The Institute of Art and Ideas JULY 3, 2023 - by Ben Oswald


Does art hold the key to progress?

Brian Eno is one of the most decorated musicians of his generation. More than this though, he is considered a pioneer within the artistic community. His exploration of different mediums, genres and technologies is indicative of his undying curiosity to explore the boundaries of art, and how it can function in the world. In this exclusive interview for the IAI, Eno unpacks the nature of art, and how it is best mobilised as a tool for inspiring social and political change

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The mixing of 'Art' and 'Progress' makes for a curious potion. When we consider the latter term, we tend to associate it with technological advancement, or perhaps the promotion of liberal values within society. Yet with art it seems a bit harder to decipher. From one perspective, we can examine the capacity of art as a tool for making social and political progress. Artists can often serve as powerful voices for social causes and help to make vivid the most sobering of truths. Another way of combining art with progress may encourage us to consider the notion of whether art, as a discipline, improves upon itself. A rather contentious narrative, given the fact that art seems to represent a pocket of nostalgia, with many people longing for the classical composers, old masters, and epic poets of bygone times. I began by asking Eno where he stood on the latter of these two.

"In terms of the way I think about art and the way it works in society", Eno admitted, "some meanings of 'progress' as a term don't make sense". When we consider it in its most common sense, i.e. of things improving, Eno asserts that "art is not related to that at all. Art is a response to how we live, where we live, and what we feel about those things. It's always a kind of process of imagining different worlds and the feelings we'd have about them". For Eno then, art is about experimentation, exploring hypothetical lands, and being attentive to the thoughts and feelings they inspire within us.

Although Eno was keen to move away from seeing the evolution of art within any kind of hierarchical structure, we do nonetheless continue to hold art criticism as a valuable practice. It must be the case then that certain works, and the worlds they create, are intrinsically better than others? Eno was also keen to reject this line of thought. "One criticism levelled at art", he mused, "is that it is dismissed as being escapist; that it takes us out of this world. But I also think, what's wrong with escaping? We do it all the time; we go on holiday, daydream. So, in light of this, I don't think that we can really say that some worlds are more crucial than others".

I was keen to pick up on the relationship between art and emotion, which is seemingly placed at the kernel of Eno's thinking. And the significance of this cannot be underestimated, since it is emotion which, according to Eno, drives our most important life decisions. "Much of human knowledge is based on feelings. We think knowledge is evidential and deduction. But when we think about our most important decisions; what job we want to do, who you live with. For those of us with the luxury of choice, we make these decisions not by cold hard calculation, but rather our emotional responses to things".

Yet isn't there a prevailing sense within today's cultural climate that, given the recent focus on STEM subjects, art simply isn't as useful as a tool of progress? Eno remarks that the role of art is often misunderstood in this regard. "Maths, science and technology are all are wonderful, but they aren't the only tools in our toolbox. We have the ability to use art as a set of antennae that enable us to feel our way into uncertain futures, futures about which there isn't much evidence or data to work with. And in this sense, the analytical science way of viewing those won't work". This need to produce art is deep-rooted within us as a species, with Eno keen to stress that "children learn by play, but adults play through art".

Not everyone, however, is ready to accept the line that art is instrumental in helping us understand ourselves and the world around us. How is it that art can achieve this? Here, Eno acknowledges that there is a major divide in the artistic landscape. He views climate change as a timely example; a topic which was placed at the centre of his most recent individual studio album ForeverAndEverNoMore. "We are always asked; why don't you artists do something about climate change?". But these requests are often calls for what Eno terms as "attractive posters"; artwork with such a clear and obvious message that it is essentially a marketing campaign. "That's not to say it doesn't have a place, as the good thing about posters with clear slogans is that they get reactions. But for that reaction to turn into anything useful, I think there has to be something... a deeper shift going on". Eno argues that the more effective art in this regard deals with something more fundamental regarding our relationship with the natural world. He views it as vital that we foster "a different relationship to the world now than we believed in the past, especially compared to the Victorian idea of mankind dominating nature and being the apex of the natural pyramid". Our relationship with the world is a topic which extends far beyond simply our environmental policy, but delves into "how capitalism, our markets and our education system are structured". This can be engendered by films, paintings and music, but Eno proposes that currently, "literature is giving us the best answers". He cites the importance of writers like Kim Stanley Robinson, and Robert Macfarlane, who have talked about the degree to which we are interwoven with nature. "Such works aren't revolutionary in message, but they are writing about the depth and density of our connections with the natural world". Eno continues, "I don't think any of those writers sat down with the idea; 'I'm going to do something about climate change', but they're working at a deep, fundamental level", and, resultantly, possess the ability to alter our most fundamental beliefs.

It is clear that Eno thinks of the most socially impactful art as that which deals with the underlying structures of our world, but where are the limits of art's didacticism? Should it offer solutions to the problems of today, or is it sufficient for it simply to illuminate the issues we face? Eno argues that the best art takes a more hands off approach. "It presents us with a certain world, and asks us; 'how do you feel about this?'". From here, it is up to us as the audience to, if we so wish, reshape our world and the values which we hold. For Eno, the development of Bauhaus design embodies this process perfectly. "Before Bauhaus came along, society thought that the things that were crafted by hand were valuable, and things crafted by machine were cheap and impersonal, devoid of no human meaning. The idea was that the artist added beauty into the world. But as Bauhaus design developed, it offered a challenge to this perspective. People began to accept that beauty was not necessarily tethered to the idea of direct human touch". But even more than this, argued Eno, it caused a sea-change in terms of viewing that "if an object fulfils its function, it will be beautiful". And this has reshaped not only the way we think, but also the way we interact. "People now come out and say I'm more Bauhaus than Laura Ashley; meaning I believe in this certain kind of relationship". For Eno, "these become shorthand metaphors for how we feel about our relationships with the world." And this speaks to just how fundamental the role of art is in shaping our perspectives of the world, and our place within it. "Yet few artists, and even fewer politicians can understand this", Eno contends. "What we are doing when experimenting with style, is experimenting with our relationships, and understanding our space within the scheme of things".

So, for our relationship with the world to evolve, art must move the needle in developing new styles and forms for us to latch onto. With Bauhaus, technology and the rapid period of post-war industrialisation was the main driver for artistic development. Yet whilst technology such as AI continues to expand at a rapid pace, and doom-mongers fear the job of an artist will soon become futile, how should we seek to balance our relationship between art and technology?

"This is a continual negotiation. But I think the best way to look at it is that technology is just an extension of ourselves. For example, if I wear spectacles, I can see the keys on my keyboard more vividly; then if I use a microscope, I can see bacteria on the keyboard, whilst on the other end of a spectrum the telescope can help me see the stars. Us humans have always been extending ourselves". But Eno acknowledges that as a result of this drive for new technology, we have turned from generalists to specialists. "We used to know how to build a place to sleep, get food, defend ourselves. However, now, I can just be a musician. I can rely on other people to grow food, to manage the traffic system, and so and so on". This has also led to a gradual disconnect within humanity, as we can now inhabit wildly different worlds from each other. "Whereas twenty thousand years ago we all lived our lives in a similar way in similar worlds, aside from climate, now we have the options of going into completely separate worlds. I could live in a world which is entirely different from the one you live in - what I have to do during my day, for instance". And here, argues Eno, is where art serves a vital purpose. "One of the very important functions of art is synchronisation; the attempt to keep all of our brains in some kind of relatively similar world". This revelation struck Eno in one of the most unexpected circumstances. "I was on a bus coming down Kilburn High Road and heard two ladies discussing what they saw on EastEnders the night before. From listening in, it was apparent that one of the characters on the show decided to admit she was gay to her family, just hours before she was supposed to marry her male fiancée. They were discussing the way it unfolded and asking questions such as 'should she have told fiancé before her parents?'. And despite initial disagreement, the pair ultimately came to a consensus, reaching synchronisation of how to feel about it".

For Eno, this process appears vital in finding a common humanity, and helping forge a peaceful society. He continues, "(S)o art is the only mechanism for resynchronising across people we don't know. For example, I could ask a stranger; 'is the future more 1984 or Brave New World?' And as long as we both have read those works, we can share these great big metaphors, and they can stimulate discussion between us". For Eno, we thus "learn things about each other by seeing the similarities and differences of how we experience art together. This is a testament to the power of art".

The extent to which art can help us answer the major political and ethical dilemmas of our time remains to be seen. In the short term however, as the threat of a global conflict continues to loom and inflation continues to soar in the UK, there is an ever-greater focus on ensuring our basic needs are met. It is therefore understandable that many consider art an indulgence or even a distraction, rather than an essential component of society. Yet following this conversation it struck me that we'd be foolish to let art fall by the wayside, regardless of our economic, political and social circumstances. In fact, it may just be that art is at its most potent when we are riddled with conflict, division, and an uncertain future. More than this, art can act as a beacon of hope; the only medium through which we can access a space for contemplation and connection. Two values of which we are in dire need, now more than ever.