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Rachel Breen: Art for Everyone’s Sake

November 1, 2013

Notes on creativity as a commons.

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Image from Flickr via nozomiiqel

By Rachel Breen
By arrangement with On the Commons

Is art a commons? Or does collective creativity violate the individualistic nature of artists themselves? That’s a topic I’ve explored both in my art and in conversations with artists around the U.S.

Most of the artists I’ve talked with welcome movement toward a commons-based society as a way to increase the meaning and value that art offers to all of our lives. The current status of the art market—the buying and selling of art at exorbitant prices as part of an increasingly privatized and exclusive sphere where art is out of reach, literally and figuratively—hurts us all. The relentless expansion of the market into the world of art calls us to protect access to making and participating in art. Preventing further encroachment of the market into the realms of art and culture can help ensure that people enjoy and partake of art in the broadest sense as well as protecting artists’ ability to draw more freely from material, ideas and ways of working in order to create anew.

A Traditional Artistic Commons in China

My first encounter with art as a commons took place from 1998 to 2001, when I had the great fortune to live in China and study the traditional folk art of paper cutting. I traveled to many remote villages along the Yellow River where some people still lived in cave homes. In the village of Yen Chuan, I met many aging paper cut artists who made intricate designs with paper, using only a common household scissors and their strong hands. This was a tradition handed down through from mother to daughter.

Similar to the way quilting and other traditional women’s crafts are taught in a manner that not only encourages but also relies on sharing and copying, the tradition of paper cutting is an art commons.

Each woman I visited would take out paper cuts, which were usually stored between the pages of their children’s textbooks, and lay them out so I could look at them. Occasionally the same pattern would appear at a different woman’s house. When I asked where the original pattern had come from, none of the women seemed to be able to answer or even comprehend the question. After repeated attempts to make myself understood it suddenly dawned on me that there was no particular attention paid to who first conceived a pattern in this part of China.

Similar to the way quilting and other traditional women’s crafts are taught in a manner that not only encourages but also relies on sharing and copying, the tradition of paper cutting is an art commons. Young girls are taught to make paper cuts by first copying the patterns of others. Eventually, as this tradition is passed down through generations, the same patterns make their way into different homes, parts of one pattern are incorporated into new ones and different regions even become known for certain styles and motifs.

Here was the commons, alive and kicking. But what meaning might it provide for those of us living in a culture—and artistic sensibility—saturated by market-based thinking? For many of us, it is hard for us to imagine how things might be different.

Creative Expression as a Basic Human Inheritance

In a basic, general way, it is possible to think of creativity as inherent in all humans—something we are born with and share as a gift or an inheritance. Kris Maltrud, a dancer in New Mexico describes it this way, “any kind of art—performance, literary, visual—art and its expression is essential and belongs to everyone. I consider creativity a birthright—something that all of us have that we share”.

Lewis Hyde, a poet who has extensively explored the idea of the commons-based gift economy talks about an artist’s creative energy as the inner life of art—something generated, in part, by inspiration or intuition, organically bestowed upon humans as a gift, through no effort on our part. Another way of saying this is that artistic expression emerges, in part, from an essential aspect of being human—something we all have “in common”. This is one way we can understand art as a commons.

“Artists are only partially aware of all the different stuff that actually goes into making their work. This newly created cultural material belongs to everyone. It came out of the commons, once released it returns to it.”

But an understanding of art as a commons has broader significance when we begin to look at what happens when an artist’s creativity energies are expressed. Sal Randolph, a New York-based poet and new media, artist explains, “I think of art like any other human cultural activity, making dinner, science, music—all of what we do depends on our cultural context. We wouldn’t know how to make scrambled eggs if a million people hadn’t already done it. The idea of a painting—paint, brushes, stretching a canvas, what you might put on the canvas—these are all things that we do because of our culture. A simple way of looking at it is as social ecology or the way in which we live. We don’t make any thing without being indebted to the commons.”

This offers a look at another layer of how art is a commons. The commons is a place where we are linked with everyone else’s creative expression: a treasure trove of history and culture that has come before us and which influences how we perceive, envision and comprehend what is possible today. Something new emerges out of various combinations of cultural ingredients—traditions passed down from our families, rituals and ceremonies given to us by our communities and interactions with popular culture that we receive on a daily basis.

Joy Garnett, a New York-based painter, reflects, “Art contains within it a multitude of cultural and historical references, symbolism, meanings, “baggage”, as well as the seeds of that which has yet to come. Art is a bridge between contemporary culture and all that has passed before; it allows for a pooling of information both past, present and future, and hence extends the commons across time.

“Artists are only partially aware of all the different stuff that actually goes into making their work,” she adds. “This newly created cultural material belongs to everyone. It came out of the commons, once released it returns to it…. While we each may experience any given artwork differently, art is part of the glue that connects us.”

Treasures We All Inherit

Art can help us see the commons as a resource that we draw from and give back to, consciously and unconsciously. It animates and describes the commons as well as being a commons itself. This important role gives us all, not just those calling themselves artists or cultural workers, a reason to worry about the mounting influence of the market in the art world. Don Russell, the executive director of the D.C.-based Provisions Library, an arts and social change resource center, sums it up well: “If you look at the history of human action you can see that art is one of the first things we have—the fashioning of things and ideas for social purpose and survival.”

Art, as cultural, historic and national treasures is something that we all inherit as a people. We all own it and have to figure out how to share it. Catherine D’Ignazio, a Boston-based artist who explores avenues of participation and distribution in art, notes, “The question about ownership opens up the notion of a civic sphere where we are participating—creating spaces where people can come together and share experiences and engage in a critical dialogue about the world we live in.”

Catherine is also a founding member of The Institute for Infinitely Small Things, a research organization/artists collective in Boston that has a video you can see on their web site titled 57 things you can do for free in Harvard Square. This video shows individuals jumping up and down, playing games and enjoying the park—a humorous artistic work that reminds us that simple non-market ways to enjoy ourselves still exist, even in one of America’s famous gentrified shopping districts. Here, artists help us to see and name the commons and in so doing, help us take a step towards the reclaiming what belongs to all of us.

Rachel Breen is an artist and member of the Fine Arts faculty at the Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Minnesota. Adpated from OTC’s All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, published by The New Press.

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