Dalkey Literary Awards - 20th June 2020
Dalkey Literary Awards - 20th June 2020

Brian Eno and Yanis Varoufakis: the economist rockstar and the rockstar economist

We’re back at the Seafront Marquee where it’s thankfully a little warmer than it was yesterday, possibly thanks to the fact that it’s packed to the rafters because one of the most highly anticipated talks of the festival is upon us: Brian Eno and Yanis Varoufakis in conversation with David McWilliams.


David intros them with “never has an economist so wanted to be a rock-n-roller and never has a rock star so wanted to be an economist.”

And we kick off with the irresolvable question of “Why do we make art?”

Brian Eno makes an attempt at answering that, “From that point on I started thinking why do we want art, why do we want art?”

“I’m not struggling, but I wanted to set the scene for why I’m going to take so long to answer that question,” Brian says.

Brian talks about his dislike but respect for the writer and thinker Steve Pinker, and explains Pinker’s theory “art is the brain using its spare capacity to entertain itself. He calls it mental cheesecake.”


Brian puts forward his own idea: “Art is everything we don’t have to do.”

“A lot of time we spend where we’re not concerned with survival we spend on style,” Brian says, which brings us to hair which inevitably leads to the three men noting that neither Brian nor Yanis have any anymore.

“Traditionally we only call the paintings and symphonies art, but really I think everything should be included in that category,” Brian goes on.

“Knowledge was our very weak species’ best defence. Initially empiricism was a very first defence,” Yanis says, trying to explain why art has always been of secondary importance.

“In the army soldiers are taught manners – savoir faire. Not essential but good to have it. Economists feel the same way about art,” Yanis says, about society’s utilitarian approach to art._MCX6293

In the UK there’s been talk of how art should contribute to GDP, David puts to Brian. What does that say about art?

“It makes me not want to vote for the conservative party, which I wouldn’t have anyway. It’s this need to quantify things.”

The reason we have this triumphant march of quantification over qualification comes back to commodity and capitalism, Yanis says.

Now we’re into the world of science and it’s relationship to art. Brian tells us he has to do a talk to a group of astronomers and is trying to find a good way of describing the connection. “Science is not interested in this world that we’re in, it’s interested in new ones.”

Yanis suggests that it’s the ‘unselfing’ process that art and science share – you have to give up on the idea of yourself and limitations.

This brings the three back to the original question of art.

Brian says his idea of art is to surrender. “You can be transported.  But we like art because we know we can back out of them. The traditional image of the artist is of a life and death struggle. But it’s not.”

David asks Brian about collaboration and its role in creation.

“I love syntheses,” Brian says unsurprisingly. “I love when two things that don’t go together are put together. We put German synthy pop together with gospel music, with Donna Summer’s I Fee Love which he worked on with David Bowie.”

Brian shirks of the idea that he pioneered electronic music by saying that in fact he invented rap music (it’s highly likely.) Yanis replies that Homer invented it. David asks can we move swiftly on.

David wants to know if Brian thinks there’s a connection between prosperity and art?

“Luxury certainly doesn’t seem to make very good art, although if you think of novels, rich people made those, ” Brian says._MCX6388 (1)

It turns out that Brian and Yanis are involved in an event called First They Came For Assange that will be taking place on Sunday. You can find more information here. 

Yanis and Brian clearly get on very well, and at one point David can’t get a word in and he’s in a huff.

The questions go to the audience and Brian particularly is asked to answer about all sorts – from Chile, to Spotify, to the Orlando shootings, and he manages it with a lot of dexterity.

There’s probably no better way to end the meeting of brilliant minds  and bald heads than with a bit of classic ambient Eno.