Creativity dwindles with age. First, school sucks it out you and then corporate work puts the nail in the coffin.
Patterns of normality and absolutes are leaches. Like a mind virus, they kill off organic reflexes whereas cultivating the imagination sings with possibilities.
If you're lucky, you'll have no choice but to follow the siren song of vocation. If that's an artist, great, if it's a bank teller, ditto. Whatever calling comes your way, make the follow-up deliberate and worthy.
Don't let your ambition slip out of sight.
“Try not to get a job. Try to leave yourself in a position where you do the things you want to do with your time and where you take maximum advantage of wherever your possibilities are.”
Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies has been helping people defeat their creative block since the mid-1970s.
But Alain de Botton's The School of Life is taking the concept a bit further and applying the deadlock to other life's philosophies such as a career crisis, kindness, self-knowledge, calm and confidence.
The Financial Times sat down with “musician, artist, thinker” Brian Eno in the studio of his Notting Hill home. Here are my favorite snippets from the interview:
On the transactional value between art and bitcoin:
It is not so different from bitcoin. Art is the ultimate cryptocurrency. What the art world is doing is engineering the consensual value of something, very quickly. It only needs two people, a buyer and a seller.
On fusing music and art vocations:
I had this real struggle inside me, on whether to do music or art. I worried about it a lot. And then one day, I decided I didn’t have to do one or the other, I could do both. I glimpsed the possibility of making each one more like the other, a sort of fusing together.
On ‘how simplicity can produce complexity':
When I first came up with the idea of utilitarian music, it was very, very unpopular. It meant muzak. It was music reduced, stripped of its fundamental cultural importance. And that was my biggest hurdle. Artists were supposed to want people’s 100 per cent attention.” What interested him instead was, “what was the least that I could do with music; how much could I leave out? What if I made music that was just like an atmosphere?
He criticizes pop musicians for being too close-minded, using the metaphor of a light bulb: “nobody looks at the bloody bulb. And that is what has been happening in music. We’ve been looking at the bulb.”
Eno illustrates the complexity from simplicity theory on paper by drawing out what it isn't. He draw a pyramid and inserts lines from top to bottom:
This is God, or the Pope, or the orchestra conductor. And information flows this way only. There is no feedback, other than something dramatic like a revolution.
The symphony: it is inspired by the divine; it enters the composer’s head; he writes it down and passes it to the conductor, and then the leaders of the orchestra, then the section principals, and then down to the rank and file. There is this idea that the music is already in existence, in the mind of God or the composer, and it is our purpose to realise it.
Now, as a working musician, I know it doesn’t happen like that. I have seen a lot of music come into existence. It is a mess. It is a lot of complex things bouncing off each other, until suddenly something beautiful and intricate exists. It wasn’t in anybody’s mind. Nobody had conceived it up to that point.
On the left's provincialism and the urge to speak out against the rise of nationalistic tribes:
“But now there is engagement with politics. I have so many American friends, they were so apolitical. Politics was something you never admitted to doing, like masturbation. But that has changed now. We all thought these [Trump and Brexit supporters] were this little bubble of weirdos. But we discovered that we were the ones in the little bubble.”
Of course, not everyone can afford to remain jobless; the harsh reality is that work pays the bills and keeps us alive. But as more jobs get outsourced to robots and artificial intelligence, humans will need new ways to think about their responsibility.
What will we do when there's no work to be done?
Work defines who we are. It forms the nucleus of our identity. However, a jobless world may encourage more innovative thinking about ourselves and our role in a secular, globalized world. Perhaps it'll compel some people to pursue more passionate work, the type of vocations that choose them instead of the other way around.
In such a world, we'll be makers instead of cogs, thinkers instead of algorithmic lemmings. Writes Oliver Burkeman in The Antidote:“There is a positive correlation between the fear of death and the sense of unlived life.”
To work on something we actually enjoy is to live.
“But I got the same painful pleasure out of writing prose that I did out of writing poetry—the pleasure of trying to put the right words in the right order. And I took away from my experience with poetry something else. I understood that the reason people write poems is the reason people write. They have something to say.”
Art translates life. It takes us places. We need stories and memes in order to keep the everyday exciting.
We don't need art. We don't need Instagram. We don't need bottled water.
These are styles and preferences that enrich the satisfaction of our lives but aren't things we need to live. They are products we consume when we don't have to starve, which the vast bulk of people did before the 19th century Industrial Revolution.
We have to eat. We have to clothe ourselves and move. Everything else: our food preference, type of clothes, and our favorite photography apps are all examples of stylization.
The ‘write what you know’ trope works because it’s easier to write the truth. But what’s authentic isn’t always what’s best for the art.
David Bowie modified his voice when he sang “I’m Afraid of Americans.” He wanted to make sure the tone matched up with the voice of the character (himself) portraying it. He interpreted music through motion. Brian Eno said that Bowie did what was best for the song, not clinging to the usual memoir approach of a singer.
“A lot of people think that singers should always be sincere, that it has to be their own soul coming out. That’s b — — — -. What you’re really doing is working like a playwright. You’re making little plays and the singer is the lead character.”
Eno encourages fictional storytelling. Making art is an act. It’s supposed to be fantasy. But some artists think that the truth is what sets them free and leave it to their fans are there to sort it out.
“It’s that ridiculous teenage idea that when Mick Jagger sings, he’s telling you something about his own life. It’s so arrogant to think that people would want to know about it. This is my problem with Tracey Emin. Who f****** cares.”
Art breaks the rules. It takes inspiration from the real world to create something new. It dances with fear. Artists continue dreaming into adulthood, without taking everything so seriously.
“Children learn through play, adults learn through art.”
Eno’s modus operandi it to make stuff that’s “a continuation of what we do as children.” He recently released a new album on Warp Records called The Ship. He also created a ‘visual music’ light piece called The Zenith. Eno creates things he wished existed.
Both Eno and Bowie teach us to have fun with our curiosity by showing the world what we can see in our heads.
As Brian Eno once said, “Art is everything you don't have to do.” But ownership of fashion, fancy cars, and paintings are also artful things you don't really need.
Comfort is the ability to live without having to impress others. It means going to work in a hoodie because you'll be head down in code all day. It means owning a basic car that goes from A to Z or using Uber whenever/wherever you need to go. It means using Pinterest boards or your phone desktop to collect art. Living pragmatically like this saves you money and space.
Doing creative work is one thing. Owning it is another. There's no need to dress up to other people's standards if it doesn't align with our own.
Express yourself. Don't impress others. Just try to be you.
Showing your work while you’re working on it is like throwing a fish net out to sea. The probability of catching something big is slim but you may be surprised by the immediate feedback that you get.
One of the main advantages to the Internet is that you can create something and ship it directly to your audience in the same day. There’s no waiting. There’s no publisher or record label but yourself. The only thing holding you back is the fear of rejection and perfection. So why wait?
“Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.” – Brian Eno
Sharing the backstory to your work is the fun part to the creative process. Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien’s blogged about the KID A recording sessions. Walter Isaacson is asking for fan feedback on a script from his new book.
Art is always in progress. We can touch it up forever. Sometimes art is about being good enough and part of that process is showing people where you’re at right now. Making is sweat and tears; a finished product never just pops out. Show us that you have what it takes to get there.