Brian Eno Reveals the Hidden Purpose of All Art

Here is a brief excerpt from ‘s interview of Brian Eno for The New York Times. To read the complete interview, check out other resources, and obtain information about deep-discount subscription rates, please click here.

Credit: Bráulio Amado

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Brian Eno has been involved in so many varied and significant musical adventures that to call him a Zelig-like figure — which is often done — is to risk understating his reach and importance. The English musician and ideas man helped birth glam and art rock as a member of Roxy Music. He had a strong hand in iconic works by David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2 and Coldplay. Across a series of his own influential albums he pretty much invented ambient music. Eno’s clutch of nonambient solo albums are by turns nervy, catchy, enigmatic and moving. And so he has gone, fruitfully hither and yon, up to his latest, this fall’s “FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE.” (Listening to the album, with its musical evocations of technological decay and natural resilience, while my commuter train rumbles through swampy New Jersey industrial blight has often turned my usual emotionally inert trip to the office into a roller coaster of despair and acceptance.) Oh, and Eno, who is 74, has also led a parallel career as a roving music theorist-slash-public intellectual, one with a newly urgent focus. “I’m thinking about what most other people are thinking about now,” Eno says, “which is climate change and the threat of the collapse of civilization, which seems to get a year closer every two months.”

I know that over the years you’ve asked yourself, in a self-critical way, whether your work is really worth doing. But now, at your age, the bulk of the work is done. Your time has mostly been spent. Knowing that, do you feel like your answer to that question — which is the question of how you’ve lived your life — has been satisfactory?

I think I’m still answering it. I’m still working on it. I’ve wanted to write a book for a long time: Why does art exist? Why do we have aesthetic preferences? There are all sorts of ways of explaining this. Some of them are biological: We like things that are red because it’s the same color as blood and sex organs and that sort of thing. But there are much more interesting ways of saying what the role of art is in the maintenance of a society. I don’t want to die before I get that done. [Laughs.] What I want to say is that culture — art, if you like — has an important set of functions in preparing us for the future. If you read a book like “1984,” you’re surrendering to a world with certain values and attributes and seeing what it feels like. Then, when you see something a bit like that starting to exist, you have a way of understanding it and how that might feel.

I get how what you’re saying makes sense for a novel like “1984,” but how does it make sense for art forms like nonnarrative music, which you make, or abstract paintings? That’s the most interesting question you could have asked. I’m absolutely fascinated by this question, because I think I have an answer, and I don’t think it has ever been well answered. What happens when you go look at a painting you’ve never seen before?

What I think happens is that when you look at that picture, you’re seeing it in the context of all the other pictures you’ve ever seen. When you go and look at something new, what you’re saying is, “What’s different about this experience?” In many instances, there won’t be anything different, in which case you’re not that interested. But if you can look at it and say, “That’s more angular. That’s fuzzier. That’s much more this, much more that” — we’re very good at understanding differences in feeling within our own long narrative of looking at pieces of work. But what does it mean, for example, when a picture is scratchier than another? You read that as, This is urgent. The artist didn’t have time to make it pretty. We read messages that don’t have a text quality to them, and we still pick up on the ideas that make them different. Or take Bauhaus.

You have ideas about how art does what it does. Do you also have ideas about what makes artists what they are? I’m thinking about something like charisma. What is it that makes some of the people you’ve worked with — Bryan Ferry or David Bowie or Bono or David Byrne — into stars? What accounts for that quality?

That’s an interesting question. I think charisma comes out of the sense you have that not only is somebody different but they’re also confident about it, committed to it, obsessed by it even. We don’t find uncertainty charismatic. Uncertainty doesn’t work for anybody very well, because in general the media don’t appreciate people like that. I would like to cultivate a charisma of uncertainty, a charisma of admitting that you’re making it up as you go along. I remember this funny thing. One day when we were working on the Passengers album with U2 in Dublin, Pavarotti came into the studio because he was singing on one of those tracks.

“Miss Sarajevo,” a stirring song from “Original Soundtracks 1,” a 1995 album by U2 and Eno credited to Passengers.

We’re in the main room saying, Should we put the chorus here, no, let’s double that section, da da da. Pavarotti’s standing in the control room watching what we’re doing. Then he says, “You are making it up!” I think it was the first time he realized that, at some point, music is made up!

As opposed to not just springing out fully formed? Exactly. It doesn’t come as a whole package and then you learn to sing it. I thought, If he was surprised by that, how much more would other people be surprised by this notion that things are born messily? They don’t come out with any charisma at all. They start out, they’ve got blood on them, you’ve got to clean them up, surround them with love and attention until they can stand on their own. Yeah, a charisma of uncertainty would be my thing. In a way, David Byrne has that. One of the attractions of his persona is that he’s not afraid to weave in confusion: “How did I get here?”

Since we’re talking about how things work: How do you want your new album to work for people?

I suppose I’m trying to make a space where people can rest their attention in one place for a while. One of the epidemics of now is the inability to focus or concentrate. I was watching someone at lunchtime today. She had a book and was on her earphones and on the phone. There could be a postmodern argument for saying that this is a new way of absorbing and collaging material together. I personally find that quite hard to do. I’m addicted to the idea that you put yourself in a place and surrender to it. It’s about making space for a kind of attention that you’re not normally offered by entertainment media. The other thing is that if you’re writing things, and they have words, and therefore suggest the possibility that they are about something, then what are they about? Although this isn’t an album about climate change, it’s an album made by someone aware of living in the era of climate change.

Along those lines, there’s beauty in your new album, but it’s also deeply sad. Is that an accurate reflection of how you’re feeling about the world?

For me, some of the music is very blissful. The last track is an idea of a kind of future that I would like. Also the track called “We Let It In” is not pessimistic. There is a threat built into it — that low barking sound — but that’s because I can’t conceive of a future where there isn’t a threat. I think we’re in for a hard ride for maybe half a century. Then it will either be the end of civilization or a reborn humanity with a different set of ideas about who we are and where we belong and how we must relate to things in order to survive. So I see a pessimistic short-term future. Not short-term for the person who’s living it but short-term in the history of civilization. Then I see this point at which we either really fail or we start to succeed. I think the succeed side has a very good chance because of the amount of human intelligence at work. There has never been more intelligence on the planet than there is now. Not only because there’s more brains than ever but there are also more augmentations of brains. There are more connections among all these brains. We’re in a sort of intelligence explosion. I hope.

It doesn’t always seem like it. No, it certainly doesn’t. [Laughs.]

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Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

David Marchese is a columnist for The New York Times and its Magazine. His work has also appeared in Medium, O Globo, The New York Times en Español, El País, Estadão, HuffPost, ABC News</em> (Australia), La Vanguardia, and Yahoo among others.

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