Art Fag City MARCH 15, 2012 - by Paddy Johnson


Back in 1995, Brian Eno's opening speech at Turner Prize award ceremony caused all kinds of clamor. The speech lampooned the arts community for its lack of intellectual rigor, comparing the openness and public knowledge of scientific debates with the often-impenetrable discourse around art.

Eno, in his diary, recounts that at the ceremony, "various people looked at me like I was Satan, or with obvious pity." The next day, he notes that he was stopped in the street and congratulated. Fast forward seventeen years later, and we've stopped talking about the speech quite so much; up until yesterday's dinner conversation I wasn't aware it of it at all.

When read today, however, the words sound as fresh and exciting as ever, and demand everything I often feel the fine art world lacks. As such, I'm reproducing the text in its entirety for readers below - with the disclaimer that I also believe the field as a whole has greatly improved over the last few years, thanks to the Internet. Intellectual laziness still plagues us, but I, for one, don't have any problem distilling why I like art and what I think its purpose is: art makes ideas complex, facilitates conversation, and helps us see things in new ways. For this reason, I couldn't be a happier participant.

The Turner Prize is justly celebrated for raising all sorts of questions in the public mind about art and its place in our lives. Unfortunately, however, the intellectual climate surrounding the fine arts is so vapourous and self-satisfied that few of these questions are ever actually addressed, let alone answered.

Why is it that all of us here - presumably members of the arts community - probably know more about the currents of thought in contemporary science than those in contemporary art? Why have the sciences yielded great explainers like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Gould, while the arts routinely produce some of the loosest thinking and worst writing known to history? Why has the art world been unable to articulate any kind of useful paradigm for what it is doing now? I'm not saying that artists should have to 'explain' their work, or that writers exist to explain it for them, but that there could and should be a comprehensive public discussion about what art does for us, what is being learned from it, what it might enable us to do or think or feel that we couldn't before. Most of the public criticism of the arts is really an attempt to ask exactly such questions, and, instead of just priding ourselves on creating controversy by raising them, trying to answer a few might not be such a bad idea. The sciences rose to this challenge, and the book sales those authors enjoy indicate a surprising public appetite for complex issues, the result of which has been a broadening social dialogue about the power and beauty and limits of science. There's been almost no equivalent in the arts. The making of new culture is, given our performance in the fine and popular arts, just about our only growth industry aside from heritage cream teas and land-mines, but the lack of a clear connection between all that creative activity and the intellectual life of the society leaves the whole project poorly understood, poorly supported and poorly exploited.

If we're going to expect people to help fund the arts, whether through taxation or lotteries, then surely we owe them an attempt at an explanation of what value we think the arts might be to them... And if I had another two minutes of your time I'd have a go.