The former Roxy Music star said arts and culture were worth pursuing for reasons that were not just economic and should play a central role in people’s lives in a world of rapid change.
Delivering the annual BBC Music John Peel lecture, Eno said art and culture offered “a safe place for you to have quite extreme and rather dangerous feelings”. He said the reason people embraced it was because they knew they could “switch if off”, so art had a role as a “simulator” in people’s lives.
He said that if 20 scientists were asked what they thought science did, they would mostly agree, but if 20 artists were asked what they believed art did, there would be about 15 different answers. Giving one definition, he said: “Art is everything that you don’t have to do.”
Eno said it fell outside the activities people had to do to stay alive, such as eating, and he referred to people choosing specific hairstyles as an example.
Best known as a pioneer of ambient music, he said: “We live in a culture that is changing so incredibly quickly.” He said a month in the present day saw about the same amount of change as the whole of the 14th century.
Due to nobody being an expert on everything, Eno said, we needed ways of “keeping in sync, of remaining coherent”, adding: “And I think that this is what culture is doing for us.” He said he saw culture as a “set of collective rituals” that everyone was engaged with.
Eno said he had heard the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, claim it was a good idea for students not to go into arts and humanities because they did not offer job prospects as good as the “Stem” subjects.
He said: “Now this word Stem is quite interesting. It stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics – all things that I am very sympathetic to and interested in. But there’s an idea around that those are actually the important things, even the acronym gives it away – the idea of stem, the thing that’s at the centre, which everything else grows off from.
“So the idea is that those things are important. They’re part of the economic mill, and they’re part of what makes Britain great and increases our GNP and what have you.
“So I thought that attitude was part of what this comes from – this new idea of the arts as a kind of economic entity.”
He added that he should not “crucify” Morgan for this, describing her comment as “off the cuff”.
The speech, given at the British Library on Sunday night, kicked off the Radio Festival which will run at the central London venue until Tuesday.