Painting by Katarina Countiss
Excerpts from an article “A Big Theory of Culture” by Brian Eno in Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power, and Technology (Book – 2011) page 57-65
Brian Eno is an electronic musician and producer. Also known for his multifaceted interests outside of music, especially technological.
EDGE: How do you think the arts and science differ?
ENO: If you asked twenty scientists what they thought they were doing, or what they thought the point of science was, I would think that most of them would come up with an answer something like, We want to understand the world, we want to see how the world works. If you asked twenty artists the same question—what you are doing it for, what does art do for us—I guarantee you’d get about fifteen different answers, and the other five would tell you to mind your own business. There is no consensus whatsoever about what art is there for, although some people will say, Well, it’s to make life more beautiful.
Here I am an artist— who reads mostly science books— like most other artists. I know very few artists who read books about art. Why, I ask myself, is there not a conversation of that quality in the arts? Many artists normally are talking about science, they’re not talking about art—there is not a developed language or having a conversation about the arts…
…EDGE: Let’s move on to your ideas about metaphors.
ENO: … Humans actually codify most of their knowledge not in terms of mathematical tables, set of statistics and scientific laws, but in terms of metaphors. Most of the things we normally have to deal with understanding are complex, fuzzy, messy, changing, and in fact poorly delineated. We don’t actually know where the boundaries of them are, let alone whether we are able to make clear questions about them. We spend a lot of our time as ordinary humans navigating through complicated situations with one another that require constant negotiation and constant new attempts to understand.
Science is, of course, one extreme version of this process. Science works by trying to say, Okay, I can separate off this piece of the world form the rest. Effectively, we can say, I’ve separated that off, and then I can make some theories and predictions about it. Science therefore enables us to come up with a structure upon which we can build useful metaphors. This is why artists are interested in science—it’s because science keeps coming up with big ideas, like chaos, like complexity, that we then think, ah, yes, perhaps that’s how a lot of things work. Then we have a new metaphor. We don’t have to fully understand the science that made that metaphor.
A lot of those kinds of metaphors derive from science, but a lot of them derive from literature, poetry, music. We live in a big construction of metaphors—nearly all of our knowledge is rather fuzzy in that sense. One of the things that artists do is invent metaphors, break up metaphors, challenge them, pull them apart, put them together in new orders and so on. One of the things art does is to remind you constantly of this process that you’re most of the time engaged in—the process of metaphor-making.