Brian Eno’s 1995 Opening Speech for the Turner Prize

by Paddy Johnson on March 15, 2012 · 7 comments Rise Up

A Turner Prize-winning bear

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 17 years later, and we’ve stopped talking about the speech quite so much; up until yesterday’s dinner conversation I wasn’t aware 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 vaporous 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.

  • whut

    I don’t exactly what you or Brian Eno think art has to do with science.  It’s like saying poetry should be more like copywriting.

    • Will Brand

      That’s a metaphor, not an argument.

      Science should be emulated because, all things considered, it’s really super good at conveying highly abstract concepts in such a way that people feel well-enough informed to develop an opinion.

      Science has figured out a way to get just about everybody in the world to have an opinion on evolution, despite the fact that evolution takes place at a scale we cannot see, over a period far longer than our lifespans, and in directions that are difficult to explain or ‘justify’ in the short-term. Sure, many people’s opinions are outright wrong, and many more are grossly misinformed, but normal folks can generally have a discussion–on, say, why kangaroos developed jumping instead of walking–without anybody feeling like they need a grad degree to weigh in. 

      That’s a hell of an accomplishment. 

      I don’t think any of the concepts art deals with are any more difficult to understand than evolution. Yes, we have a fantastic, seemingly bottomless array of media to approach and express those concepts with, but the basic “this is what’s going on” of a given artwork is normally pretty simple. Sometimes it’s based in how something looks. Sometimes it’s based in how it feels to stand next to something. Sometimes it’s about real life experiences, or magazines, or TV, or a book the artist read. It’s only very rarely based on Kant or Baudrillard.Like, to take Richard Serra’s big curvy pieces as an example, the components of a proper response to those works are dead simple: this is big; I am small; this is hard; I am soft; I can’t see over there because this is in the way; this is (probably) rusty; this is a shape unlike most shapes I’ve seen; a person made this. Maybe a particular part of the work looks extra cool, so you point that out. It’s mostly obvious. It’s hardly using the Force. It’s much simpler than science.

      And yet, I get the feeling that you’d struggle to get the average person on the street to admit to making any of those absolutely self-evident observations, even though they’d almost certainly be able to handle and express much more complicated thoughts about, say, the average temperature of the world’s oceans over the past ten thousand years. 

      All Eno’s asking for is a basic public familiarity with art. I think science is a pretty wildly successful model to build on.

      • ss

        Eno actually continued the evolution metaphor in a follow-up piece he published after the Turner speech:

        “My feeling is that the state of our writing and thinking about art
        and
        culture (for me, interchangeable terms) is similar to the state of
        knowledge in
        the natural sciences before Charles Darwin appeared on the scene.
        Natural
        history consisted of making lists of the various observed manifestations
        of
        life, comparing things to each other, giving them names, and heaping
        fact upon
        fact on the assumption that they would all add up to something.

        Darwin cut through this chaos of phenomena with a very clear and
        simple
        statement: ‘the fit survive’. This near-tautology made it possible for
        people to
        ask intelligent, answerable questions about living creatures because it
        led
        people to assume that their observed characteristics were probably there
        for a
        reason. It didn’t stop debate or quench people’s interest in the study
        of life,
        but extended it; far from making life less mysterious, it suggested an
        endless
        supply of new mysteries for us to address. This is the effect of good,
        big
        theories: they present frames upon which thought can be structured.
        Prior to
        Darwin, the only frame was an entirely anthropocentric one (actually a
        theocentric one, which ends up being the same thing since we make God in
        our own
        image) that the closer life was to being like us (and therefore God) the
        ‘better’ it was. As a theory this left a lot to be desired, and its
        results can
        be seen in the now-laughable convolutions of much pre-Darwinian writing
        about
        nature.

        Art writing, as I said, seems to be still in that type of confusion.
        Sub
        theories abound and collide, observations are piled up in unsorted,
        unusable
        heaps, and there is no over-arching paradigm to help us find ways of
        looking at
        it all as a unified field of human endeavour.

        Is such a paradigm even possible? One objection is that culture has
        always
        evolved by breaking its categories, by becoming what it has apparently
        never
        been before, and that therefore any attempt to ‘define’ it is doomed to
        failure.
        But ‘definition’ is not what I’m asking for. Darwin, for instance, was
        not
        trying to ‘define’ life; he was trying to say how it came about that
        life
        involves the kinds of processes and forms that it does. He was looking
        for a
        deep statement that could discover a commonality among all the
        manifestations of
        life.”

        http://music.hyperreal.org/artists/brian_eno/interviews/w96.html

    • Biobebop

      Eno’s point is that writing and discussion about art, not the art itself, should attempt to be more coherent, which is certainly desirable.
      The worst aspects of art criticism, if you can make it through the morass of incomprehensible terminology and run-on sentences, revolve around treating meaning and artistic intent as faits accomplis, which is preposterous. Nothing worse than being told, “Well, you simply don’t get it if you don’t get it.” 

    • whut

      I will just edit myself and explain that I interpreted this as a criticism of the goals of art and not as a criticism of art critics.

  • Auldante

    Your criteria: complexity, conversations and new viewpoints, apply equally to rigorous and lazy art. I don’t see how you can winnow anything by such measures.

    Science does not convey highly abstract concepts into something manageable but into something highly abstract. Writers like Richard Dawkins and Pat Robertson interpret that information for a wider, selected audience much the same as critics like Simon Schama and Robert Hughes. There are probably as many people with an opinion on modernism (my kid could do that) as on evolution.

    Art fails coherence, in part, because of its tertiary nature; it tries to make sense of current primary intellectual/spiritual/social announcements. It is a victim of its dissolute success, having sold the notion that everyone can produce it and have an opinion on it, all equally valid. 

    Compare this to Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty–is there really room for the Average Joe to question the unpredictable movements of atoms? 

    Perhaps Eno is right: art receives so little because it asks for so little. But perhaps that’s not so bad. 

     

  • http://www.facebook.com/james.g.leventhal James G. Leventhal

    these seem so connected: http://www.museumsassociation.org/comment/27022012-alain-de-botton-art-museums-christianity

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