Nurturing the cultural commons


IMGP7225I somehow missed Nick Poole’s important passionate call that ‘culture must always be a commons’ – which he published back in July. It’s intriguing to me that Nick is relatively alone in not just calling for a digital cultural commons but for a wholesale transformation of the public cultural sector into a commons. He suggests embracing the principles of Shared Governance, Deepened Responsibility, Belonging and Co-Production. He argues that the commons is not anti-commerce but anti-enclosure, against those who argue that cultural organisations must accept the ‘real world’. I agree with him in this and I’m entirely supportive of the ideal of the commons, and I also believe that the commons needs to be part of life, to intermingle with trade. However, in working with commerce, we have a problem these days. Commerce itself, in practice if not in principle, is so dominated by a mindset of enclosure and extraction that it is threatening and destroying the commons in terms of both environment and diverse cultures.

There are, of course, inspiring and helpful movements of the Green Economy, the Sharing Economy, co-operatives and social enterprises. However, these organisations are not – yet – numerous, powerful or influential enough to arrest the escalating destruction. Commons thinking isn’t anti-commerce, but current commerce thinking is anti-commons.

There are two layers to the challenge for public cultural organisations. The first layer is how they can manage the adoption of both more commercial and more commons thinking to be financially sustainable in such austere and anti-commons times. The second is how they can reassert the commons as a means of resistance to mainstream commercial practices that are destroying the wider cultural and natural commons. Can the two layers work together? Is it an intractable problem?

I don’t want to think that this resistance is impossible. The difficulty is that commons thinking is no longer common. The cultural sector has been hovering at the turning of the tide for the past 6 years or so, constantly pressured to prove that it is a ‘public good’. The tide is now flowing fully out in the direction of corporate funding and of the idea of culture as merely an entertainment business, pulling down many castles with it into the shallows.

It’s important then for us to revive the language of the commons, to know what it means. For a start, read Nick’s essay to learn more about the four principles of commons governance.

Another useful model is this triangle of three definitions of the commons:

  1. An object of care or The Common Wealth (the environment or infrastructure we depend on, which in turn we must care for to ensure social and ecological wellbeing)
  2. A way of being and acting or The Commons Ethos (sharing and giving of skills, goods and stories, including our intangible heritage)
  3. An outcome or The Common Good (our shared creativity, what we invent and imagine through collaboration and care)

These three correspond to the three dimensions of sustainability too: The Common Wealth is environmental sustainability (which is fundamental), the Commons Ethos is social sustainability and the Common Good is economic sustainability.

Originally, ideas of the commons arose in pastoral civilisation, so these three elements could also be understood in terms of farming. The objects of care include land and animals. The ways of being are the traditional processes to get the best from these assets. The outcomes are the crops, crafts and innovations.

How does this pastoral thinking translate to cultural institutions? In various ways and extents, these types of organisation (museums, archives, theatres, design institutes etc etc) were all conceived and instituted as a sociocratic circle, a semi-porous fencing in from a transactional economy in which cultural assets are freely commodified or traded. These institutions often exist to protect these assets from the detrimental or disparating effects of the market. Like conservatories, they protect and nurture virtuosity and experiment, encourage diversity and grafting, and keep precious assets safe for future seeding. (The meaning of the term ‘conservatoire’ is perhaps no accident.)

In particular, museums and heritage institutions protect assets from dispersal, keeping them in public ownership. Benjamin Ramm in ‘The Meaning of the Public in an Age of Privatisation’ (published in Cultural Heritage Ethics: Between Theory & Practice edited by Constantine Sandis) argues that the Capitalist mindset divides knowledge into useful and useless, and so museums being useless are seen as relics or curiosities. He suggests that because the non-capitalist world is seen as ‘museum’, that the museum has radical potential. Objects can be encountered for other reasons than for a transactional value. I agree that this potential for radicalism exists, in particular if museums can really demonstrate and further more symbiotic and participatory modes of interacting with their communities. Their role is both stewardship and education for stewardship, and both these functions feed each other. Their role is not to create entertaining content that people buy. However, the absence of Commons thinking in general society undermines their core role of stewardship. Illogically, society sees stewardship as less useful than entertainment. Also, the power of museums’ radical potential is reduced, for example when corporate funders make use of the ‘uselessness’ of museums by sponsoring them in order to cleanse their reputation and gain a social licence to operate.

Culture is values and valuables. Culture is what we value because it is precious and fragile, threatened by a non-sustainable system that extracts, commodifies and sells at the lowest price. Culture is threatened by a mindset that acknowledges product over process, homogeneity over diversity, quick profits over long gains, and denotation over connotation. This makes it very frustrating that the cultural sector is increasingly called upon to justify the value of culture in terms of that dominant mindset. You are asked to enumerate the outputs and not allowed to wait to show the many kinds of impact that may emerge over decades. You are asked to give an elevator pitch, to explain in a single fact or figure rather than show the subtle different effects flowering in hundreds of people or places.

It’s not that our ways of valuing Culture are not working, it’s that our economic system is not working. It’s not that we can’t demonstrate the value of culture, it’s that the wealth-power elite do not highly value Culture in the public realm. In fact, although most will see Culture as benign, it remains threatening to them in a number of ways. If one of Culture’s benefits is to create critical thinkers, that is dangerous. If Culture keeps people healthy, they will buy fewer drugs. If Culture encourages people to make their own entertainment or goods, or to share more, it will be harder to sell manufactured goods to them. If Culture gives them a stronger sense of place and heritage, people may resist more fiercely the loss of their settlements and traditions. If Culture protects the commons, it hinders the extraction and sale of the commons.

We think some dimensions of value should be separate from economics because our current economic system is so compartmentalised. The economy has become a dematerialised, dislocated and spiralling game of traded numbers. Companies are the highest valued type of organisation, yet the great majority exist by legal charter or mission to make profit for their shareholders. Any goods that yield the quickest return are the highest valued in the current system, notably mineral commodities, drugs and arms, allowing the profit to be traded at speed for more profit. Those who trade entirely in debt – numbers that represent nothing but promises – are the quickest at getting rich. Another rich seam of profit is digital services, which conquer the natural barriers of distance and time for social and financial transactions.

Many of those arguing for the intrinsic value of Culture hope to rescue it from the demeaning taint of economics. However, I suspect that the more that it is segregated into an untainted non-economic domain, the more it may be subject to three dangers. One is that it may be used as a cleansing dressing (or ‘artwash’) over corruption and exploitation, for example, oil companies sponsoring museums or theatres. The second danger is of a rigidly defined zone of Culture ruled by ‘high priests’. The third is that its ability to work to transform our current economic system – and to help people cope with the negative effects of that system – may be restricted.


3 thoughts on “Nurturing the cultural commons

  1. Thank you Bridget for your kind words and for linking to my piece on Culture and the Commons. It is always gratifying to be mentioned by people you look up to! The reaction to the idea of culture in the public realm as a Commons has been really interesting. In essence, they seem to come down to two schools of thought. One holds that the principle is probably right, but not useful in the sense of offering a practical defence or model for the stewardship of collections. The other holds that the Commons is naive, tainted by the accusation that it is the plaything of comfortable people.

    I have often been struck by the similarity between what museum people will admit as their mission (usually a combination of education and public good) and the way other Commons communities talk about theirs. The mission of the Water Commons, for example, would be a perfect fit were one to substitute ‘culture’ for ‘water’.

    Ultimately, while the call-to-arms as a Commons community has been an attractive idea for a lot of museum people, it is scarcely discernible as a movement. I have found that it is much more productive to work with museums who have decided to ‘go open’ to define exactly what that means in terms of behaviours, culture change, licensing models and attitude toward the collections.

    The other point that I wanted to register was that I am sure that economists hate the way we use the term ‘economics’. Economics isn’t the science of money, but the study of the behaviour of rational agents in systems where goods, services and relationships can be acquired in exchange for money. Economists have long recognised that, given a choice, rational agents will tend to maximise their utility, which includes supporting things that in hard financial terms don’t yield a quantifiable return.

    My aim is not to place the intrinsic value of culture outside the system of economics, which as you say risks marginalisation and the entrenchment of cabals, but to place this value squarely inside a rational economic system which is mature enough to value non-extrinsic wealth – things like family, emotional stability, harmony with the environment and social and personal morality.

    My own view, for which I have scant evidence but form conviction, is that the vast majority of people operate this kind of personal value system anyway. The real underlying cause of the issue for me is a disjoint between the real will of the people – which I believe includes a sophisticated value model which understands only too well the importance of cultural memory – and the manner in which this will is enacted in tax-and-spend politics.

    Anyway, loving your work!

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