Monday, 24 May 2010

Eno appeals for arts funding for the health of our society

24 May 2010. Last night, in the Brighton Dome, Brian Eno appealed to government to fund the arts. Without the arts, ran the subtext of Eno's message, our society can’t develop properly.

Eno started out by explaining that he was addressing the proposed cuts in arts funding by the British government. He noted there are no proposals to cut funding to the Trident nuclear missile programme, and said he was not proud of the fact that Britain is the number two arms producer in the world. He said the arts community is failing to sell itself to government as successfully as the arms industry. The arts community is failing to convince government of the importance of the arts.

Eno said we are at a Darwinian moment – at present the arts are considered to be interesting, but not essential to human development. He compared this attitude to the study of nature before Darwin's theory of evolution changed our idea of the place of humans in the world: we discovered that humans are not isolated, but are connected with all life, part of the same evolutionary chain. Now, says Eno, we are going to realise that the arts are connected with human development and healthy society.

He illustrated his point with an overhead projection of screwdrivers. They all had the same business end. The other end was the stylistic end, in many variations. He showed slides of screwdrivers with curved and straight, spotted and pink, and even be-feathered handles. Hairstyles were another example. On one end of the scale, we might think we don't need to cut our hair, or only need the most utilitarian cut, on the other end we see an infinite variety of styles.

The arts, said Eno, are “anything we don't have to do”. But, in both examples of screwdrivers and hair, we can see that the whole does not work without the stylistic part.

Eno made his points obliquely. His strategy was that of the creative writer: show, not tell. Describe the situation, and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions.

Imagination, he said, is key to how we develop as humans, particularly how we learn to communicate. He talked about behavioural experiments with monkeys. And he talked about behavioural experiments with autistic children. They cannot communicate because they cannot imagine any reality other than their own, so it is hard for them to understand another person's point of view. They have not developed their imaginations in a way that allows them to function according to our society’s norm.

He talked about control and surrender. Our lives are increasingly about individual control, for example control of what we buy, and less about surrender of our individuality. From my point of view in the audience, I was thinking of the ego and the communal consciousness, common themes in philosophy from Buddhism to Christianity to Jung. But Eno avoided referring to any established schools of thought; he said he wanted to avoid jargon and elitism. He said he would not be mentioning any French philosophers. Who might they be, I wondered? Is he talking about the French revolutionaries who, with their battle cry of “liberte, egalite, fraternite”, proclaimed the rights of man and held up the individual as an ideal. Or was he thinking about Sartre, who romanticised the self-centred narcissism of the existentialist. Or maybe he was talking about the designer of the mind-body split himself: Descartes, creator of the ego concept of being: "I think: I am". All these intellectuals became wrapped up in the rotations of their minds and maybe forgot the real reason for existence: to simply be.

And what is simply being? Living in the present. Accepting, observing, wondering, imagining. Surrendering our instinct for control. Being is the art of living. These are my words; Eno limited himself to sketching a sort of umbrella called “surrender” which contained four words: "Sex", "Drugs", "Art" and "Religion". These are all spaces where we can surrender, and commune with a world outside our limited selves.

Eno did not give us conclusions. But it is not hard to draw them. Control has to be about materialism and science. If we do need "surrender" in our lives, to develop properly, what will happen if the possibility for “surrender” is taken away from us? Why are so many people developing autism? If art is not a possibility, will we increasingly take refuge in sex, drugs or religion?

Thought provoking stuff, and good that Eno got me to think it through for myself. But in case the government officials listening are too far gone in the their world of control to puzzle through the illustrations of life provided by Eno, here is my executive summary: we must support and encourage the arts as worthwhile pursuits in life. We must cease denigrating them as unimportant luxuries that must be cut in favour of spending on arms and anything else. For, if we don’t, we will stop functioning properly as individuals and as a society. Even if we cannot prove links between the arts and psychological development, think of where our present course is taking us. Think of autism, child violence, child abuse, drug addiction, alienation and more.

What can we do to make or society a better place? Make people feel valuable by supporting the arts. Not simply the high arts, but all the things we do but “we don’t have to do”: circus, street performance, comedy, cabaret, design, hairdressing and play. I mean: will more guns, roads or even more NHS walk-in centres stem the tide of casualties in our damaged society? What if we tried circus schools and dress-up competitions instead? Increase arts funding because it is essential to our proper development. Art is a safe way out of our problems, not an optional extra.

These are my conclusions from Eno’s observations. My companion, a talented (and sometimes tortured) artist, echoed these thoughts with his observation that his art is what keeps him sane (relatively). He wondered where he would be now if he had not had access to art.

Brain Eno presented “Brian Eno: This is an Illustrated Talk” on the last night of the 2010 Brighton Festival, of which he was this year's Guest Artistic Director.

11.53 am. I’ve just pitched this story to Michael, who answered the phone at the Guardian arts desk on behalf of arts editor, Melissa Dean. He said the paper had already carried enough stories about Eno and the Festival, and would not be interested in this story. I emphasised that this story was a call for action by artists to fight for government funding. He said that maybe I should try pitching to the news section. Well, perhaps Eno is right. If artists (and their champions in the media) won’t lead the campaign for arts funding, who will?


  1. My artistic friend said he couldn't post a comment, so he emailed this to me:

    "I like this article and I agree.

    We can’t afford to wait too long for the ‘Darwinian’ moment when art, and I mean art in the broadest sense of the word: from video to hairdressing, from sculpture to screwdriver handles, becomes truly understood by all, government included, as a vital ingredient for the health of any society.

    Understanding the importance of the practice of ‘arting’ (which adults do, as children do playing), will lead to a safer, more connected society. Lack of understanding and lack of funding will lead to the opposite.

    The media will play it's part in spreading the word or be found to be irrelevant by the society it fails to support.

    I find it hard to see myself as tortured as you describe but then how can I know how others see me? Does this make me slightly autistic? I don't think so."

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I did wonder about "tortured". It's a cliché. It's not the art that tortures. It's the not-art.