Brian Eno’s Diary: A Year With Swollen Appendices
Okay, so this is two books: 300 or so pages are the diary Eno kept in 1995, and 100 or so pages are the “swollen appendices,” little mini-essays on various topics. Buried in these pages is probably the most exciting way of looking at art and music that I’ve come across — I’ve recently joked that I could write the best book on art out there just by cutting and pasting excerpts from Eno interviews — but that’s just the problem: it’s all sort of buried.1 There are gems to be had, but you have to wade through Eno recalling his days spent enlarging women’s butts in Photoshop (he compares his time-wasting habit to “chronic alcoholism”), musing on masturbation (“hanging on to the only thing you can rely on”), going to see Die Hard With A Vengeance (“I really enjoyed it”), peeing in a bottle while watching Monty Python, then wondering what it tasted like, along with a “mishmash of ideas, observations, admirations, speculations and grumbles.”
Add that to the fact that Faber paid him a 100,000,000 pound (could that really be the right number?) advance to write a book, and several years later, only towards the middle of 1995 when his friend Stewart Brand said, “Why don’t you assume you’ve written your book already — and all you have to do now is find it?” did he think, “Ah! I’ll publish my diary,” and it’s not exactly surprising that this book is out-of-print. (I read a PDF on my iPad in GoodReader, which let me mark up the pages. First time doing this.)
As for the diary, I found Eno’s description of balancing family and work life very heartening. He emphasizes over and over what an essential collaborator his wife, Anthea, is (“one of the reasons I am capable of running three careers in parallel is because I married my manager”) and his description of spending time with his family and being a dad, cooking and dancing to old doo-wop records is really charming. (Of course, it’s easier to have an integrated career and family life when you have a nanny, but whatever.)
What struck me over and over reading the book (and his 1995 Wired interview) is how much he had nailed about what was on the horizon 17 years ago. Below, I’ll excerpt some of my favorite ideas.
Art is about scenius, not genius.
Eno rails against what he calls the “Big Man” theory of history, “where events are changed by the occasional brilliant or terrible man, working in heroic isolation.” Instead Eno believes that the world is “a cooperative enterprise,” “constantly being remade by all its inhabitants.”
The reality of how culture and ideas evolve is much closer to the one we as pop musicians are liable to accept — a continuous toing and froing of ideas and imitations and misconstruals, of things becoming thinkable because they are suddenly technically possible, of action and reaction, than the traditional fine-art model which posits an inspired individual sorting it all out for himself and then delivering it unto a largely uncomprehending and ungrateful world.
Art is not an object, but a trigger for experience.
Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences (Roy Ascott’s phrase). That solves a lot of problems: we don’t have to argue about whether photographs are art, or whether performances are art, or whether Carl Andre’s bricks or Andres Serranos’s piss or little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ are art, because we say, ‘Art is something that happens, a process, not a quality, and all sorts of things can make it happen.’ (…_ Suppose you redescribe the job ‘artist’ as ‘a person who creates situations in which you can have art experiences’.
All artists are con(fidence) artists.
The term “confidence trick” has a bad meaning, but it shouldn’t. In culture, confidence is the currency of value. Once you surrender the idea of intrinsic, objective value, you start asking the question “if the value isn’t in there, where does it come from?” It’s obviously from the transaction: it’s the product of the quality of a relationship between me, the observer, and something else. So how is that relationship stimulated, enriched, given value? By creating an atmosphere of confidence where I am ready to engage with and perhaps surrender to the world it suggests.
Eno also suggests, “People should be trained in lying from a young age. That way you become healthily skeptical (and also train yourself to imagine what things would be like if something else was true).”
The limitations of a new medium will one day become its signature.
Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit — all these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided.
It’s the sound of failure: so much of modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.
“Try to make things that can become better in other people’s minds than they were in yours.”
Eno rejects the term “interactive,” and suggests “unfinished” instead. He suggests that new culture-makers will move away from providing “pure, complete experiences to providing the platforms from which people then fashion their own experiences.”
Once we get used to the idea that we are no longer consumers of ‘finished’ works, but that we are people who engage in conversations and interactions with things, we find ourselves leaving a world of ‘know your own station’ passivity and we start to develop a taste for active engagement. We stop regarding things as fixed and unchangeable, as preordained, and we increasingly find ourselves practising the idea that we have some control. Most importantly, perhaps, we might start to think the same way about ourselves: that we are unfinished (and unfinishable) beings whose task ￼￼￼￼is constantly to re-examine and remix our ideas and our identities.
Art is where we go to become our best selves.
What a bastard Beethoven sounds — arrogant, paranoid, disagreeable. Why am I still surprised when people turn out to be not at all like their work? A suspicion of the idea that art is the place where you become what you’d like to be… rather than what you already are…
Stop obsessing over all the possible journeys you could take, and just start off on one.
Over and over, Eno expresses a desire for less choices in the process of art-making, not more. ”Less exploring of all the possible journeys you could make; more determination to take one journey (even if the choice of it is initially rather arbitrary) and make it take you
My ideal is probably based on the story I heard years ago of how the Japanese calligraphers used to work — a whole day spent grinding inks and preparing brushes and paper, and then, as the sun begins to go down, a single burst of fast and inspired action.
That cultural image — which you find throughout Japanese culture from Sumo to Sushi — is very interesting and quite different from ours. We admire people who stick at it doggedly and evenly (I also admire them) and put in the right amount of hours. But more and more I want to try that Japanese model: to get everything in place (including your mind, of course) first, and then to just give yourself one chance. It seems thrilling.
“If you don’t call it art, you’re likely to get a better result.”
Eno says, “people do much better when they don’t think they’re being artists,” and when they do think decide they’re being artists, they “suddenly turn out crap.”
Oldenburg’s earlier stuff — before he knew what he was doing — looked best. So often the case that people work best when they are stretching out over an abyss of ignorance, hanging on to a thin branch of “what-is-still-possible”, tantalized by the future.
And some one-liners:
- “People who don’t seem to care whether or not they’re liked are nearly always in some way likeable.”
- "‘Why the fuck am I doing this?’ — the question that always precedes something worthwhile.”
- “Cooking is a way of listening to the radio.”
- “Luck is being ready.”
- “Spending lots of money is often an admission of lack of research, preparation, and imagination.”
- “By the time a whole technology exists for something it probably isn’t the most interesting thing to be doing.”
If you don’t feel like picking up the book, watch this lecture instead. It contains many of the ideas, and Eno draws!