Brian Eno’s Advice for Those Who Want to Do Their Best Creative Work: Don’t Get a Job

“Once upon a time, artists had jobs,” writes Katy Wald­man in a recent New York Times Mag­a­zine piece. “Think of T.S. Eliot, con­jur­ing ‘The Waste Land’ (1922) by night and over­see­ing for­eign accounts at Lloyds Bank dur­ing the day, or Wal­lace Stevens, scrib­bling lines of poet­ry on his two-mile walk to work, then hand­ing them over to his sec­re­tary to tran­scribe at the insur­ance agency where he super­vised real estate claims.” Or Willem de Koon­ing paint­ing signs, James Dick­ey writ­ing slo­gans for Coca-Cola, William Car­los Williams writ­ing pre­scrip­tions, Philip Glass installing dish­wash­ers – the list goes on.

Wald­man sug­gests that we con­sid­er day jobs not just bill-pay­ing grinds but deliv­ery sys­tems for “the same replen­ish­ing min­istries as sleep or a long run: reliev­ing cre­ative angst, restor­ing the artist to her body and to the tex­ture of imme­di­ate expe­ri­ence.” Bri­an Eno thinks dif­fer­ent­ly. “I often get asked to come and talk at art schools,” he says in the clip above, “and I rarely get asked back, because the first thing I always say is, ‘I’m here to per­suade you not to have a job.’ ”

That does­n’t mean, he empha­sizes, that you should “try not to do any­thing. It means try to leave your­self in a posi­tion that you do the things you want to do with your time, and where you take max­i­mum advan­tage of what­ev­er your pos­si­bil­i­ties are.”

Eas­i­er said than done, of course, which is why Eno wants to “work to a future where every­body is in a posi­tion to do that,” enact­ing some form of uni­ver­sal basic income, the gen­er­al idea of which holds that soci­ety will func­tion bet­ter if it guar­an­tees all its mem­bers a cer­tain stan­dard of liv­ing regard­less of employ­ment sta­tus. But if that stan­dard ris­es too high, might it run the risk of soft­en­ing the rig­ors and loos­en­ing the lim­i­ta­tions need­ed to encour­age true cre­ativ­i­ty? Musi­cian Daniel Lanois, who has worked with Eno on the pro­duc­tion of sev­er­al U2 albums as well as ambi­ent music projects, describes learn­ing that les­son from his col­lab­o­ra­tor in the Louisiana Chan­nel video just above.

“At the peak of my son­ic exper­i­men­ta­tions with Bri­an Eno, we only ever used four box­es,” says Lanois. “That’s when we start­ed get­ting these real­ly beau­ti­ful tex­tures and human-like sounds from machines. We got to be experts at those few tools.” The lim­i­ta­tions under which they worked in the stu­dio may not have fol­lowed from any par­tic­u­lar phi­los­o­phy, but the actu­al expe­ri­ence taught them how a rich­er artis­tic result can arise, para­dox­i­cal­ly, from more strait­ened cir­cum­stances. Since the begin­ning of art, its prac­ti­tion­ers have always had to find inno­v­a­tive ways around obsta­cles, whether those obsta­cles have to do with tech­nol­o­gy, sides, time, mon­ey, or any­thing else besides. As Lanois reas­sur­ing­ly puts it, “I can imag­ine that if you have lim­i­ta­tion, even finan­cial lim­i­ta­tion, that might be okay, man.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William Faulkn­er Resigns From His Post Office Job With a Spec­tac­u­lar Let­ter (1924)

Charles Bukows­ki Rails Against 9‑to‑5 Jobs in a Bru­tal­ly Hon­est Let­ter (1986)

Bri­an Eno Explains the Loss of Human­i­ty in Mod­ern Music

The Genius of Bri­an Eno On Dis­play in 80 Minute Q&A: Talks Art, iPad Apps, ABBA, & MoreBri­an Eno on Why Do We Make Art & What’s It Good For?: Down­load His 2015 John Peel Lec­ture

Bri­an Eno Lists 20 Books for Rebuild­ing Civ­i­liza­tion & 59 Books For Build­ing Your Intel­lec­tu­al World

The Employ­ment: A Prize-Win­ning Ani­ma­tion About Why We’re So Dis­en­chant­ed with Work Today

Hear Alan Watts’s 1960s Pre­dic­tion That Automa­tion Will Neces­si­tate a Uni­ver­sal Basic Income

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (9)
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  • Cmc says:

    Bryan Fer­ry gave Eno a job

  • Thorb says:

    As a would be artist or some­times artist that worked. I kind of agree in that I was taught to have some­thing to fall back on, in case that art did­n’t pro­vide a liv­ing.
    Prob­lem I found was that hav­ing some­thing to “fall back” on, is that you will have a ten­den­cy to fall back.

    If you wish to keep mov­ing for­ward it is best to not have any­thing to fall back on and then you will have that need to keep mov­ing for­ward.

    Now this might just lead to obliv­ion but you will have spent your life mov­ing in the direc­tion you want­ed to go.

  • John O'Toole says:

    It might be a lit­tle bit eas­i­er in the UK to exist with­out a job. In the US not so much.

  • Paul Inman says:

    Amen! <3

  • Gem says:

    In an ide­al world. I agree, prob­lem is stuff costs lots of mon­ey, and the arts and musi­cians arent get­ting paid very well, ide­al­ly we would get some sort of basic income, but real­is­ti­cal­ly the pow­ers that be are geeedy, and peo­ple who are cre­ative and dont want to do a (often mind­less) job are seen as ‘doing noth­ing but scroung­ing’

  • Susana Rosende says:

    God pro­vides. BUT…It’s dif­fi­cult to stay healthy and fed with music equip­ment and Art sup­plies and writ­ing sup­plies when you are home­less, and your songs, paint­ings, books, or poet­ry are down­ers about despair and hope­less­ness.

    Sor­ry, dude, unless you are born with a sil­ver spoon in your mouth or have a spouse who is will­ing to sup­port you and your Art AND your chil­dren, you need a J.O.B…at least part-time or con­tract to con­tribute to the expens­es that come with hav­ing a fam­i­ly.

    Or…stay sin­gle for­ev­er and live in a tent in the woods with your Art and learn to fish for your din­ner.

  • John Masters says:

    Its an inter­est­ing arti­cle. Seems focussed on the young. There is anoth­er per­spec­tive, for exam­ple, Richard Adams, who had been a civ­il ser­vant and wrote Water­ship Down. I doubt that I will be famous, but I hav espent a lot of my time writ­ing comics and am plan­ning on semi-retir­ing and doing more. I’m 48. I can afford a tent, as you put it, or rather a cheap house in a ‘bad’ neigh­bour­hood that I own out­right and have sort of enough to live on for­ev­er now, if eat­ing noo­dles makes the grade. Each year that pass­es the prospec­tive becomes greater. I am self employed so I already have my own time and so I am sort of already doing so, but i’m not com­mit­ted to my art and dont do much, at the moment. There is always the per­spec­c­tive that I was­n’t that good when I was young. Unfor­tu­natly some of my stuff was and I lost 15 years not doing it, but Inow have the poten­tial to think about start­ing up again. Point is, the dream can hap­pen much lat­er in life, espe­cial­ly in writ­ing where life expe­ri­ence can have an impact.

  • raindrops says:

    in oth­er words, only the priv­i­leged may have a chance to be a real artist

  • Graham Hughes says:

    I think its about the fire with­in you. That is not cul­tur­al­ly or eco­nom­i­cal­ly bound to some extent. Soci­ety needs a shake up so what is tru­ly valu­able is ‘valued’.…and all the unique contributions.….but I have no faith in that hap­pen­ing with all our con­di­tion­ing and greed.……a human con­di­tion. We are still liv­ing with the val­ues of the indus­tri­al society.….……simpler soci­eties are per­haps more creative…less is more. Is there cre­ativ­i­ty when sur­vival con­sumes every minute of the day?

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