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Joz Norris

  • Tape 19: Purposes For Art

Hello! And welcome back to the Fruit Salad Therapy Tapes, a weekly interactive sketchpad/notebook project from friendly nuisance Jog Noggins. If you’re enjoying the newsletter I’d love it if you shared it with a friend or encouraged people to subscribe! Alternatively, if you decide you’ve had enough of it and it’s no longer for you, you’re very welcome to unsubscribe any time you like. If you’re still with me, then read on for this week’s Tape!

Purposes For Art

Ok, strap in, this one’s gonna be a bit of a thinky one. I’ve just finished reading A Year With Swollen Appendicesthe diary Brian Eno kept in 1995 and subsequently published along with a bunch of appendices compiling the essays, letters and talks he also wrote around then, and it’s got me thinking a lot about art and comedy, and I thought I’d explore it a bit in this week’s Tape. Eno spends a lot of his diary circling back to the same three subjects – the Bosnian War (not something I really think it’s within the remit of this newsletter for me to expound upon), how cultural objects acquire value (maybe a subject for another time) and the purpose of all the stuff we call “art.” He describes an imaginary scenario where a group of alien anthropologists come down to Earth and meet a group of scientists, and ask them why they’re doing what they do. Science, he says, is a field that can easily reply “Well, we’re trying to find out how things work.” If the same aliens met a group of artists and asked them why they were doing what they do, Brian Eno in 1995 suggested that art, as a field, had no single, cogent response they could give them. Amazingly, I don’t think we’re much closer in 2021 to knowing what answer we could possibly offer (although I have one idea that Brian Eno didn’t consider, which I’ll get to at the end).

Comedy is the field of art I work in, and it’s one that often has to fight to justify its use of the word “art,” because both the word “art” and the word “comedy” have acquired a huge amount of cultural baggage, and the types of baggage they have both accumulated look superficially very different. I remember a few years ago I was speaking to a producer friend about the difficulties with labelling and genre-fying different movements and styles within comedy, and about the distinctions between so-called “mainstream” and “alternative” comedians. She said quite simply that she believed an “alternative comedian” was one who believed that comedy was an art-form as opposed to a form of entertainment. That distinction sort of made sense to me at the time, though the more work I’ve done in comedy since, the more dubious I am of the idea that there is anybody working in comedy, no matter how mainstream or alternative their work is, who doesn’t recognise comedy as an artistic experience. Maybe I’m wrong and there are mainstream panel-show club comics out there who would scoff at the suggestion that what they do is “artistic,” but when I’ve spoken to more mainstream TV or club comics about what they do, I’ve never known them to dismiss their work as simply being about “entertainment,” as though that’s all there is to it and that comedy, as a medium, is about no more than having a good time and going home and that’s that. I’ve often heard club comics talk about how meaningful it is to them to be absorbed into someone else’s community for a night, to be part of an audience’s shared experience of a night out, to laugh together with them and highlight life’s absurdities for them, and then to leave. That might be a slightly different motivating factor to the more high-minded, creative impulses that more “alternative” comics follow when they make their Fringe shows, but it certainly sounds like an artistic experience to me. It sounds communal and congregational in the same way that a visit to an exhibition or a concert might be. Over the last year comedy has had to fight more than ever for its right to be recognised as a form of artistic expression, with certain funding grants early in the pandemic not being eligible for comedy projects because comedy wasn’t officially recognised as an art form by certain bodies. With all this in mind, I thought I’d extract some of the most impactful things Brian Eno says about the purpose of art in his diary from 1995 and see whether I can apply them to my understanding of what comedy is and what it does for people in 2021.

Purposes For Comedy

Because A Year With Swollen Appendices is a transcribed diary, not an actual collection of essays, it tends to circle around a lot of ideas and theories without ever actually formally presenting a coherent set of proposals, so Eno never quite gets to the point of saying “This is what I think art is for.” But these were the four suggestions he made across the course of the book which leapt out the most to me:

  1. The Empathy Lab – Art is a process which gets us to rehearse and develop our empathy, our ability to understand what the world might look or sound or feel like to somebody else. The thing that distinguishes us the most as a species is our ability to imagine that our vision of the world is partial, that it can look different to someone else, or that things can be different from what they seem or what they are. So art is an opportunity to project ourselves into somebody else’s story, somebody else’s world, so we can develop this uniquely human quality.
  2. The Chaos Lab – Art is a process which encourages us to be more familiar with, and accepting of, uncertainty and irrationality. “Rationality is what we do to organise the world, to make it possible to predict. Art is the rehearsal for the inapplicability and failure of that process,” says Eno. An artistic experience might make us feel uncomfortable, or on edge, or confused, or to doubt something we previously believed, or to wonder at something we hadn’t previously imagined. It helps us develop all those parts of ourselves that are not catered for by logic and sense and science.
  3. The Agent of Change – A slightly different proposition, this, as Eno’s talking less about what art is for, and more about why people consume it. He suggests that art is anything we consume with the aim of changing something in ourselves. That may be as simple as being entertained – “I am bored and want to feel excited, so I’ll watch this movie.” Or it may be more profound – “I felt lost and wanted to feel found, and something in this painting/song/show made that change happen.” I like this one because it accommodates the idea that the word “art” can encompass anything we go to for this change, regardless of whether we go to it actively seeking an explicitly artistic experience.
  4. The Experience Trigger – Finally, Eno suggests that art objects are not actually objects, they are simply triggers for a certain kind of experience, and that “art” is a specific experience or response we have to these triggers, which can come from anywhere. He tells the story of the music critic who mistakenly listened to a 15-minute test tone thinking it was a new composition by John Lennon and Yoko Ono and reviewed it as though it was. He was mocked for having been hoodwinked, but Eno feels he was perfectly within his rights to have an artistic experience responding to something that wasn’t made to be experienced artistically.

I have experienced all four of these states, or experiences, or thought processes, watching comedy, and not simply watching alternative, Fringe comedy, but in clubs watching fantastic “mainstream” comics. I’m sure that a lot of the time the “artistic” response I was having to what was going on onstage – the feelings of changing something in myself, of sitting with uncertainty, or deepening my empathy, were entirely dependent on the network of connections and assumptions I brought to bear upon the material, rather than being something the performer had explicitly planned, but that’s also a key thing we need to factor into our understanding of what art is. Artists are not tyrants or overlords in total control of every aspect of their work and how it is perceived, in the same way that none of us are fully in control of how we’re perceived by others. Artists make work that acts as a trigger for the multiple meanings and interpretations that an audience can bring to it, and all the different things it’s then possible for it to be.

Finally, going back to Eno’s initial suggestion about the alien anthropologist, when I spoke to Miranda about all this, her response to that hypothetical scenario was brilliantly simple. I don’t know whether cultural attitudes have shifted in the last 25 years to make this a more apparent answer than it seemed to be to Eno in the 90s, or if it just didn’t occur to him, but she said “It’s the same thing, isn’t it? The artists would have the same answer as the scientists. They’re trying to figure out how things work.” The wonderful comedian Ben Target made a very similar point in a recent chat I had with him for a Top Secret Project, of which here is a small snippet:

Ben – “I always think that art and science are two sides of the same coin. They’re both trying to answer the question “Why?” But science is the answer, and art is how the answer is conveyed? I’m losing myself slightly.”

Joz – “No, I know what you mean. Science is the data, the information, and art is the story we tell to make sense of that information.”

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – There’s lots of logistics to be worked out still, but the gradual easing of restrictions in Scotland means that some kind of limited Edinburgh Fringe might end up happening. I don’t think I’ll be involved with it, but you can read a bit about the current state-of-play of things here and keep your eyes peeled for whether there’ll be any comedy in Edinburgh this year to celebrate that festival we all used to love.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – This video of Richard Madeley turning into Alan Partridge while talking about Shamima Begum. The point he’s trying to make is actually quite a good, empathetic one, but the way he makes it is so out-of-the-blue, and his delivery so close to Partridge, that this ends up being one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

Book Of The Week – I’ve already banged on about Brian Eno’s diary, which was my first 10/10 book of the year, but I also just read Rachel Cusk’s Second Placewhich is my second 10/10 book of the year, so it’s been a nice couple of weeks for reading. Check ‘em out.

Album Of The Week – Matt Berry (yes, that Matt Berry, he has a very very impressive discography of really good psychedelic jazz/folk/prog albums, the guy’s a polymath) just released a new album called The Blue Elephant that he recorded in lockdown playing every instrument himself except the drums, and I think it’s really great.

Film Of The Week – The Father. Jeeeeeeesus Christ. This is really, really, really, really good. Just so sad. Hopkins and Colman are incredible. If you can, try to watch it without knowing too much about the premise. I was expecting quite a grounded, naturalistic drama so the way it unfolded was like magic. Go and see it in the cinema and try to pay attention to all the tiny details, it’s like a huge illusion.

That’s all for this week! Hope you’re all doing well and looking after yourselves. Take care until next week,

Joz xx

PS Here’s a photo of the second time I’ve performed onstage in over a year, at ACMS the other day. Good fun. Bit weird. Gonna take a while for it to feel natural again.

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