The Guardian SEPTEMBER 29, 2015 - by Tim Jonze


Brian Eno delivered this year's John Peel lecture and used it to deliver a moving and thought-provoking examination of why human beings make art. Here are the highlights...

Breast implants are art. So are apple strudels. - Much of Eno's speech was dedicated to the age-old question: what is art? His answer was nothing if not concise: art is everything that you don't have to do. To explain this, Eno pointed out that we need to eat, but we don't need to create a Baked Alaska. We need to move, but we don't have to do the rumba, or start twerking (unless you need to rapidly generate some hot takes, that is). So anything that isn't strictly necessary - from forming a football team to cake decoration via installing silicone implants in your chest - involves a degree of imagination and creativity. And whether rich or poor, we all take part in these artistic activities on a daily basis. Which begs the question why? And what purpose is it serving?

Art serves a similar purpose to... a Boeing 747 simulator - In the sense that we use art to deal with feelings and emotions we might not be able to handle in the real world. With art that disturbs us, we have the ability to turn it off when we want or run away - we can crash it and there's no real harm done. Eno expanded this idea to cover things that bring us joy, or even just novel experiences. He said he had overheard two women discussing a scene in a soap opera in which one of the characters had just revealed they were a lesbian. He noted that they were discussing it with a much greater freedom and ease than if the central character had been someone they knew in real life. The art was, in effect, acting as a training ground for dealing with such events in real life.

Eno once tried to change the way Amazon works - Eno claimed during the Q&A segment of his lecture that he once mentioned to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos that the company was too insistent on feeding you more of the stuff you've already consumed: "And you think, for Christ's sake, I know enough about medieval chivalry now, please!" He suggested that the company invent an algorithm that suggests books based on what a title's previous readers have never ordered. "Still not implemented, I might say."

People - especially critics - can put too much emphasis on a song's lyrics - When asked about the role of the critic, Eno said that he valued the opinions of non-artists but thought that critics often displayed flaws. The only one he mentioned was their tendency to focus too much on the words of a song, when the true meaning can be somewhere else entirely. "They always think the words are what the important part of a song is," he said. "And I sort of understand why that is because words are the medium that they work in. But I think it's peculiar to critics to take that attitude about analysing a piece of music in terms of its words."

Socialist thinking can play a key role in the arts - Eno began his speech with a dismissal of education secretary's Nicky Morgan recent suggestion that students should avoid the arts and humanities in favour of science, technology, engineering and maths. It was a theme he kept returning to: criticising the way governments measure creative output in terms of GDP, discussing the concept of a basic wage for all, and attacking rising inequality. Most pointedly, he praised the many institutions and safety nets - from the BBC to the dole, libraries to the NHS - that had helped his own artistic journey.

Roxy Music had a strict no-drugs policy, and it got broken - When asked about drugs, Eno said that he doesn't take them these days, partly because they last so long. "If someone came out with a really good hallucinogen that lasted about twenty minutes I'd probably be hooked on it," he said. He followed this up with an anecdote about how Roxy Music's no-drugs rule was once broken moments before they were due on stage: "A guy walked in, a friend of ours, and he passed round a joint. We made the fatal error of doing it and the gig was so hilariously chaotic. In retrospect it was hilarious, it was an absolute nightmare at the time. You know, you are out of control. Now being out of control is wonderful, that's why we do lots of things. But you don't really want to be out of control when you're on a stage in front of three thousand people."

The future doesn't have to be bleak - Eno's lecture ended on a bright note, offering a view of the future that differed wildly from the one we so often hear/fear (i.e. a bleak dystopia controlled by robots and George Osborne). He drew on the post-capitalist ideas of writers such as Paul Mason and David Graber to imagine a world in which many more things were shared, technology delivered increasingly rapid change, and people were freed from the burden of menial tasks, allowing them time and freedom to blossom as artists. "I think there are going to be even more full-time artists than there are now. And I don't just mean the professionals like me, I mean everybody, is going to have to be constantly involved in this activity of being able to resynchronise with each other, to connect things together, to be able to make adventurous mind games about different futures, to be able to understand things."