The Australian JUNE 1, 2009 - by Lynden Barber


Brian Eno, paid by NSW taxpayers to curate the Sydney arts festival Luminous, is in two minds about whether he should have accepted the funding, the British musician, producer and thinker said on Friday.

In his keynote speech to open the festival at the Sydney Opera House, Eno expressed sympathy for a planned - but cancelled - demonstration outside the venue by local artists demanding they should have received the funding instead.

"If you want to revitalise a city the cheapest way is to give a lot of money to young artists, and I don't know why governments don't do it more often," he said to applause.

A founding member of Roxy Music, Eno is renowned for the invention of ambient music and his productions of classic albums by Talking Heads, David Bowie and U2 among others. But more broadly he's known as a visual artist and popular music's reigning intellectual. The latter role was on display during a wide-ranging, hundred-minute talk that made frequent comparisons between the worlds of arts and science, discussed the purpose and definition of art, and proposed ways of tackling climate change.

Despite believing cities should support local artists, the festival curator said he had not sorted out his feelings about whether artists should get public money or not. He pointed out he was in Australia "thanks to the largesse of the public purse and the Australian taxpayer. I don't always have my shows supported by public money and I have a slightly uneasy attitude towards it," he said.

"Beyond that is a deeper question that too often doesn't get asked because it's too difficult: should the public be expected to fund the arts at all? What do artists do for us?" he said, adding that the question was often ignored because there isn't a good argument at the moment as to what art does. If you asked scientists what they did, you'd get clear answers in which certain ideas would keep coming up, but if you asked artists the same question you wouldn't get a consensus.

"This presents a problem when you go to the taxpayer," said Eno. "It's perfectly legitimate to me that the taxpayer should ask, 'why'?"

It didn't help that "most writing about art is of such poor quality that it should be banned," he said. "The people who do it should be given something useful to do; sweeping, for instance."

As an exercise he had put together phrases such as "issues of gender", "discourse" and "commodity" randomly into sentences and found that people couldn't tell the difference between this and real art writing.

Eno proposed a definition of art as "everything you don't have to do". Although we have to wear clothes, "we do things with clothes that have nothing to do with keeping warm, they are about style".

This capacity for self-expression could even be found in the handles of screwdrivers, he said, projecting images including feathered and polka-dotted examples apparently designed for women. He suggested art did not have intrinsic value, since it depended on historical context for its meaning, though most critics weren't keen to accept this.

The title of the address, Scenius, is a made-up word referring to Eno's ideas about the collective "genius" arising from "scenes" devoted to arts and science. He'd begun thinking about this after visiting a London exhibition of early twentieth century Russian painting. Before going he had the notion "there were all these greats, and then a whole lot of other people," but he found instead "a seething mass of all sorts of interesting people" including collectors, writers and filmmakers. He had become interested in discovering the chemistry of a successful scene, finding why some worked and not others.

Notable successes in science included the Manhattan Project, which produced the technology to make the atom bomb, and Britain's Bletchley Park, which brought together mathematicians and even crossword puzzlers to crack the German Enigma code. In arts, the work of the early Walt Disney studio; in society and arts, the hippie movement in San Francisco.

Scenius had not worked so well in the case of the Santa Fe Institute, set up to study complexity theory. Eno's conclusion: a clear goal or sense of direction was necessary. But how did that translate to arts scenes, which tend not to have goals? His answer was that they often acted in opposition to things and that could be "very energising. An important part of art is getting rid of the old world".

To tackle climate change, a successful "scenius" of leading world thinkers was needed. This could try to develop cold fusion, which would mean very cheap energy with few side effects.