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Art is the Commons

Culture has become a commodity, preserved, protected, professionalized, and compartmentalized by “public” institutions and the private market. Power, established in the profit-driven economy, manipulates value and controls circulation of ideas and innovation. Culture is sold, owned, and safeguarded, as if it could be stolen and protected, rather than shared, changed and built upon collaboratively. How can we begin to experiment with the boundaries created by this hermetically sealed, self-referential system, pushing up against, gently prodding, or kicking through these barriers?

The wealth of all generations, in large overlapping systems, belongs to us all. Art, ideas, culture, and knowledge are collaborative and collective, a generative commons built upon and interacting with all that has come before. The commons traditionally brings to mind a system where a community shares tangible resources. The advantage is that responsibility and care for what is essential is distributed within members of society.

Art is the commons, yet with functions that are less tangible and cannot be enumerated or delineated as clearly as land, water, and air. Reframing our shared culture as a commons is a way to begin the process of negotiating a relationship which has no physical form at all, such as ideas and culture, and a lens for imaging a more equitable and collaborative view of art and artist.

How can we begin to reclaim the cultural commons? It is important to challenge our relationship to and assumptions about art, culture, artists, innovation, and ideas. How much is shaped by the myth of the individual genius, which disproportionately benefits the financial interests of collectors and institutions and not artists or community or public? What would the world look like if art was not considered a luxury item or financial asset to be bought, sold, and speculated on for profit? What if we could freely build upon our cultural capital, unencumbered by copyright or even the idea that we could “steal” someone’s ideas or work? What if we were encouraged to see all creative acts and ideas as belonging to everyone? What if artists created collectively with the assurance that their work was not something to sell or to be cordoned off by a barrier of individual ownership? What have we not even begun to imagine within our current state of confinement within the system?


Maria Byck

MARIA BYCK is an artist, documentary filmmaker, and member of Making Worlds Commons Coalition and Arts & Labor?both working groups of Occupy Wall Street.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2013

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