In this year’s BBC 6 John Peel lecture, Brian Eno’s chosen topic was ‘The Ecology of Culture’, although his fascinating talk could equally have been entitled ‘The Economy of Culture’.

In it he attempted to set himself the task of answering two questions:
1. Is Art a luxury?
2. What are the conditions in which the Arts can flourish?

He began thinking along these lines after hearing the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, say that young people should not be encouraged to study the Arts and Humanities at University because the job prospects are so poor. She stated that, as an alternative, they should be guided towards the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math.

The strong implication behind this statement is that Art (with a capital A) serves no obvious economic purpose i.e. it does not contribute to the GNP. This suggests that it is an activity that should only be pursued after you’ve done your bit to create wealth for the nation.

In defining his terms, Eno took ‘culture to mean “the creative arts” while Art was brilliantly defined as “Everything that you don’t have to do”.

In other words, Art can be regarded as being distinct from the basic human needs for food, movement, shelter or clothing; it is not something we have to do to survive.

He recognized that there is a natural urge to embellish these fundamental needs by, for example, making fancy cakes, learning to twerk, creating beautiful buildings or wearing designer clothes. These, however, represent a stylised approach to living rather than being examples of Art for Art’s sake in the form of things like painting, sculpture, music or poetry.

Eno observed how “children learn through play while adults play through Art”. But he went further by suggesting that one of the key functions of Art is to allow us to explore feelings about things in a safe way.

A terrifying painting or a disturbing film is not the same as being scared by something that is actually happening. As such, it is possible to think of Art as a way of experiencing the joys and freedoms of a false world and thus as a means of coping with the trials and tribulations of the ‘real’ world.

He pointed out that one important aspest of this is that such creativity does not exist and cannot properly grow in a vacuum. Art may be conceived by individuals but it is generated by communities in the form of what he called “collective rituals”. Without support and an altruistic spirit from other people, it will never flourish.

While acknowledging the often disorienting speed of change in the modern world, the essence of Eno’s lecture was optimistic. He spoke of the way we in the west are moving from an era of economic scarcity to an age of abundance in which, because of increased automation. Since humans are not so essential in the creation of this wealth, this allows a unique opportunity for many more of us to explore our creative potential.

In just 40 minutes he had no time to talk about the political and psychological sea change which will be needed to take full advantage of these possibilities.

Some of the books he referred to, indicate some of the ideas that inform his views. These include:

  • Paul Mason – Postcapitalism : A Guide To Our Future
  • David Graeber – Debt: The First 5000 Years
  • Yuva Noah Haran – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
  • Barbara Enrenreich – Dancing In the Street – a History of Collective Joy
  • William H. McNeil – Keeping Together In Time: Dance and Drill in Human History