraints of the traditional art world, asserting:

Art schools manage to balance themselves on the fence between telling you what to do step by step, and leaving you free to do what you want. Their orientation is basically towards the production of specialists, and towards the provision of ambitions, of goals, and identities. The assumption of the correct identity — painter, sculptor — fattens you up for the market. The identity becomes a straightjacket; it becomes progressively more dangerous to step outside of it.

In the foreword, legendary British artist, theorist, and cybernetics pioneer Roy Ascott, who was once Eno’s teacher, attempts to map where Eno belongs in the ecosystem of art:

Any attempt to locate Brian Eno’s work within an historical framework calls for a triple triangulation, whose trig points in the English tradition would seem to be Turner/Elgar/Blake; in Europe, Matisse/Satie/ Bergson, and in the United States Rothko/La Monte Young/Rorty. This triple triangulation will quickly be seen as insufficient, however, since those based on Asian and Middle Eastern cultures will also be required. Soon it would become apparent that a precise or consistent location cannot be determined, except by the abandonment of triangulation in favor of a dynamic network model. Here we would need to adopt second-order cybernetics, the recognition that attempting to measure cultural location is relative, viewer dependent, unstable, shifting, and open-ended. This conclusion reminds me that Brian was the first of my students to understand that cybernetics is philosophy, and that philosophy is cybernetics.

However, this approach to an understanding of Eno’s art would in itself fail to recognize his aesthetic of surrender and meditation, in which respect he seems to adopt a kind of Duchampian indifference, flowing from a process of removal of the Self from reflection, toward a quiet celebration of uneventfulness.

But Eno’s greatest accomplishment — and what makes his visual art so singular yet so widely resonant and important — is arguably his exploration of identity. Amidst a cultural landscape where the creative self is necessarily divided, Eno has consistently conquered a wide array of creative and intellectual fields while at the same time mastering the art of integration. Ascott puts it beautifully:

We cannot grasp the ambient identity of Eno’s artwork without also recognizing the ambient identity of the artist himself. This demands knowing not only where to place him in the spectrum of roles across philosophy, visual arts, performance, music, social and cultural commentary, and activism, but in terms of personae, or as we say now, avatars. . . . Throughout his career, not only has Eno explored identity, he has provided the context, employing light, sound, space, and color, in which each participant can playfully and passionately share in the breaching of the boundaries of the Self.

'77 Million Paintings,' Sydney Opera House, 2009

Brian Eno: Visual Music is beautiful and compelling in its entirety. Complement it with the psychology of getting unstuck and some of today’s most celebrated writers, artists, and designers on how to break through your creative block.

Images courtesy of Chronicle Books

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