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A Big Theory Of Culture
A Talk With Brian Eno

JB: Let's talk about your theory of culture.

ENO: I guess the question I've always been really interested in, the one that underlies all the others, is alluded to somewhat in my book and I've written about it more since, which is to try to find a big theory about culture: why people do culture, what it does for us, what we actually call culture, which things do we include in that category, and which things do we leave out. I have two intentions in thinking about this. One is that I want to find a single language within which one can talk about fashion, cake decoration, Cezanne, abstract paintings, architecture within which one can discuss any what one might call nonfunctional, stylistic behavior which is what humans actually spend more and more of their time doing. The better off humans are, the more time they spend engaged in issues of style, essentially making choices between one look of things and another look of things. The first question is to say "is there one language within which we can talk about all of those things?" There doesn't have to be a separate language for fine art, so-called, separate from anything else we talk about. There should be one language that fits these things together.

The second question is to try to say "is there a way of understanding why humans continuously and constantly and without exception engage in cultural activity?" We don't know of human groups that don't produce something that we would call art. It seems to be something that we are biologically inclined to do. If we are, then what is the nature of that drive? What is it doing for us? When people say, well surely this has been written about, what I say is, actually it hasn't, really. The number of books on this subject is vanishingly small. They occupy a shelf about 18" long. What has been done is a huge sort of taxonomy of cultural artifacts; people sort of listing things and saying that looks a bit like that, and these seem to belong together, and so on and so on. But I always say that this is a little bit like natural history before Darwin came along. Before Darwin there were lots of observations, there were people noticing all of these things existed, making careful notes about them, talking about them, saying that this related to this, this was higher than that or lower than that, and making all the sorts of judgments and observations that people now make about cultural behavior. When Darwin came along, what he said was very simple, very easy for anyone to understand, and extremely profound, because it gave one language the language of survival and the drive to survival and selection and so on. He gave one language in which one could frame all of the things called living organisms. By doing that, it made that subject not just a way of collecting heaps of material, but of actually making theories about that material. In a way he brought to an end the sort of gathering stage of natural history, the stage where the job of a natural historian was just to go out and make observations, and he brought into being the next phase, which was the task of somehow relating things together and making extrapolations and predictions, and saying if this happens, we might expect that this would happen. That's the job of science.

JB: But you're an artist. Why are we talking about Darwin?

ENO: Most of the questions I'm interested in about art and culture really are based on trying to look at them with some kind of big theory of that kind, which is not oblique, not mysterious, is quite easily graspable, and would allow a real discussion about culture. It's partly because I think most art writing is absolutely appallingly bad.

My first mother-in-law, that's to say the mother of my first wife, was a very interesting woman who lived in Cambridge, and had a salon, at which quite a lot of very good scientists would appear, Francis Crick, John Kendrew, Herman Bondi, among others. Her name was Joan Harvey and she ran a thing called the Cambridge Humanists. She's a very bright and interesting woman. I met her daughter, and was taken home, and got along very well with Joan. I was 17 at the time. One day Joan said to me, it's all very well what you do, but I just don't understand why someone with a brain as good as yours wants to waste it being an artist. This question cut me to the quick in a way. I came from was working-class where nobody particularly cared what you did. It was the first time that anyone had ever cared. Then I fell in with a lot of arty people, who of course assumed that being an artist was a wonderful thing, and never bothered to ask the question about why about what the point of it might be, or what it actually did for anybody. Joan asked that question, and I never stopped thinking about it. That was the beginning of an interesting double life, because part of my life of course is being an artist, but the other part, and just as interesting to me, is wondering what it is I'm doing, or what everybody else is doing asking what it's for.

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