Getting the picture

by Brian Eno

From W magazine, Issue 6, September 1996. W is a "quarterly guide to the best in books", published by Waterstone's.

At last year's Turner Prize ceremony, Brian Eno accused art criticism of being confusing, marginal and unable to offer a coherent argument for art's existence. Here, in an exclusive article coinciding with the publication of his book, A Year with Swollen Appendices, he explains what he meant.

Last year I was asked to present the Turner Prize and to give a short speech. Short is the key word in these things - because it's scheduled for TV broadcast, you get two minutes. In my speech I pointed out that most of the people at the ceremony, presumably members of the 'art community', probably knew a lot more about currents of thought in contemporary science than those in contemporary art. I mentioned some science writers - people like Gould, Dawkins and Hawking - whose books had widened and deepened the cultural conversation about science in a way that no writers about art have come anywhere close to. Compared to science, I suggested, contemporary art seems confusing and marginal.

This seemed to strike a chord with a lot of people. I got approached in the street by strangers who said: 'Why didn't you finish?' I think the position I took was appreciated because it came from a sympathetic would-be participant, not from a hostile outsider. I wasn't saying that it was all incomprehensible nonsense; what I was saying was that it gets made to look that way by how we talk and write about it. It seems to me that there is no consensus within the art world about what all this stuff is being done for, who benefits, and what the nature of those benefits might be. So I want to ask why people make art (or any other cultural activity) in the first place, and what they get from doing it.

2,000 words is not going to answer this question; perhaps, though, I can at least ask it clearly.

My feeling is that the state of our writing and thinking about art and culture (for me, interchangeable terms) is similar to the state of knowledge in the natural sciences before Charles Darwin appeared on the scene. Natural history consisted of making lists of the various observed manifestations of life, comparing things to each other, giving them names, and heaping fact upon fact on the assumption that they would all add up to something.

Darwin cut through this chaos of phenomena with a very clear and simple statement: 'the fit survive'. This near-tautology made it possible for people to ask intelligent, answerable questions about living creatures because it led people to assume that their observed characteristics were probably there for a reason. It didn't stop debate or quench people's interest in the study of life, but extended it; far from making life less mysterious, it suggested an endless supply of new mysteries for us to address. This is the effect of good, big theories: they present frames upon which thought can be structured. Prior to Darwin, the only frame was an entirely anthropocentric one (actually a theocentric one, which ends up being the same thing since we make God in our own image) that the closer life was to being like us (and therefore God) the 'better' it was. As a theory this left a lot to be desired, and its results can be seen in the now-laughable convolutions of much pre-Darwinian writing about nature.

Art writing, as I said, seems to be still in that type of confusion. Sub theories abound and collide, observations are piled up in unsorted, unusable heaps, and there is no over-arching paradigm to help us find ways of looking at it all as a unified field of human endeavour.

Is such a paradigm even possible? One objection is that culture has always evolved by breaking its categories, by becoming what it has apparently never been before, and that therefore any attempt to 'define' it is doomed to failure. But 'definition' is not what I'm asking for. Darwin, for instance, was not trying to 'define' life; he was trying to say how it came about that life involves the kinds of processes and forms that it does. He was looking for a deep statement that could discover a commonality among all the manifestations of life.

I think you could in principle make a statement at a similar deep level about all the manifestations of human culture and art. I think, though, that to do so you would need to ask three questions. What activities does the word 'culture' actually describe? On what basis do we compare culture objects with each other? Where is the value of cultural experience actually located - in the objects themselves or somewhere else?

Perhaps we can work backwards from Darwin and start by abandoning the 'art-ocentric' view of culture. When Darwin gave us the intellectual tool by which we could look at life as a unified field, he also implied that everything in that field connects to everything else: there isn't a hierarchy of life forms, but a web. We need a similar insight in the way we look at culture, a way of seeing all the cultural things that humans do - from hairstyles to abstract paintings - as different but connected manifestations of the same drive. So I start with a simple, inclusive assumption: culture is everything we don't have to do. Culture consists of the gratuitous stylistic extras that we add to the things we do have to do. You have to eat, but you don't have to decorate elaborately prepared curries with silver leaf. You have to move around, but you don't have to dance.

Abandoning the idea of a cultural hierarchy would also do away with the idea of a scale of intrinsic values, of ranking some cultural forms as 'better' than others. Just as the 'pyramid model' of life flattens down as we begin to understand life's interconnectedness (until it becomes impossible to maintain, for example, that horses are in any meaningful way 'better' than microbes), so any similarly evaluative view of culture starts to look distinctly dodgy. Does this mean that cake decoration is as valuable as Cezanne? No - I'm saying that the concept of cultural value is an irrelevant and meaningless metric with which to try to compare culture objects because the idea of value as a quality that resides in culture objects is wrong.

But there is value somewhere, isn't there? I mean, we do feel that we have experiences of value when we hear pieces of music or read books or see films or admire textiles, don't we? And when we do, where exactly is it coming from if not from the object?

I think that, in objects of culture, value is always conferred. That's to say, the quality of our experience of something is exactly that: the quality of our experience. A lot of twentieth century art has been an accumulation of evidence for this proposition. In this view the value of a work of culture is in the transaction between it and its user: if a valuable transaction can be caused to take place (even just by putting something more or less arbitrary in a frame which says, 'Within this frame you could experience a valuable transaction'), the thing has worked. This is obvious and radical at the same time, for it removes from the discussion much of what has preoccupied critics and conversationalists about culture for the last few hundred years. If value is not in things, but conferred upon them by our act of experiencing them, then relativity reigns. A piece of music can be a great work for a whole civilization for 300 years, or for one person for 20 minutes. There is no 'outside' to this, no Court of Cultural Value where you can measure the work in order to arrive at any more objective assessment, and all manner of evaluations by critics will not establish such. In fact, that kind of evaluation is the wrong job for critics to be doing.

However, if we abandon all concepts of absolute value, can we still find a basis for regarding the activity of culture as being in any way useful?

The only thing we notice is that all peoples make culture: we don't know of any group of people who don't engage in culture in the sense I'm using the word. Even human groups that are in extreme deprivation still find time for activities that make no perceptible difference to their physical survival. Perhaps this is actually the beginning of an answer to these questions. It seems clear that culture is a biological drive for humans. It is not something that we just add on at the end, after we've dealt with all those survival problems, but something we keep doing all the time. Therefore, as a good neo-Darwinian, I assume that for such a persistent activity to have evolved at all, it has to be doing something of tremendous importance for us.

What is that? What makes you become emotionally and intellectually engaged with, say, the film Citizen Kane? You know it's a fiction. You know you're accepting all sorts of technical devices and tricks and falsehoods, that this need have nothing to do with anything that ever really happened. But you surrender to it and something happens in your mind.

What happens when you successfully engage with a piece of culture is that you are left with a highly-evolved and complex metaphor. Now the words 'Citizen Kane', for instance, connote for you, and for others who've seen the film, a great cluster of ideas about conceit, grandeur, power, egocentricity. You have taken part in an experiment, an experiment whose question is, 'How do we feel about this world?' (and, in unspoken brackets, the attendant question, 'Compared to all the other worlds we know or can imagine?'). Perhaps that's clear enough with something as apparently translatable as Citizen Kane. Ideas shine forth from it, and they are discussable. But what about Ming vases? What about Jackson Pollock? How do those things engage us?

They engage us stylistically: that is, by making stylistic choices that we find significantly different. Jackson Pollock makes sense only in terms of a particular history of other paintings, in terms of the stylistic decisions he made that distinguished his from other paintings. Style is the language of culture, and the changing of styles - the shuffling and elaborating and re-contexting and combining and isolating of styles - is the conversation of culture. Style is ideas in the process of forming themselves. Ideas about what? About complicated bundles of assumptions about where we are in the world and what sort of world it is anyway. A complex brass door knocker, for instance, is not just a way of getting the attention of someone in the house, but also a way of engaging the attention of everyone outside the house: of telling them things about station, materials, weight, importance, connections to other strands of culture. The Structuralists noticed this - that a cultural universe could be seen in every grain of cultural sand.

What is the use of this constant style shuffling? I think it may be the most important thing that humans do. Our only strength as a species - given that we are biologically weak, fragile and not all that fast - is our ability to communicate directly with each other, and from that to co-operate. This gives us humans a new way of learning - not with the plodding slowness of the genetic message, but with the immediacy of our contract. Some of the knowledge we wish to share with each other is scientifically accessible - statable in relatively unambiguous and testable terms. But I venture that most of it isn't. We somehow have to arrive at decisions about not only those things we can isolate sufficiently to test in the laboratory, but also all those things that can't be separated out from their context, things of which we don't even know the boundaries, things that are vague, complicated and mostly unknowable. How, for instance, does one arrive at a feeling about, say, vegetarianism? Well, partly through 'rational discussion', but mostly through a complex bundle of stylistic choices - through taste. And taste is evolved as much by soap operas and Damien Hirst's split cows and BSE scares as it is by rationality.

Stylistic choices are cultural gossip about what's fitting and what's not, and that gossip becomes the new vocabulary of our lives - the language within which we frame our decisions about how we prefer to live, what we value and what we don't. This is a process of the evolution of empathy, which I'd define as the ability to understand what the other person is seeing, or where the other person is looking from, to engage with them in experimental, surrogate worlds of style. In order to do this, we have become incredibly sensitive to a whole layer of stylistic signs: in fact it is among these signs that we spend most of our time if we get the chance. We code and decode continually, thus casually tossing around almost inexplicably rich bundles of cultural assumptions. We rarely even notice ourselves doing it.

To be capable of carrying out complex, un-predefined (i.e. non-instinctual) projects with other people, a great deal of this rapid elision from one perspective to another is necessary: style is very fast. We talk to our kids in one way, to our friends at work in another, to our lovers in yet another, to the lady in the corner shop in another. When we make these shifts we are exercising our understanding of the worlds from which they are listening to us, and we are also projecting onwards our own view of the world in which we would like this conversation to be taking place. When you think about it, this is an enormous and complex talent that humans spend their lives exercising, rehearsing, refining.

Culture, that place where you can surrender to new worlds without getting hurt (because they are only made of signs, after all) is where we conduct these experiments, where we constantly invent worlds - some no bigger than earrings - in order to make better sense of this one. Since most human behaviour arises not from a series of purely rational choices made in possession of full evidence, but by arriving at a consensus (an agreement to inhabit one world of values rather than another), my contention is that culture is the way we evolve that matrix of values, and style is the language of culture.

Culture is where we live our shared mental lives. We need a way of understanding this habitat, of treating it with the respect and care it deserves. I believe the approach I've outlined would help us get there.

More than just a diary of day-to-day activities, A Year with Swollen Appendices contains the thoughts and observations that Brian Eno recorded in his notebooks throughout 1995. As befits a man who is not just a producer but also a musician, composer and artist, these thoughts touch on an enormous range of subjects - from ambient music and his recording projects with Bowie and U2, to shamanism, Bosnia, charities and Duchamp's Fountain. 'Swollen' by a series of essays, as well as letters to various friends and a collection of his own short stories, the book is a fascinating record of one man's year.

A Year with Swollen Appendices: The Diary of Brian Eno Faber and Faber £9.99 pbh