Brian Eno’s lecture to the AA School of Architecture takes on the problem of how to talk about, to write about, to classify and describe art. Or that was the plan. The lecture starts well with the idea that the arts – all of them – are everything you don’t have to do as illustrated by screwdrivers. The business end is a fixed design, functional and with no room for manoeuvre, but the handle – that can be plain, striped, blue, red, yellow, pink, fat, thin, shaped, pared down. The business end is what you have to do, the handle is what you don’t have to do.
Eno compares the lack of a taxonomy for the arts to the way living things were classified before Darwin. Cynically, but probably not far from the truth, he illustrated this again with recognisable categories – men, white men actually, would be at the top (and there was always a top), with horses next (or maybe he said dogs), and women further down. It was an intellectual top-is-superior triangle with a few specified entities at the top and the masses at the bottom.
And so it is with art.
Darwin’s constructions of the origin of species, however, scrambled this and showed how everything was interrelated, there was no top dog (except with other dogs), and the superiority of humans was questionable when it came to competing with, say, a polar bear on equal terms. Darwin didn’t actually say that of course, I did. He also didn’t follow his own theory by giving women the same intellectual credentials as men*. That took a while longer.
But back to art. Eno’s thesis here is that because there is no classificatory taxonomy whereby appreciation of a piece of work is enhanced by understanding how it got there; the historical context it came from, what it was reacting to, the political and social environment that prompted it; art remains a top-is-superior triangular structure where a few people (men again, generally) decide what’s good and everyone else follows along. He argues that this is problematic for assessing or even agreeing relative value even within a discipline such as painting never mind across the whole spectrum of the arts (those things we don’t have to do but that we somehow can’t help doing). We remember, don’t we, that there used to be Film Snobbery whereby any actor appearing on TV was regarded as lesser than those in top dollar films, despite often being seen by more people. This has almost turned on its head now and with the expansion of the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming, the acting community is looking at TV as having equal status to film. This opens up the need to consider all forms of art using language appropriate to its genre and to abandon the ‘high art’ framework that privileges particular forms above all others – the White Men at the Top of the Triangle.
Unfortunately, rather than developing this theme and leading his audience through questions and arguments towards a conclusion, however incomplete (and why should it be, this is complex stuff?), Eno disappears off down interesting but distracting rabbit holes that add nothing to his thesis, eventually running out of time and finishing so lamely his audience has to be prompted to clap. Were he staff, this would be a 2* performance but, and here’s another issue, he may not be rated on delivery but on the fact that he is Brian Eno and everyone there is feeling privileged to be breathing the same air (pre-COVID, obviously). The Emperor was, on this occasion, and to my mind, stark naked.
And that’s how fame works, and isn’t it a kind of gentle corruption that perverts the course of objective evaluative justice and so influences everything we call culture?
Here’s the video; it has some interesting ideas that have value in their own right but take a look too at his Peel lecture (link further down).
Eno can do so much better; this is his Peel Lecture from 2015, scroll down for the audio: http://www.openculture.com/2015/12/brian-enos-peel-lecture-on-art.html. It deals with the same themes, it predates the AA School of Architecture lecture, and it’s excellent. There’s a point at about 40 mins though where he projects a future we were on the verge of losing before it even began.
*In his book, The Descent of Man, [Darwin] say[s] that men attain “a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can women—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darwin_and_wome