“Perhaps you can divide artists into two categories,” says Brian Eno. “Farmers and cowboys.”
The farmers settle a piece of land and cultivate it carefully, finding more and more value in it. The cowboys look for new places and are excited by the sheer fact of discovery, and the freedom of being somewhere that not many people have been before.
Brian Eno on “farmers and cowboys” pic.twitter.com/MDIM3D59jd
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) July 13, 2021
I’ve heard him say this numerous times over the years, but I only recently realized he borrowed the dichotomy from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!
The farmer and the cowman should be friends
One man likes to push a plough
The other likes to chase a cow
But that’s no reason why they cain’t be friends
The tension between the cowboy and the farmer seems to me a holdover from our origins as a hunter-gatherer species who then turned to agriculture. Contemporary humans mostly live a sedentary life, but we began as nomads. I feel that need to move within me.
“The cowboy and the farmer are genuinely inimical types,” wrote Larry McMurtry, in his essay collection on Texas, In A Narrow Grave. “They have seldom mixed easily.” Of his cowboy ancestors, he writes:
To the McMurtrys, the plow and the cotton-patch symbolized not only tasks they loathed but an orientation toward the earth and, by extension, a quality of soul which most of them not-so-covertly despised.
I have known cowboys broken in body and twisted in spirit, bruised by debt, failure, loneliness, disease and most of the other afflictions of man, but I have seldom known one who did not consider himself phenomenally blessed to have been a cowboy…
McMurtry’s friend and Texas native, Dave Hickey, set up his own dichotomy of plot workers and frontier finders, but he changed “cowboys” to “pirates.” In Pirates and Farmers, he writes:
I am going to explain this to you very simply. All human creatures are divided into two groups. There are pirates, and there are farmers. Farmers build fences and control territory. Pirates tear down fences and cross borders. There are good pirates and bad pirates, good farmers and bad farmers, but there are only pirates and farmers.
Some pirates, Hickey says, “recognize the importance of farmers,” but farmers “always hate pirates.” The farmers recognize the pirates sometimes even before the pirates recognize themselves. It is very dangerous, Hickey says, to try to be a farmer when you’re really a pirate. (Hickey obviously identifies as a pirate.)
I asked Daniel Oppenheimer, author of the book Far From Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art, why Hickey switched his metaphor from cowboy to pirate. For at least two reasons, Oppenheimer says. One, Hickey has long had a complicated relationship with Texas and the cowboy image. (For example, Hickey was pissed that Oppenheimer put a picture of him in a cowboy hat on the cover of his book.) Two, Hickey believes in the possibilities of pleasure, and a pirate simply has more fun than a stoic cowboy.
I asked Oppenheimer if he felt more like a farmer or a pirate, and he said that while he’d love to be a pirate, when honest with himself, he felt more like a farmer.
Flaubert said you should be regular and orderly in your everyday life so you can be violent and original in your work, and that describes many of the writers I know. The only pirating we usually do is in the mind: reading books, searching the stacks — and sometimes the world — for new material.
In fact, many self-identified pirates suspect they’re really farmers. The irony of Eno’s cowboys and farmers division is that he’s both — a cowboy always searching for new ideas and musical frontiers, but also a farmer planted in his studio, cultivating his work. As he told the NYTimes:
“In my normal life I’m a very unadventurous person… I take the same walk every day and I eat in the same restaurants, and often eat exactly the same things in the same restaurants. I don’t adventure much except when I’m in the studio, and then I only want to adventure. I cannot bear doing something again, or thinking that I’m doing something again.”
This got me wondering, as I often do, about nouns and verbs. Maybe it isn’t a question of being a farmer or a pirate, but whether you’re farming or pirating. Maybe they’re two different artistic modes that we operate under.
Eno himself calls what he does “Import and Export”:
I like taking ideas from one place and putting them into another place and seeing what happens when you do that.
So, sometimes Eno is pirating: setting sail and looking for ideas to steal, but when he brings them back to the studio, he starts farming, or gardening, cultivating the ideas, cross-breeding, seeing what emerges.
* * *
Or pirate gardeners.
Then I found the the pirate-botanist:
In the 17th century, finding plants and animals new to Europeans was a rough, ferociously competitive business. There were fortunes to be made, money enough to attract outlaws, slavers, men who crisscrossed the world for years at a time.
Many a botanist took to the seas to hunt for plants to bring back to be cultivated back at home.
My wife Meg pointed out that the whole reason Mutiny on the Bounty exists is because they turned the quarters of the Bounty into a huge greenhouse to transport bread fruit plants from Tahiti, effectively overcrowding the crew. (Oh, the perils of mixing gardening and pirating!)
And here is very much where I’d like to land, once again, on the fault line between two plates rubbing together, or walking a rope held tight with a tension between two poles.
I would like to be a pirate gardener.
I’d like to stay happily at home, in the studio, planting my seeds and cultivating my garden, and when I get bored, like Ishmael, and “I find myself growing grim about the mouth,” then it’s time to take to the seas and do some pirating, steal a few seeds from foreign lands to bring back to my own garden, where I’ll stay happily until I get bored again.
* * *
A few footnotes:
- “Pirates and farmers” could possibly map to the concepts in David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity. In that book, Galenson identifies two kinds of artists: conceptual innovators, who “make sudden breakthroughs by formulating new ideas, usually at an early age” (Vermeer, van Gogh, Picasso, Herman Melville, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, and Orson Welles) and experimental innovators, who “work by trial and error, and arrive at their major contributions gradually, late in life” (Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Jackson Pollock, Virginia Woolf, Robert Frost, and Alfred Hitchcock). I say “possibly” because I have not, as of yet, read the book.
- On the ways farmers and pirates experience time, see the Olga Tokarczuk excerpt in my post on circular and linear time.
- In his essay, “The Storyteller,” collected in Illuminations, Walter Benjamin divides storytellers into “two groups, which, to be sure, overlap in many ways”: farmers (“the resident tiller of the soil”) and sailors (“trading seaman”).
“‘When someone goes on a trip, he has something to tell about,’ goes the German saying, and people imagine the storyteller as someone who has come from afar. But they enjoy no less listening to the man who has stayed at home, making an honest living, and who knows the local tales and traditions.”
Benjamin notes that when you combine “the lore of faraway places, such as a much-traveled man brings home, with the lore of the past,” that’s when you get the good stuff.