2014 Longplayer Conversation

This talk between Brian Eno and David Graeber took place 7pm, Tuesday 7 October 2014 at the Royal Geographical Society, London SW7.

Artangel invited members of the audience to ask Eno and Graeber questions after the event via e-mail or social media. A selected number of those were answered and responses can be read in full here.

Audience Q&A

Q. Brian, I was interested to hear your criticisms of the current pressure on art, students to produce theoretically-informed personal statements alongside their artistic practice. If students quote French (or whatever) theory in a merely token manner in response to a bureaucratic requirement then this is surely wrong. But theory is frequently taught in art schools in an attempt to help students see what you have elsewhere called 'the, bigger picture': how, that is, their art practice relates to the broader culture. You referred in the Longplayer discussion to how artists were expected to be inarticulate but they will in many cases remain that way if they are not introduced to (sometimes difficult) critical ideas.

Rather than needing more and more A-Levels to get into art school today, the opposite is becoming the case: as long as potential students can pay the required fees, then their intellectual (or other) abilities are not questioned when they apply for a place at art school. I know of one major London institution in which management have instructed teaching staff to dispense with interviewing candidates or looking at their work prior to offering them a place on the course – the only thing that matters is their ability to pay the fees. This might look like – but is definitely not – democratic access to education. You mentioned the government's obsession with getting 'everyone' into university: this is more about making profits for 'educational' institutions than producing an educated nation, echoing the example you gave about philosophy pupils being told not to question anything, just to read the books and pick up the certificate at the end.

A related problem is that being an artist is now seen as a 'proper' job.This 'professionalising' of art attracts (mostly) young people who hope to benefit economically from having a degree. In fact the general, radicalism of the 1960s, which contributed greatly to the critically, playful ambience of the art schools when they were still worthy of that name has been historically distorted and commodified. How does one teach and defend art as something worthwhile in its own right in an increasingly corporatised culture, one in which art students themselves accept and even want institutional validation? How does one encourage a model of the artist as critically and culturally aware, without reducing ideas to mere jargon as in the examples you cited from your time as an external examiner? Where and how does culture renew and extend itself if the (arguably) fantastic places that art schools used to be have been restructured around business, money, and competition rather than collaboration and critique?

Sorry for such a long question. Thanks for your time in considering these remarks. 
– from Peter Suchin, by e-mail.

A. (Brian Eno) As you could probably tell, this is a bit of an obsession for me. Art schools have been forced into a position where they feel they have to justify their existence by proving that art is a 'real' academic subject – not just a bunch of people enjoying themselves being intuitive and wasting taxpayers' money. Aside from the resentment that governments seem to feel that people might enjoy themselves (shouldn't real education be difficult and arduous?) there is a sense that artists aren't really that useful anyway, so the whole idea of art schools is that they are a 'luxury' that we could probably do without. This disdain has unfortunately transmitted through to the colleges, which now feel obligated to prove to someone that every artist is a fully fledged degree standard philosopher. A similar pressure comes from the art world itself, which revels in obscurantism and expects students to do the same – to speak and think in the language of critics.

I don't have anything against artists who base their work in concepts – I'm in fact one of those artists – but I object to people being made to think that you're not a real contemporary artist unless you can do that. One of the effects of that prejudice is that it filters out so many interesting people. It's doubtful that Picasso or Matisse or Rauschenberg would have made it into a modern-day art school. And part of the dynamic of art schools – as I said in the talk – was the fact that it was a very unusual mixture of people from all sorts of academic and non-academic backgrounds, that mixing was good for everyone.

About fees. Yes you're absolutely right. Because of the incessant cuts of the last few years, the selection process is inevitably skewed more and more towards high fee-paying students – which means foreign students. It's nice that there are foreign students but it's not nice when you get the feeling that their acceptance in the school was predicated on the fact that they can pay three times as much as British ones.

So the issue is really what you've identified: how do you convince governments that art schools are a net 'good' for society and not just a fancy add-on? Well, there are very good arguments but there's only one likely to convince the market-fundamentalists who currently run things: and that's the economic one. It's not the first argument I'd choose to make, but it's probably the one that would have the best chance of acceptance. A few years ago I did some research into the economic value of art schools. I included in my calculations not only the most obvious people – the big selling artists – but all the peripheral people who passed through art schools or benefitted from the sense of creative freedom and experimentation that the art schools have inspired here: fashion designers, pop musicians, graphic designers, product developers, comedians and so on. They make up the backbone of whatever it is that is 'cool' about Britain. After all, we're a small country without much in the way of exports...we're not the huge manufacturing centre we once were. But we earn a lot from exporting our cultural products.

You might think that invoking the economic argument is playing into the hands of the enemy. But as I said, it's a real argument and at least it's quantifiable – and quantifiability seems to be the Holy Grail right now.

Q. Would love to hear any thoughts you might have on how we can create more "non-bullshit jobs".
– from @joe_shreeve, via Twitter

A. (Brian Eno) Give people more time to invent them! Reduce working hours all round and people will start finding ways of filling their 'spare' time – and some of those ways they find will turn out to be of real value to themselves and to other people too. Most people don't want to sit on a sofa all day watching daytime TV: people like doing things that are useful or fun or joyful or exciting – if they're ever given the chance.

A. (David Graeber) I totally agree with Brian on this one. I always use the example of prisons. Even in minimum security prisons where people are fairly comfortable, they use work as a reward: if you don’t behave, we’ll take away your work privileges. If there was ever proof that people don’t want to just be fed and sheltered and sit around all day that’s it (especially when you consider these aren’t a collection of the most public-spirited people in the world.) The question is, what system is likely to come up with a better idea of what you have to contribute to the world: the “market”, or letting everyone decide for themselves. You might say the latter might lead to a lot of people spending their lives on silly or useless projects, but at least they’re almost certain to be more interesting silly or useless projects than all those bullshit jobs the market has produced.

Q. Hello, I enjoyed the conversation, but I would have liked for the ideas of virtualisation and Dunbar's number in relation to structures of representation to have been explored a bit further than 'in my day the, Internet was much better because it was personal'. Is there a way that we can make a globally connected world function as a small-scale collective society does? Given that we are not going to turn our backs on social networks anytime soon is there any way we can account for the isolation that the virtual world creates and the lack of personal accountability that appears to go along with this? Is it simply a case of copying every tweet one posts to one's mum?* Are any of the current model social networks useful forums for societal change, given that they have essentially commoditised friendship? Finally, given that the middle classes are entirely risk averse, how does one ever convince them that a mediocre status quo is less favourable than an unknowable and unquantifiable alternative? *or other arbiter of personal responsibility.
– from Edric Brown, by e-mail.

A. (Brian Eno) Good question. Sorry if I sounded a bit old-fogeyish there with my 'in my day' but the point I was trying to make was that anonymity destroys the important social constraints of honour and shame. If nobody knows who you are you can act like an arsehole and get away with it. If people do know who you are you're inclined to think a bit more about your reputation, and that's a constraint which filters out the worst excesses. Of course, it doesn't constrain everyone – some people revel in their arseholeness – but generally I think it produces better results. And of course, we shouldn't assume that every 'advance' in social media technology is automatically a real advance in civilisation. Twitter, for example, has produced decidedly mixed results.

The 'mediocre status quo' issue is a real one. I think it's natural that people will default to security in the absence of any real chance at freedom if that chance seems to carry a high enough risk. And we have a lot of societal mechanisms that are designed to convince them that the risk is high: governments count on them. This is what I meant by 'manufacturing insecurity'. Every government knows that the best way to win an election is to ramp up the insecurity so that people decide to stick with the devil they know rather than risk an alternative. Also governments know they can limit freedoms by creating an atmosphere of threat – people give their permission. I don't claim that this always is some kind of global plot, but just a natural response that powerful people have learnt works.

As for 'scaling up', well I suppose that's what federalism means. Smaller groups represent themselves as 'individuals' in larger collections of similar group/individuals. We can work out federalisation between countries – the EU and the UN are examples – so why not with entities that don't call themselves nations but nonetheless have an identity? Dunbar's number could still apply, but now used to count up the number of entities rather than the number of individuals. The UN has recently exceeded Dunbar's number...I predict an imminent split into two or three or four subgroupings.

A. (David Graeber) I wonder about this scale question. I think it’s probably true for certain very intimate or intense forms of interaction. But I think there are ways to get us working on a much larger scale with more diffuse and scattered networks, and with many of them at the same time. In my vision of utopia, everyone would be guaranteed in their basic needs, and then decide for themselves what forms of higher value they wish to pursue, but there’d be an infinite variety of those: you’d be in a spiritual group, a chess club, a local neighbourhood group, a society that makes and repairs antique blimps, and so forth ad infinitum… The overlapping and criss-crossing of loyalties would ensure a kind of overall cohesion that would make conflict almost impossible. There are some precedents for this you know. Think of certain parts of East Africa, at least traditionally. Most people knew half a dozen languages. There was one language you might use at home, another when dealing with politics, another language for commerce, another for your craft perhaps, since crafts were organised into guilds and secret societies… Or perhaps another language or two just for such secret societies. When speaking each, you’d know and be in ongoing contact with a different collection of people. Humans are capable of living in more complicated ways than we think!

Q. So, when you guys were talking about Capitalism: now the system is not oppressive anymore, instead, I think it is kind of seductive (everything is smart, stable, pretty), it controls freedom and it seems to me like we are stuck in this. So, I was wondering: why do you think the resistance dies so soon? What would you suggest to do? I mean, as a regular citizen, as society...do you think a 'mental-revolution' can happen?
– Berenice Zambran, by e-mail

A. (David Graeber) Well, I certainly don’t think that the system is no longer oppressive. In fact, poverty, fear, insecurity, among the population even of the richest countries appears to be increasing, and we have the first generation seeing the prospect of doing substantially less well than their parents did. To be honest I think the system is increasingly held together mainly by cynicism. That is: no one really believes the official line, that the system is fair, that those who work hard and play by the rules will be rewarded, that the rich are rich and the poor are poor because in some sense they deserve it. They are all saying to themselves, “obviously it’s a con, I know that, I’ve figured it out, but the problem is, all those other people, they’re sheep, they’re idiots, they actually believe this nonsense.” So, in fact, you have an ideology no-one believes but everyone thinks everyone else does. So the first thing we have to do in order to break the spell is stop imagining everyone else is naive and stupid. The second is to unshackle our imaginations again.

Eno has a long history with Longplayer, forming part of the think tank that helped Finer develop the original project and writing the first Longplayer Letter to Nassim Nicholas Taleb last year.

Graeber is currently Professor of Anthopology at the London School for Economics. He is an activist who has worked extensively with the Global Justice Movement and Occupy Wall Street. Graeber is also the author of a number of books including Debt: The First 5,000 Years and has written articles for The Guardian, Al Jazeera and Harpers.