A few weeks ago, I spent a wonderful hour listening to a recording of the BBC’s 2015 John Peel Lecture. (Facebook can be a great portal…) The featured speaker, Brian Eno—sound artist, producer, and thinker extraordinaire—was tasked with exploring the value of the creative industries. To get there, he started by tangling with the big question about what art might be.
Here’s his broad premise: “art is everything that you don’t have to do.” Just sit with that for a minute—it’s such an odd notion!
So what are these things we don’t have to do? Here’s one of Eno’s compilations: “Symphonies, perfume, sports cars, graffiti, needlepoint, monuments, tattoos, slang, Ming vases, doodles, poodles, apple strudels. Still life, Second Life, bed knobs and boob jobs. All of those things are sort of unnecessary in the sense that we could all survive without doing any of them, but in fact we don’t. We all engage with them. So the first question is why is any of that important? Why do we do it?”
Eno points out that we humans are endlessly stylizing our world, embellishing and transforming the essentials like food and clothing and movement. (“We have to move,” he observes. “But we don’t have to do the rumba, the tango, the Charleston and the twerk.”) People take this stylization very seriously too, developing elaborate systems of expression and evaluation. We are committed to fine differences, and take pride in our ability to distinguish fine gradations of excellence. We connect with—or separate from—others through our stylizing.
Eno suggests that we use our constructions to explore imaginary worlds—to play the way we did as kids. (Remember when a stick was a sword?) Then we shuttle back and forth between that fantasy and our reality. It’s straightforward to see this process with a novel or movie: we are invited to sink into the promises or terrors of an alternate reality, and bring that perspective to our own experience.
But he extends that analysis to more generic kinds of expression, too. Pretty much everybody has a hairstyle, he observes, and none are completely random. “When you choose to wear your hair one way rather than another, what you’re really doing is saying I belong to this particular world where this kind of hairstyle would exist. You’re broadcasting something, but you’re also very alert to all the other hairstyles that you see around you. So you’re in receive mode as well. And what I think you’re doing then is you’re positioning yourself in all the possible stylistic worlds that could exist, you’re taking a certain position. And that’s an identification for yourself, it’s an identification for other people as well.”
Think for a moment about this feedback loop: with every haircut, we express ourselves, we respond to other hairstyles, and we relate to a whole catalogue of what we know about hairstyles. This sophisticated set of interactions sounds like a description of what jazz musicians do every time they gather. They express their individuality, they support and respond to the expressions of others, and they speak within an awareness of what has come before. They make something alive, something beautiful, something simultaneously real and fantastic.
I love to think that we can begin to see the artistry imbedded in our daily lives—the gloves we wear on a cold day, the dash of cardamom in our dark roast coffee, the sound track to our evening yoga stretches, the chatter with our kids. I love that we might look at the stuff that’s non-essential, and celebrate the energy and imagination involved in fancying it up, stylizing it, making it say something about ourselves as specific individuals, but also about ourselves as a collective of thinking people.
Eno says we must rethink our tendency to see art as somehow a luxury, something to be indulged in once the real stuff like science and math and engineering are securely entrenched. Art is essential. To shunt it away undermines the richness of our everyday lives, flattens down our thinking, and drains the energy out of our communities.
And ultimately, the healthy community is what supports and enables artists. Our habit is to fixate on specific individuals who rise out of the masses (“we’re very keen on the names,” Eno says), but we overlook the communities they come from. The attainments of our most celebrated artists are only possible because of a whole ecosystem of talents and opportunities and engaged people—and ecosystems are complex, interconnected, non-hierarchical, and constantly rebalancing. They are delicate. They require care.
As Eno puts it: “genius is the talent of an individual, scenius is the talent of a whole community.” Here’s to the scenius of this wonderful but sometimes timid prairie city. Let’s all commit to the artistry of our lives. May we all be more daring with our haircuts, pause to appreciate the perfect foam on our latte macchiato, and dance a bit as we stand in line at the grocery store…