Brian Eno: 77 Million Paintings

“Classical music comes from the divine; pop music comes from the testicles.”

“Art is everything we don’t have to do.”

“Art is the punchline.”

“Art is safe.”

The talk was 2.5hrs that I wished would last even longer. There’s no way I could reasonably cover the entirety of Eno’s talk, but there were several points that stood out for me, as headlined in the quotes above. He was an excellent speaker, with a self-deprecating wit, and a dry sense of humour that kept me amused.

Eno started with Copernicus and hierarchical systems (‘First there was God, and then, Englishmen. Beneath them, horses, dogs, and women.”), and moved on to Darwin’s Origin of Species, and Stephen Beer’s ideas of systems being non-hierarchical, and then to cybernetics and feedback loops. From there it was on to aural soundscapes (and the ability of pop songs to have a very definitive aural signature that makes them easily identifiable.)

Interestingly, though not surprising, given the type of music that Eno makes, he has little interest in lyrics, often thought to be the meat of your standard pop song. He cited Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ and Steve Reich’s ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ as two pieces that strongly influenced his tastes. This stood out, as I don’t tend to spend much time considering the lyrics of what I listen to. There are a few exceptions, of course, but my intense fascination with lyrical content faded after I left my adolescent self behind.

Most of my interest in Eno’s talk centered on his discussions about art. His statement above, “Art is everything we don’t have to do”, is his definition of what art is. Science is easily defined (finding out about the world and how it works), but he noted that artists (and art critics, etc.) had difficulty defining art in such a singular fashion. His definition takes into account that art isn’t functional; it has no intrinsic value. For example, we have to walk, but we don’t have to dance. We have to wear clothes, but we don’t have to wear Gaultier or Chanel. Defining art this way puts a great deal under the umbrella that is “ART”. Painting, sculpture, and all those traditionally thought of activities are art, but so are things like knitting, or even building a snowman.

Eno also addressed the necessity of history and things past when talking about and viewing art. He gave the example of the painting White on White, by Malevich as an example of a work that would not be understood if not for what came before. (This monochrome painting is considered the first of its sort, and others in the style include the much debated ‘Voice of Fire’ by Barnett Newman at the National Gallery in Ottawa.) Hence Eno’s line “Art is the punchline.” A joke isn’t funny if you’ve only come in on the punchline. You need to hear the rest of the joke to enjoy it. Personally I do think that art can be enjoyed on its own, but given that I hold a BFA, I’m not sure that my idea of ‘on its own’ really holds any water. (By the way, if you walk into a gallery and are nervous about what you’re supposed to think about an artwork – don’t be. Whatever you think about it, or whatever it provokes in you, is sufficient. There isn’t always a deeper meaning.)

But why is art safe? This relates back to the second quote; art isn’t something we have to do, so it’s easy to walk out of that gallery, close that book, or leave the cinema when we are uncomfortable or uneasy. But art is something we can surrender and submit to, if we so choose. Eno spoke of the things that we as humans will surrender to: sex, drugs, religion and art. Each society has different variations (some native American culture, for example, use drugs and religion – peyote & worship, and Roman Catholics I would think lean heavily towards religion and art), but there is always something.

He said something that really resonated with me, and it seems appropriate to mention it under surrender: “Novels are a form of empathy machine.” In a novel we can experience what the characters are experiencing, imagine what their world would be like, and try out situations that we might not otherwise encounter. Our imaginations (unique to humanity) empathize with the events and characters; we create their world in our minds.

I went to see the exhibition at the Glenbow museum prior to attending the talk, though I will go back and see it again so I can have more time. The exhibit is a “constantly evolving sound and imagescape which continues his exploration into light as an artist’s medium and the aesthetic possibilities of “generative software.” Both the music and the visuals in 77 Million Paintings are “generative” — a technique where the artist establishes specific parameters for the artwork to exist within, then lets a computer arrange the pieces.” (from the museum’s website)

Several hundred of Eno’s paintings are combined into millions of permutations, hence the title of the work. The soundtrack to the light show is a minimalist piece of his own composition. I watched the work change (so slowly that it’s easier to look away and then look back to spot the differences) for nearly half an hour, and I could have sat there for much longer. The piece evokes a sort of meditative state for me as I could contemplate different aspects, focusing on the repetition of shapes or colours, or I could just sit and let my mind relax and take it all in without having to put it into some sort of order.

Yesterday evening was one of the most mentally stimulating events I have attended in some time. I am tempted to make it a new year’s resolution to seek out more of the same. (I also managed to outline the rest of the chapter I am working on, in between the exhibition and the talk – maybe I should think about buying the DVD to see if it will stimulate my imagination still further!)

Links to check out:
FFWD Magazine, with pics
The Globe & Mail’s article
77 Million Paintings on Wikipedia
LumenLondon’s 77 Million Paintings page

2 thoughts on “Brian Eno: 77 Million Paintings

  1. Awesome! I love his ideas on art and the novel. I completely agree. So jealous you got to go. Would have loved to have gone with you. New respect for Eno. What a Renaissance man!

  2. Eno’s soundscapes are scintillating and enveloping. His oratory style is not. His music oozes with sophistication as an audile/tactile adventure and embrace. His talk put me to sleep. My favourite part was when he sang “I Wanna Know What Love Is” from a Foreigner ballad — why? Because it was sound other than him mumbling on, albeit a conceited ridicule. I wanted Eno to elaborate on his (sadly general and half-baked) theory by giving examples from his practice — might have kept me awake or in my seat the whole time (I left early). Happily, my displeasure with Eno’s Calgary OYR lecture will not negatively affect my vast appreciation for his music and art.

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