Originally published in FACT, 2008.
Brian Eno at 60 is speeding up. He is possibly the most active sexagenarian on the planet.
A random phone call to his office during the preparation for this piece revealed he was in transit from U2 mixing sessions in Ireland, via London, to Belgium for art installation work, and onwards to New York for writing projects and finalising details with David Byrne for Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, their first collaboration since the groundbreaking exotica of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.
Listening to that album now it sounds incredibly rich, warm and fresh, as if it were made yesterday. Recorded at various studios in the US, it was Eno’s reaction to gospel music which sparked the entire journey from Bush Of Ghosts to Everything That Happens. Eno: “ When we started this work, we started to think we were making something like electronic gospel: a music where singing was the central event, but whose sonic landscapes were not the type normally associated with that way of singing. This thought tapped into my long love affair with gospel music which, curiously, was inadvertently initiated by David and the Talking Heads.”
“The first gospel song I ever really responded to (‘Surrender to his Will’ by Reverend Maceo Woods and The Christian Tabernacle Choir) was one I heard on a distant Southern American radio station whilst in Compass Point, Nassau – working with Talking Heads on the album More Songs About Buildings and Food. Being with them and becoming aware of their musical interests had opened my ears to some kinds of music I hadn’t really been noticing up to that point – including gospel. So it was fitting that the circle was closed on this record. “
Incredibly, Everything That Happens was recorded via computers in a transatlantic fashion. Eno sent Byrne backing tracks and loops whilst Byrne, in Hell’s Kitchen, fashioned some quite beautiful lyrics like on the elegiac ‘ The Lighthouse’ and the forlorn ‘The River’. There are strummed acoustic guitars, jazzy piano riffs, bongo drums and even Eno on backing vocals. For most this would be enough for a year’s work. But not Eno. Working 18 hour days, this transglobal artist spends most of his time exhibiting in galleries and spaces all over the world. Recently he appeared with multi-form artist Mimmo Paladino in Rome and his exhibition of 77 Million Paintings (a slow morphing prismatic tour de force that would take literally 450 years to view in its entirity) at the Venice Biennale was a triumph.
“You have to look at this not as two things, High Art and Low Art, but as a continuum along which all cultural events will somewhere fall.”
Eno feels that, “what people want from art, the one thing I’m increasingly sure of, is that they want life. They want the sense that there is something going on, that something real and exciting and of its moment has been has been captured.” It was his installation work of the 1980s – Places Nos 11-16 in London, Dublin, France and Italy where his quiet music was utilised alongside multi-coloured images in ziggaraut and other assorted forms created through the use of video and television monitors – that really started me thinking of Eno as an artist who happened to do music as well. The hush of the atmosphere and the stained-glass window effect of his imaging also bespoke his Catholic roots. Since then his installations at the Botanical Gardens in Rome, a Shinto shrine in Kyoto and The Marble Palace at the Russian Museum St. Petersburg (to name but a few) all evoke a strange feeling of surrender. As Eno posits: “Religion gives people a chance to surrender. And I think part of what happens to people when they come into one of my shows is is that they practise this feeling of surrendering.” And in his music, whether with David Byrne, Coldplay or solo, he has succeeded in creating compositions “that have the same purity as painting.”
Last year I was enthralled by art critic Matthew Collings’ Channel 4 TV series and book of the same title This Is Civilisation. Here Collings concedes – after doing an incredible Time Tunnel-like jump through Greco-Roman Art, The Renaissance, Revolutionary French Painting, Goya, Turner, The Pre-Raphaelites all the way up to the incredible tableaux vivant of Wang Quingsong – that there’s no such thing as High Art, that it’s all Low. And this echoes Eno’s famous lecture at The Museum Of Modern Art in October 1990, where he dissected the perceived differences between High Art (acclaimed masterpieces such as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa) and Low Art (in the current climate: mobile phone jingles, home-made computer video clips on YouTube and personal creativity such as MySpace). I think it is Eno’s grasp that art in modern culture is a fluidity, and not a thing that sets him apart from most of his contemporaries, that generates so much of his activity. During the 1990s I spent a very pleasant Summer’s morning discussing these very issues with an expansive Eno at his then studio space in Ladbroke Grove.
Eno: ” In art there are commercial differences and those differences are very carefully defended by their practitioners. First of all, you have to look at this not as two things, High Art and Low Art, but as a continuum along which all cultural events will somewhere fall. A lot of interesting things are not going to to be either of those extremes. Now the biggest problem that high art has is separating itself off from low art. It’s very important for its economic clout to be different, to be exclusive. It has to say ‘we are the centre of culture’ in a way that those other things are not. ‘This is where the value is, what we’re doing’. They have to be like that, because otherwise how could you pursuade someone to part with half a million quid for a contemporary painting? How could you pursuade them, particularly when there are other people doing paintings that are almost indistinguishable and they are getting $400 for them? You have to say that this particular thing is invested with value in a special way.”
“Now two machines are at work – one is the currency machine. It is quite possible to trade cowrie shells with one another, or large blocks of granite as items of currency without having to claim that they in someway represent the centre of culture. We can trade £10 notes with one another and we don’t have to pretend that they are beautifully designed. We can make a separation between the currency value of something and the cultural value of something. We can, but the fine art people can’t. You see, what underwrites the currency value of what they are doing is their claim to cultural value.”
We discuss Robert Hughes’s Nothing If Not Critical, a 1991 edition which included the essay ‘Art & Money’ (written back in 1984 when the art critic was in his mid-40s – the exact same age, in fact, as Eno was when we we met in Notting Hill Gate for this art/religion summit!). We considered his analysis of art prices from the quattrocento to now in terms of inflation and real value, the manic disorder of New York in the 70s, the ever upped prices, in an essay which included the masterstroke observation ‘that art has ceased to be the common property of mankind; instead the Masterpiece, locked in its frame of prepostrous value, has become an instrument for striking people blind!’ I suggest that whatever the result with Cobi, a Madonna album, Leonardo’s Madonna Of The Rocks, there has been in each case a deliberate effort based on skill, ability and learning to create something tangible.
Eno: “I don’t think that’s a relevant consideration. I don’t think it matters how long it took or how accomplished the people doing it are. I’ve really got to re-define artists to answer this question. The old definition of an artist is someone who creates objects which have value in them…and that’s done because of the artist’s experience, vision or technical skills. All the things we traditionally believe. The residue of this process is these objects that have value in them, whether it be the Madonna, the Mona Lisa or whether it be a painting by Van Gogh. Somehow or other people believe that these objects contain value, they contain Art, this thing with a capital ‘A’. I think a lot of confusion comes out of that idea. All the speculation about whether there’s enough skill in it, or has the person paid their dues, is irrelevant…”
“If you define the artist in a different way, you don’t have any of those problems. That is, the artist is someone who creates the occasion for an art experience. Now this this can be done in all sorts of ways. The artist can be a good trickster, a conman and that doesn’t devalue the art experience you have, if you have one. On the other hand , the artist can be the most accomplished , skilled, intelligent, well-meaning person on earth but you don’t get an art experience. He or she hasn’t succeeded with you. So the concept of the artist really has to be shifted a bit. If you accept the definition I gave you a minute ago you don’t have any problems accepting the idea that somebody who just gets a sampler and sticks together lots of other people’s ideas can be called an artist”
“Michael Bolton makes art experiences for some people, maybe a lot of people. I make them for some others.”
“The problem with the whole art object theory, the idea that art somehow resides inside objects because artists have put it there or discovered it, creates a picture of an independent entity, a substance in the world called Art. And then the job of art historians is to decide which ones have it and which ones have more or less of it. I’m a great fan of Robert Hughes (aforementioned Australian art critic in excelsis, and author of the brilliant, groundbreaking and still not bettered The Shock Of The New) but I think he’s completely off the mark on this. But it causes no end of problems. For instance I could walk up Kilburn High Street and could find people who had art experiences listening to Michael Bolton records. And is there any way that you could think of that allows you to say that was not a real art experience? There isn’t! There’s no measure! All you can say is that Michael Bolton makes art experiences for some people, maybe a lot of people. I make them for some others. Miles Davis makes them for some more. The guy down the pub who plays spoons makes them for a small number of people, just for an evening. Rembrandt made them for a large number of people for several hundred years. As soon as you get away from the idea that art is this kind of nugget of material that sits…..”
What you are saying really is: ‘What Is Art?’
Eno: ”You can’t answer the question. That’s the whole point. It’s a redundant question. Because it asks you to describe something that doesn’t exist. It’s one of those capital letter words like LIBERTY, JUSTICE, FREEDOM – all those kind of words that create so much confusion in the world. If you get away from the idea that there is something there…and please let’s get away from it because it has caused so much confusion. ”
And all the heavy monographs that are written in the name of Art?
Eno: ” Oh, well the weight of the books shouldn’t make you think that anything is there, you know. The Middle Ages saw the most intelligent people of the age writing very heavy books about whether Adam had a navel. The assumption they started off from was that Adam wasn’t born of a man or woman. Then they wondered, if he didn’t have a navel, was he a real person and was he in the image of God, et cetera. If you accept the first premise that God made Adam then all the other complications follow. What I’m saying is, just chuck out the first premise. If you find yourself with a premise that leads you to build a more and more improbable world which you’ve got to shore up with more and more intellectual gadgets, you might as well go back to the beginning and say, hold on, is the first stage in the right place? This is what I think has happened with the Art discussion – that we keep getting this question coming up. The question is really different camps trying to defend the value of what they consider to be the place where this fundamental thing called Art presides.
“There are good reasons for people arguing strongly for, or making strong commitments to, the things that they like. But there are not good reasons for them making claims that those things are in any ultimate sense better. That’s what always underwrites their discussions. You know the whole justification for the arts council spending so much money on opera is because there’s an assumption that in the end opera is a great and better form than all the other things we could spend money on. And I just don’t accept it, and I’m sure I could argue convincingly for a different point of view. It takes a mind-change on people’s part, it takes a letting go of something, of the certainty of a value-structure. And value structures are very consoling because they tell you that you are on the right side.”
Arthur C. Clarke talked of his work like 2001: A Space Odyssey as preventing the future from happening like it was something to be avoided at all costs. In contrast you seem to want the the future to happen as quickly as possible.
Eno: “Well, the future isn’t just one thing. There are a lot of futures. Starting from this point where we are now, there are a number of possible places we could get to and some of them I would certainly hope to prevent. The really big problem in the future is that between people who are sure they are right and people who are not prepared to defend their actions on the basis that they are right. Between fundamentalists and pragmatists if you like. Pragmatism is saying all I can do is make the best guess for now and I’ll probably change my strategy next year. I cannot define or defend a single strategy and say this is how I’m going to always behave from now on. To fundamentalists this is absolutely anathema, they think it shows weakness of will, a lack of principle.”
At this juncture I bring up Eno’s interest in ‘contingency theory’, as outlined in one of his favourite philosophical texts, Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony & Solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Eno: “That’s the concept that’s important, the contingency concept. And fundamentalists don’t accept contingency at all. They believe that the world has become the way it is because of a detectable, traceable sequence of events and they therefore think that it is possible to plan a world in that same way as well. And Rorty is saying it isn’t. All of fundamentalism is based on creating cause or structures and ignoring the fact that everything in the world interacts. It’s a bit like that metaphor for chaos theory, it’s a bit of a flippant idea, but it is that a butterfly beats its wings in Peking and a major hurricane occurs on the East Coast some six months later. It’s stupid but it’s a good image to keep in mind. It implies that most complex organic systems and most of the ones we live in, including City Hall and the Government, are very sensitive to initial conditions.”
“I’ll give you an example from my own life. I was 23. I was getting on a subway train. I had to get home from somewhere. I just walked down to the station, got my ticket, walked up and down the platform a bit and got on the carriage that happened to be there when the train stopped. In the carriage was Andy Mackay who I’d met years before when he was at Reading University. We recognised each other and started talking. As a result of that I joined Roxy Music. Now for this tiny moment you either get mystical about it, ‘oh, it was fate, it was meant to happen’ (and I don’t have a lot of time for that idea), or you say it was chance, pure chance. How many other things in my life were decided by things as minute as that. What didn’t happen?!”
Yet, for all his ‘pragmatism’ there’s a strong streak of spirituality which runs through everything Eno does. Many of his installations have a church-like familiarity. Much of his instrumental music can have a transcendent effect, Music For Airports, Thursday Afternoon, Bell Studies For The Clock Of The Long Nowm, among many others. Primarily educated by, and even named Brian Peter George St. Jean le Baptiste de la Salle Eno after the nuns and brothers of the de la Salle Order, Ipswich, Eno has an interesting Catholic background.
Eno: “I believe that Catholics are more inclined to argue about these kind of questions. Catholicism is a very active religion. It kind of trains you, even if you become non-Catholic, atheistic or whatever; the level of activity you expect to expend on spiritual matters doesn’t decrease. You still expect to be working at that level but now it gets applied somewhere else. All the teachers I preferred at College were not the ones who I thought were necessarily right, whatever that means, but the ones who took a strong position; because when you are faced with a very strong position it forces you to articulate. It forces you to find out where you stand in relation to it. A weak position – which is what I think the Church of England type religion is (it’s a terribly weak religion, it’s a feeble pathetic religion, it’s too vague; how can one take a stance against such pusillanimous vagueness) – doesn’t demand any action on your part. In contrast Catholicism is ‘positive’ – it takes positive positions on things. I don’t agree with most of them – the ‘positive’, or should I say negative, position on abortion, on contraception, on divorce. When you are faced with that, you really have to decide where you stand. You think, well there’s just no ambiguity about the way this is being said. It isn’t sometimes you can do it and sometimes you can’t. It’s no you fucking can’t.”