In the sixties there was a band who made pleasant jingle-jangle guitar pop. Toward the end of the decade they decided to experiment and came up with The White Album and thus the rule book of popular music was re-written. The myth that has grown up around The Beatles since is as staggering as it is ridiculous. Similarly in the early seventies a new group Roxy Music would add their own chapter to the revised book of rock and roll and while they would never become as huge as The Beatles they would in turn set the stage for an inadvertent cultural polymath in the career of Brian Eno.
In terms of happy accidents Eno hit the jackpot; a chance meeting on a tube train led to his involvement in Roxy and although present for only two albums the timing couldn’t have been better. These two albums gave Eno the leverage needed to grow both musically and into the cultural god we see today – at least if you listen to the media who interview him frequently on a range of topics. Eno has managed to forge a career not only in music but also in the visual arts he was trained in. He is also well versed in futurology and called on by anyone from politicians to perfumeries. More importantly he’s succeeded meaning it’s possible.
The arts have always been a difficult path to navigate even more so now than in the sixties when Eno was a student. While there is a need for specific courses in arts and design (fine art, photography, fashion) a student’s chances of making a career from only one of those pursuits is going to be extremely fortuitous. Few will stand any chance of making it so why are courses in multi-disciplinary arts or inter-disciplinary research not commonplace yet? With the near collapse of the music industry and even film struggling you would think the universities would be on the ball with their thinking on this. The career that Eno has successfully carved out should in my humble opinion become ‘normal’ or commonplace in the future, it will have to be!
Viewed from an academic perspective the questions would be very different. How much of a demand might there be? Who would teach them? And how would such a course be timetabled? There are glimmers of hope particularly in the University of British Columbia’s Interdisciplinary Arts BA, the University of Surrey’s multimedia arts with varying pathways and in the Nordic countries NoVA which offers anything from communication to education across four centres of academia. It could be said that the only way to lead a varied career is to do it! Easier said than done in societies that cling to the text book of life notion that we can only do the job we are trained in until we retire or die.
My hope is that Eno’s idea of the studio being an instrument can influence arts institutes to operate in a similar mode; that is to become incubators of new arts courses and career pathways. While writing and photography are often paired is it not possible to be an architect and a dancer? Or a film director who also does transport design or a sculptor who is a record producer or indeed all of those. Perhaps this is best summed up by author and academic Alec Ross whose recent talk at the RSA more or less ended with his comment “Nothing moves as slowly as education.”1 Even English (as a subject) is separated from other communicative arts like film or graphic design, save for the use of a screenplay in the former and typography in the latter.
I myself studied what was in the mid-nineties’ a modular scheme that allowed one to study two arts. That course failed because its scope wasn’t big enough and it was brought in without fully realising its functionality and the career paths that may have been possible post graduation. As soon as I sat down in the lecture hall on my first day the course leader told us “this was not a pick and mix course”. My heart sank, that I thought is exactly what it needed to be!
Coupled with the fact that I had also begun – outside of my studies – to write again meant that when graduation day came around I knew my degree was the wrong one yet there wasn’t a right one and that remains to this day. While we don’t need a new Brian Eno we do need that ‘type’ of career. In the same way that the role of designer was once looked on as an exotic profession the role of the multi-tasking artisan should one day become a normality. Eno himself speaking at the John Peel lecture said this about the future… “I think we’re going to be, even more full-time artists than we are now”2 and let’s hope he’s right about that.
1 from the RSA’s Soundcloud page February 2016
2 from the BBC 28th September 2015