MORE DARK THAN SHARK - FEATURE
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
OPAL INFORMATION (NUMBER 20, 1992)
Opal Information was a publication that discussed the on-going work of Brian Eno and other artists released by his Opal Music label. Produced by Opal Ltd., it appeared on an irregular basis from 1986 until 1996. Each of the twenty-seven issues was comprised of approximately fifteen to twenty pages. The following is the complete text of Number 20, featuring Brian Eno -
In issue 19 we printed Brian's talk on the subject High Art/Low Art. His talk was followed by an on-stage discussion with New York critic John Rockwell, and this in turn was followed by an "open forum", during which Brian answered questions from the audience. Reproduced below is a section from that "open forum".
Q: How do you feel about the concepts of genius and originality at this time?
BE: The originality question is very, very interesting at the moment, because something is happening in both High Art and Low Art. We've always seen it in Low Art, people evolving ideas, taking ninety percent of what someone else did and making a little twist on it for themselves. It's one of the things that High Art people always thought was rather low about Low Art. In Low Art, originality is clearly an evolutionary form, whereas in High Art it is presented as a revolutionary form, where suddenly everything is turned upside down. What's happened in the last few years in High Art is that the notion of originality has been questioned a lot. There are people like Sherrie Levine who's made a point of not being original, of making copies of other people's work. It's called appropriation I think. (You see it gets a good name when it's High Art: it gets a capital letter, it's called Appropriation.) It' sort of what people have been doing for a long time in Low Art in some form or another, but now we have advanced forms of it in both High and Low Art.
Rap is a very sophisticated form of appropriation, where people are making music from other people's music, (even my music, actually, gets sampled) and gets put together with other people's music and a new composite is made up.
It's quite interesting to me because it's removed one of the major weapons, you might say, with which High Art used to beat Low Art over the head, of saying, "Well, it's kind of reiterative isn't it? It's just the same few ideas being shuffled around and occasionally something new enters". There was a sort of sneering contempt for this notion of an art that evolved over a whole culture rather than art that was carried forward by an individual in a revolutionary way. It's very interesting if you look at - I saw an exhibition recently in London, it was an exhibition of Russian art from, I think, the early part of the century up until 1917. What was very interesting about it was how many people there were who were nearly as good as Kandinsky. There were lots of people doing very similar work. I never realised that before, I had seen lots and lots of books about Kandinsky, but I'd never seen anything about all of the other people who were really quite a lot like him. And I suddenly realised then that he, in fact, was the product of a big evolutionary movement. But the picture has been repainted: you don't hear about these other people, but you do hear a lot about Kandinsky. So the plateau effect (*) has been reestablished there, so suddenly Kandinsky is the genius and these other people were just working artists.
Well I think maybe the difference is much smaller. I'm not very fond of the idea of genius and I don't use the word myself.
Q: What do you think about the idea of removing the curator, so that selections of art are completely random?
BE: I think that's a very interesting idea, I think both ends of that continuum are interesting. I think the very heavily curated show is interesting, the idea of someone rearranging history from their angle. I had a funny thing happen to me once when I was cycling through a rubber plantation in Malaysia (that's the kind of place where things happen to you!): I was cycling along and there was a huge mass of trees chaotically arranged before me. I carried on cycling, vaguely looking at the trees each side of me, and suddenly I reached a point where they all fell into straight lines, and I realised they were planted in straight lines. This is the orchard analogy. It has always remained very clear in my mind as a picture of how things can be chaotic or ordered depending on your perspective of them. So in some ways I think what curators are doing is saying "try this perspective" and they're quite free to do that, there is not one story of history, in fact we make new stories all the time. We must make new stories all the time, it modifies our own sense of who and where we are.
So I think extreme curatorship is very interesting. I think it hasn't reached the extremes it could at all. I was imagining a type of artist who would merely be somebody who recognised things, so he goes, for instance, to secondhand shops and finds paintings by Sunday painters and says "this is a good one". OK? And he writes on the back, I approve of this one, and that dignifies that work in some way. That's sort of what curating does. (**) The other extreme, of having a totally uncurated show, is what you see sometimes in local art clubs, where everyone can submit, and I agree, those things are sometimes very, very interesting. We had a show in London a few years ago at the Serpentine Gallery, which was not uncurated, it was a curated show, but the choice of things was quite original, the things came from a very wide range of sources, and what was very clever was that there were no accreditations on the, so that you saw all of these things and there was nowhere in the Gallery any clue as to where they came from. This caused real confusion, because you know how people normally go round galleries, they look quickly and then read the label, and the reading is an important part of how they place this thing and how they know they should react to it. Suddenly people were placed with a group of objects that had been brought together, you assumed, for some reason, and you had to make your own story of why these things belonged together. It was a very successful show, that one. And I think in a show like that, should also be included things that don't even have a pedigree. (***)
Q: What do you think of the impact of technology on both High and Low art?
BE: That's a big question. Well I have very inverted snobbery about the particular technology I'm involved in which is electronics in music, electronic music, in that I always say that the first successful electronic composers were people like Phil Spector and Jimi Hendrix. There were a lot of people before that who were playing with electronics, but in some way they avoided so many of the implications of them, because they militated against the tradition that they were part of, that they never made anything listenable. Now of course it's very arguable what you find listenable, but I must say I don't see Edgar Varese in that many record collections, and I haven't visited anyone for twenty-five years who was playing the record. So even though that work had its impact at the time, it doesn't seem to have lasted too well. So I think my particular orientation is that low artists understand technologies actually rather well. For instance, when synthesizers first started appearing you had the choice between the Boulez/Stockhausen school of using them, which was terribly analytical and quite hard to listen to, or the rock and roll way of using the, and I must say I prefer the latter. And I didn't go into that with a closed mind. My own background as a performer is in the music of Christian Wolf and Cage and Cornelius Cardew and suchlike, so my inclination was to believe in that, if you like, rather than the other.
Now the story goes that High artists understand the real nature of technology in a kind of way that Low artists don't I don't believe that story. I think they sometimes do, but I think Low artists do sometimes as well. I think technology has all sorts of implications, and they aren't only to do with how we modify our minds, they're also to do with how we modify the whole of the large brain which is the rest of the body as well.
Q: I am curious about Brian's opinion about governments and corporate sponsorship of the arts and in particular the fact that AT&T, which is the underwriter of this series is also a large contributor to Jessie Helm's campaign and the ironies apparent therein.
BE: First of all I don't think there's an absolute answer to a question like this, in the sense that I don't think that through any degree of discussion, any amount of it, we'll agree about this. Not only you and me, perhaps, but everybody else. It comes down to something much more vague, which is: what kind of society do you want to live in?
It's not something that you can ultimately defend.You can't say, "I want to live on this society because it's the right thing for humans to do." We don't have a way of saying what the right thing for humans to do is, I think. We might be able to indicate a few of the things that are clearly not the right thing to do, like killing girl children at birth might not be the best way to run a society. But I think it still isn't ultimately defensible on what are called moral grounds, we can only say in the end "actually, I don't want to live in a society like that" and personally I want to live in a society which allows artists to do weird things. Including to piss on each other if necessary! And I want to live in a society that allows scientists to do funny things too, which is actually a much more controversial issue, I think. And I can't defend that, other than by saying "that's the world I want to live in", and by contributing my own actions towards making such a world. But I don't think there's a fundamental argument for it as opposed to the world that Jessie Helms might want to live in. The only thing on my side, I figure, is that Jessie Helms is going to die sooner than me (laughter and applause).
Q: You said several times tonight, I believe, that Low Art can make you happy or sad, and you seem to exclude High Art from having that capability, and the second question is, why do you believe that the value of gold is obvious?
BE: I don't believe that the value of gold is obvious, I believe that the consensus about the value of gold is obvious, and that's actually a slightly different thing. Operationally that means the value of gold is obvious; if the consensus is strong enough, that is the value. If everyone in this room agrees that this thing I've pulled out of my pocket is a dollar, that's what it's worth. It's only when suddenly you find that I've printed another seventeen million out there, then you start to doubt the value. Do you see what I mean? Value is a consensus issue, it is not intrinsic.
Regarding the other part of the question, I don't intend to say that High Art can't make you happy or sad. What I said was, in Low Art whether or not a thing can do this is very, very important, it's perhaps the most important item of judgement in Low Art: does it make me happy? does it make me sad? does it make me dance? does it make me go out and buy things. These are the ways that we decide to buy Low Art. That doesn't quite apply in High Art.
Now, of course, there are High Art pieces that make us happy and sad and all the other things as well, reflective and melancholy and so on, but those are not quite the considerations which propel an artist up or down the plateau, There's another set of considerations, I think, and they're mostly the result of a fairly complex story that's being told. It's one of those stories, you know, this thread is seen, we say "ok, this is the story which leads to this artist".
To give you an example of an interesting story, I studied under a painter called Tom Phillips, who studied under Frank Auberbach, who studied under David Bomberg, who studied under Walter Sickert, who studied under degas, I can trace this back to Raphael, and beyond him to Veroccio, which is why I mentioned him earlier, into the distant realms of goldsmithing. Well actually it's statistically likely that probably all of you here could trace yourselves back to the same place, because there are so many branches. But if I chose to, I could tell that story as my way of justifying, validating, what I' doing.
It seems like a sterile story to tell, but I used that as a kind of analogy of the kind of story that gets told in magazines like this (holds up Flash Art. I don't mean they make such as obvious, "well, Raphael taught so and so, and it ended up at me, so there". It's not quite like that, but there is certainly a tinge of that in these historical pictures that are drawn. Just read an art magazine, don't believe me, read an art magazine and see what you think.
Q: How do you compare the salesman Jeff Koons with the salesman Salvador Dali?
BE: I think Jeff Koons is a better salesman, because Salvador Dali kind of lost, he sold out, as far as the art world is concerned. So he lost his support there in a way. Salvador Dali kind of crossed the line and fell off the plateau. So Koons is presently much better at that game, I think, because he actually more honest about it as well. There was a long interview with him by Kristine McKenna, it was in the LA Times I think, and in the last part of the interview she said "So really all you're selling is salesmanship", and he said "Yes! And it's a damn good product", so I have to admire him for being straightforward about it. Do you have any feelings about him? Do you think it has nothing to do with Art? I think it's a lot to do with contemporary art, because it's asking a question which I think hasn't been faced, in a way, or is only kind of being negotiated at the moment, which is, how do we decide on the value of things? It's very clear, I think, that Jeff Koons is not appealing to fundamental values, universals, all that kind of thing, the kind of thing that tacitly underpins all of this. But his work is still selling, he sells his work for a lot of money. So what do these people think they're buying I wonder? It's a really interesting mystery to me, I'd love to know. Does anyone here collect Jeff Koons? It's never been possible for me to ask that of an audience before with any hope that anyone might say "yes"!
(No one says "yes" - Ed.)
Q: Does the High Art/Low Art conflict just represent a class war?
BE: It is to some extent a class war, but I don't think class wars are so bad as they're made out to be. Class wars are ways of people in big societies dividing themselves up into cooperative groups, is one way of looking at it. It doesn't have to be seen as a picture of oppression. It can be seen as a picture of oases of consensus. They may get forcibly divided, yes, but they may choose to make the best of those divisions too. And to capitalise on them in fact, that's also possible. I suppose the thing that one notices about High Art/Low Art is that it very easily falls into the mind/body as a kind of system. Now of course I recognise that there are fuzzy edges to that analogy, but when you read a magazine like Flash Art, or something like that, you don't generally read of people going in and saying "God, I walked in and it was fantastic, this red was so bright" you don't get that kind of reaction. That is not an accepted part of the conversation in that world just as the type of conversation that I might have about The Velvet Underground isn't really an accepted conversation in the Low Art world. So the types of conversations which which go one actually affect the value that generated in those areas. I keep trying to make this point about how value is generated. You see, I don't think that value is just in something. I think it's a product of a whole discourse about something. It's a product of conversation. And I guess what I think is a shame is that these two conversations tend to get confined to two separate areas. It means that the benefits of the ways of conversing about the things are kept separate from one another.
Now I think there are all sorts of economic reasons why this would be the case. They're both defending theirs plateaux, and they're both defending high status and high profit activities. But I guess my mission is to try and unite these conversations in some way, to be able to have both of them together and to be able to have both of them to talk about a Marvin Gaye record and a Jeff Koons sculpture.
Q: What are you listening to?
BE: Something I've been listening to a lot lately is a song by My Bloody Valentine called Soon. Have you heard that? It's a very, very interesting piece. If this had been made by someone who was bald and with a beard in an electronic music lab it would be seen as a great piece of art, I'm sure. It happens to be a young English pop band. It's a fantastic piece, it's a wall of distortion with a few motifs arising like icebergs out of it here and there. It's probably, I guess, the vaguest piece of music ever to become a hit; it's hard to hear the beat, it's very hard to hear the key, there are no lyrics as far as I know (though there are voices sort of waving around). It's really set a new standard actually for pop music. So I'm listening to that, I'm also listening to some rap stuff.
Q: Do you miss performing? It sees a lot of your recent works before this last album were pretty personal and something not to be performed on stage.
BE: Well I did a performance today, didn't I? (laughs) I'm not keen on stage performance really, and most of the music I've ever made has been unperformable anyway, since it's completely made in studios. It's made in the kind of way you might make a painting rather than the way you'd make a piece of music: by layering things and by scraping things off again, and putting them on at a different scale and this kind of thing. So it's not a performance music. That doesn't mean I'll never perform it, but it would be really quite a big re-think to imagine how that might be performed. I've never really performed my own music. I performed when I belonged to Roxy Music, but I haven't, except for five gigs I think, I haven't performed since then.
Q: After decades of trying to erase the distinction between High Art and Low Art in Eastern Europe, do you see a new kind of art emerging from Eastern Europe, and what do you think of that?
BE: I don't know the Eastern European scene as well as I know the Russian scene, and I don't know that terribly well, but I think that something very, very exciting was happening in Russia the last couple of times I was there. Two things impressed me:
One was that I went to a great big exhibition of various Moscow artist groups, and each group was given a space and was allowed to choose as many members as they wanted to exhibit there, and the space was absolutely crammed full of work. In fact it was so full of work that some people had put up a big painting and then sat on an easel in front it a smaller painting, which I liked a lot, so that you actually had to look behind one painting to see another. It was like a salon, you know, the old pictures of salons with pictures up to the ceiling. And it was really exciting, because every possible shuffle of cards was there. It was everything you'd ever seen in modern art - everything you'd seen since 1860 or something like that, shuffled up together, and there was then this hand dealt, that was one artist's work, and then there's this hand, another artist's work, plus a lot of new things that I hadn't seen before.
But what was really impressive was that at the side of this great big exhibition they had a kind of meeting room, and the artists could congregate there, and members of the public could meet there as well, and members of the public would talk to the artists about their work. And what really impressed me was the frankness with which this discussion was conducted. I was in on one of these and someone was translating for me, and there was a typical Russian cleaning lady, a baboushka (you know, they're all very, very big and short with these hats on) and she was saying to this artist, "But look, the arm is too big, it's obviously too long", and the artist was saying, "Yeah but I had to make the arm that long 'cause the picture wouldn't have been balanced". This argument was going on and I thought that was very refreshing to see quite ordinary people thinking that they had the right to intervene and say to an artist, "You've got it wrong". We haven't really seen that for a long time in Western art, I think.
BRIAN ENO: MY SQUELCHY LIFE
Some of you may have read reviews of My Squelchy Life and since then realised that the record never actually appeared in the shops. As far as we know the only other time this has happened was with Prince's Black Album, where masters and artwork had been delivered to the record company and advance copies were sent out to reviewers. To date, the Black Album has not been released. The same situation has arisen with My Squelchy Life.
On August 5, one month before the scheduled release date, Warner Bros decided that this release date slot would be too crowded, and that Brian's album would not be given enough 'space', since September is the busiest release time of the year for the business. They decided to bump the release to early 1992, However, when Brian heard this he decided to take back the master tapes.
At the time of going to press we do not know exactly what will appear, and how much of the eventual album will be tracks from My Squelchy Life, and how much will be new work, either vocal or instrumental. All we do know is that the album, as it now stands, will not be released.
As a number of advance copies went into circulation, it is almost inevitable that bootlegs will appear. If you hear of any copies being made available please let us know!
By the time Opal Information 21 is produced we will be able to give you much more detailed information about Brian's forthcoming release, and, we sincerely hope, a firm release date.
Andrew logan is collaborating with Brian on a project in Japan for 1992. We will give further details of this in the next issue. As a prelude, David Elliot, Director of the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, has kindly allowed us to reproduce the following text from Andrew Logan: An Artistic Adventure, produced for Andrew's 1991 exhibitions.
AESTHETICS FOR ALL
Curiouser and curiouser cried Alice... she was now more than nine feet high... it was as much as she could do, lying down on one side, to look through into the garden with one eye.
Andrew logan works both as a sculptor and Master of ceremonies in a world of artistic adventure; in this constructed universe, like Lewis carroll's alternative, the unexpectedly large meets the infinitesimally small, and suspension of beliefs is rewarded by extraordinary surprises. Here the motorway of Modernism is bypassed by the Yellow Brick Road of artistic fantasy on which the balance between the magical and the banal rests on a knife edge. It is the measure of risk that makes Logan's work so compelling.
Logan's garden may be perceived with one eye, lying down on one side, or it may loom over and almost smother the observer. It remains, however, the world of nature, celebrated by the artist through the means of artifice.
Logan's work and the strategies by which he presents it are built upon a series of such paradoxes. Neither satirical nor holier than thou, he gently debunks the pretensions of the art world by focusing on the aspirations, dreams and artefacts of popular pictures - East and West. He disregards the, at present, hotly contested distinctions between "high" and "low" art as patronising. Creative energy is universal; formal archetypes cross any cultures: the flying horse, the pyramid, the hammer, the sickle, the eye, the egg, figures of Gods and Goddesses. logan imagines a universe without divisions: the botanical, zoological, anthropological and astrophysical worlds are all subsumed within a greater unity. Within the human world, division by gender is also eroded by the hermaphroditic persona of the Host/Hostess for the Alternative Miss World.
These interventions are sometimes compared with those of Andy Warhol but their approach is fundamentally different. By presenting reproductions of Campbells Soup tins or Brillo Boxes for sale, Warhol was making the point that "anything can be art". From this tabula rasa he transformed series of mechanically reproduced images - Jackie, Marilyn, Mao, a car crash, an electric chair - into contemporary icons.
Logan does not share Warhol's bleak view and celebrate the opposite view that "art can be discovered anywhere". The urge for self decoration is one of the ost fundamental human impulses; this was first celebrated by Logan in his prize-winning entry for a Fancy Dress competition in Witney in 1953.
Logan is concerned to respect the aesthetic sense which everyone has, although they may never call it that. People have their own ideas about property and extravagance, about plainness and beauty, about glamour and the distasteful; these form a bridge between reality and their dreams. In adopting an eccentric rather than an avant-gardist stance, Logan's work becomes a channel through which others can recognise and enjoy their own potential. In this unthreatening universe, as well as in the mirrored surfaces of many of the sculptures, Logan provides a framework in which observers are able to see themselves,literally and figuratively, in his work.
The conceptions of his projects are vast but the materials remain modest and that also contributes to their approachability. In Logan's democratic art, good manners and sound commonsense are important; a homily passed down from the artist's mother crystallises a sentiment to which many people will subscribe: If you only have two pennies left, spend one on a loaf and one on a rose. The loaf will give you life: the rose the reason for living.
Museum of Modern Art, Oxford
Reader Ian Stonehouse discovered yet another use... as his recent letter relates:
A few years ago I was burgled and whilst clearing up the mess that had been created I noticed my set of Oblique Strategies were open and had apparently been looked through by the burglar. On closer inspection I saw that he had left a pristine thumb print on the back of one of the cards. I took the set and 'evidence' card along to the police station and they asked to borrow them for a few days as this thumb print could be very useful in tracking down the burglar. Well the burglar was caught and the thumb print was a large part of the evidence against him and he 'went down'. When I eventually got my Oblique Strategies back the detective constable handed them over and apologised for the delay in returning them; he said that all the blokes in his office had spent a lot of time reading them and that "it'd helped to solve a lot of personal problems and other things". He said they were considering getting a set. I don't know if they ever did, but this all made up slightly for the burglary in a funny way. I often wondered what was said in court when the card was presented as evidence (I wasn't there). I could imagine the judge saying "pray, what is an oblique strategy?" I forget which actual card it was that had the thumb print on, I would love to know out of interest - perhaps it was "Once the search is in progress, something will be found".
U2: ACHTUNG BABY
Because the album was partly recorded in Berlin, the record company acquired the cars and then asked different people associated with the album to paint them. The cars will be bused in various ways - on stage, in advertisements, and in promotional videos.
Brian Eno is designing and supplying the video tapes to be used on stage for U2's forthcoming tour, which starts in the USA in March.
WATCH OUT FOR: This spring sees the return of UK TV's Channel 4 programme The Thing Is... presented by Paul Morley. One of the first programmes of this new series concerns Brian Eno, and is called The Thing Is... An Interview With Brian Eno. It centres around a semi-humorous interview with Brian, and the half-hour programme certainly shows a side of Brian that most people are unaware of.
PLEASE NOTE: Opal Ltd was originally set up to be a company base from which Brian Eno could pursue the many and varied projects with which he has become involved in over the years. However, during the past few years many more additional responsibilities and activities were taken on by Opal. It has been decided that Opal Ltd should return to its original purpose, and in future Opal will represent only Brian, John Paul Jones, and occasionally, Andrew Logan.
Opal Information will therefore now concentrate much more on Brian's projects and writings, but naturally we will continue to give you news on the careers of previous Opal associates. We will also continue to provide interviews with and news about Daniel Lanois.
Land Records will not continue in its present form. We hope that the Land records catalogue will become available again, via a new company, and we will of course report on this in Opal Information as soon as any firm decision is reached.
PREVIOUS FEATURE: OPAL INFORMATION (NUMBER 19, 1991)