Emancipating Cultures:   From Canonising Cultural Institutions Towards Commoning Art Constitutions

Routine, Security, Creativity, and Innovation

That institutions can be stifling is meanwhile part of our collective social memory. Schools, theatres, and museums are characterised by a rather rigid, bureaucratic, and hierarchical form of organisation that streamlines or ‘routinises’ human behaviour. In addition, institutions are often reproached for being not transparent enough, for hindering democratic decision-making and nipping creativity in the bud. Or, as anthropologist Mary Douglas says in her seminal How Institutions Think (1986): ‘The instituted community blocks personal curiosity, organises public memory and heroically imposes certainty on uncertainty’ (Douglas, 1986, p. 102). The modern tradition of institutional critique, mainly in the visual arts, as well as the students’ revolts of the late 1960s can be understood as protests against this socially defining role of institutions. In this context, institutions are often seen as the opposition to the liberal individual. Since the late 1960s, freedom, creativity, and talent are primarily ascribed to the individual and certainly not to a collective, let alone a bureaucratic institution.

However, as early as 1966, the sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman pointed out in their no less seminal knowledge-sociological study The Social Construction of Reality that institutionalisation was also a condition for innovation (Berger & Luckman, 1966, p. 47). After all, by routinising social behaviour, institutions relieve us of having to take decisions on a basic level time and again or reinvent the wheel all over again. When multiple individuals align certain behavioural patterns and take them for granted, this creates room for experimental practices. From this we can infer the paradoxical function of institutions: at the same time, they determine and liberate, conserve and dynamise social and individual behaviour. Institutions generate routine and security but also provide the basis for freedom and creativity. The philosopher Boris Groys confirms this paradoxical role in the case of museums in stating:

The avant-garde strategy begins not with an opening to a greater freedom, but with the emergence of a new taboo – the ‘museum taboo’, which forbids the repetition of the old because the old no longer disappears but remains on display. The museum doesn’t dictate what the new has to look like, it only shows what it must not look like. … In the Bible, we can find the famous statement that there is nothing new under the sun. That is, of course, true. But there is no sun inside the museum. And that is probably why the museum always was – and remains – the only possible site of innovation (Groys, 2008: 27).

The same paradoxical logic applies to other cultural institutions where, for example, the repertoire of classical music, theatre, or dance has the role of the conservative ‘curator’ while at the same time inspiring innovation. ‘Institutions remember and forget’, says Douglas (Douglas, 1966, p. 69). Theatres, ballet companies, philharmonic orchestras, and museums are, in other words, social memory machines. They are always involved in the double activity of selective remembering and forgetting, thus forming the basis for all creative and innovative thinking. This also immediately reveals their overwhelming power. By mediating between past and present, by selecting what is old, valuable or canonic, they also determine what may be called new and innovative. Cultural institutions thereby delineate the so-called ‘freedom’ of the artist. This artistic freedom is drastically limited by the taboo on the past or the art-historical canon (Groys, 2008). It means that the artist can only act freely and autonomously within the domain of the new. Artists who venture outside of that domain risk being no longer recognised as artists. Artistic freedom or autonomy are therefore, in this sense, relative, because condemned to what is still to come. Or, as the philosopher Slavoj Žižek articulates the paradox of freedom in liberalism or neoliberalism, the artists too are only free to choose on the condition that they make the right choice (Žižek. 2005, p. 9).

Since the cultural institutions play such a central role between past and present and thereby also define what may be called creative or art today, insight into their mediation process can be very instructive. What is selected for a museum’s depot, for the repertoire of a theatre, dance company, orchestra, or even a textbook on art history and how this selection takes place, is after all decisive for our contemporary notion of creativity. Again, innovation can only be defined with a view of the old. This view, this look on what once was—and, by extension, was ‘good’—is a highly filtered view. It is therefore worthwhile to take a closer look at such filters.

Two filters have been prominently present in the institutional mediation of cultural heritage over the past 200 years. Inspired by the chronotope[1] theory of literary scholar Mikhael Bakhtin (1981) they have been referred to in earlier work as ‘local time’ and ‘global time’ (Gielen, 2004). Whereas the first filter is closely related to the origins of modern institutions within nation states, the second one refers to more recent history, especially the development of a global market economy. As a symbolic starting date of the latter, the year 1971 is often picked. It is a year that the Bretton Woods system was abandoned by U.S. President Nixon, meaning that national currencies were no longer linked to the gold standard. At that moment, money was given ‘free reign’, as it were, so it could comfortably circulate around the globe through worldwide flows. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and especially the turn towards a free market that China took that same year after the Tiananmen Square rebellion did not only enhance these global capital flows, but also started unprecedented flows of human migration of people following that capital (Sassen, 2005). Crucial in this is that because of this revolution, states gradually but surely start to lose the – political – power to shape their nations (Hardt & Negri, 2000). It also means that cultural institutions as ‘shapers’ of national culture and tradition start to transmute considerably. In order to understand the nature of this transmutation, the characteristics of the first cultural filter, the nation state, will be considered and then those of the second one, the ‘liberal market’ filter. A final section will discuss how, since the 2000s, a third filter is under construction as a critique of the two previous models.

Monoculture and National Cultural Policies

As we know, the first – modern – cultural institutions served as the binding agents in creating national cohesion and evoking a monoculture. The state, being a rational political organisation of an arbitrary population on an equally arbitrary piece of land, lacks all emotional warmth and therefore has no legitimacy, according to sociologist Michel Mafessoli (1996). Organisation and national regulation of administration, taxes, infrastructure, defence forces, and labour can only count on the support of subjects if they feel involved in some way or other and can identify with the project of the state. Institutions such as schools, libraries, and theatres are therefore not only used to propagate one national language, they also serve to promote national pride and a bit of chauvinism. National operas, theatres, and museums build a monoculture within the political boundaries of a state. They are supposed to lend a ‘soul’ to the somewhat dry and rational state organisation. In 1912, Emile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology, had good reason for calling nationalism a ‘secularised religion’ (Durkheim, 1985). Culture temples are the successors of churches and other places of worship. Culture charges a state structure with affect, emotion, and other feelings of ‘belonging’. Values and norms, also about quality, are structured in canon‑like fashion, layer upon layer, within a national framework. Hence the notion ‘local time’: history—often HIStory—also that of culture and art, is presented as a linear development within the local state boundaries. Sociologists Norbert Elias (1982) and Pierre Bourdieu (1984) have demonstrated how this works. The ideal is ‘Bildung’ but what in fact happens is that a bourgeois culture is proffered top-down as the only ‘good’ or ‘official’ culture, frequently imposed by using ‘symbolic violence’ (Bourdieu et al., 1969). The quality of the ‘better’ book, the ‘better’ film, or the ‘right’ music may be the result of intrinsic style characteristics but charging them with cultural value always takes place within hegemonial power relations (Bourdieu, 1979). In this process, class differences and other inequalities, expressed in, for example, local dialects and customs, are glossed over in order to be absorbed in a national culture of unity and to serve national social cohesion. It also explains why the most important composers, best-known directors, and world-famous artists are, to this very day, on average white, male, and from the middle and upper classes. And it clarifies why a textbook on art history in, say, Argentine or Iran, lists more European art objects and artists than indigenous ones. The dissemination of a national monoculture is inevitably linked to colonial and neo-colonial politics. Besides being white, male, and of bourgeois origin, this cultural policy is firmly based on the liberal, individualistic—indeed bourgeois—model mentioned earlier. This model is characterised by a strong belief in the creative ability of the individual, and sometimes even in the personal genius of this or that artist. According to Hobbesian Leviathan logic, the national sovereign state and its cultural cohesion is therefore understood as a conglomerate of individuals. A collectively shared monoculture is ‘forged’ through the mimetic projection onto an identification with strong egos such as star artists, top athletes, and strong men of state. A nation state is thus in fact understood as a ‘meta-individual’. The cultural and political theorist Jeremy Gilbert applies this notion to point out a Hobbesian and Freudian tradition in political thinking and public management. Within this prevailing notion, collective entities such as a community, a nation state, or a city can only be treated as individuals. Not only does such a Leviathan logic assume an ontological individualism in which the individual is seen as the basic unit of all possible human experience and the social is seen only in a negative sense as a threat to individual freedom. Within such a logic, collectivity can only emerge in vertical relationships, because a sense of community and of collective identity would only be possible by mimetic identification with a leader, like a political party identifies itself with its leader, union members with the union leader, the kingdom with its sovereign, the company with its CEO, or … the cultural field with its canonical artists. According to Gilbert, meta-individualism is the belief ‘that the “collective subject” constituted by these vertical relations can, at best, only act in a meaningful or purposeful way if its agency, rationale and intentionality are understood to be formally identical to those who define the individual subject’ (Gilbert, 2014, pp. 69-70).

Within a national cultural policy, cultural institutions therefore approach the nation state as an individual with an unambiguous biography and a straight or causal history, according to the principle of the ‘local time’. Monoculture indeed suppresses inequalities, diversity, minorities, and contradictory histories. A violent reaction to this came in the late 1960s, and took us into a different era in which cultural institutions started to filter and mediate in a completely different manner.

Multiculturalism and the Global Creative Industries

The sociologist Luc Boltanski and economist Eve Chiapello describe the revolt of the late 1960s as part of a twofold criticism (2006). On the one hand, protest comes from social criticism, which, primarily from the workers’ movement, fights for more equality. On the other hand, there is what Boltanski and Chiapello call ‘artistic critique’, which, primarily from the students’ movement, demands more democratic institutions, respect for individual freedom and creativity. It is perhaps this letter movement that shapes an emancipatory identity politics. The second feminist wave, the LGBT movement, and many ethnic groups in the first place advocate cultural diversity and equality on the basis of identitary qualities. The argument for a multicultural society is also in the line of this ‘artistic critique’, although this critique is mainly aimed at cultural and non-economic aspects. Even as such movements are collective in nature, their demands still depart from the liberal individualistic dispositif mentioned earlier. That is to say: demands for equal rights for women, ‘other’-sexuals, or migrants primarily concern equal opportunities for individual and personal development or simply individual career possibilities. In other words, liberal—and later neoliberal— emancipatory politics are suppressing structural and economic mechanisms by focusing on the individual. We see the same mechanism now in cultural policies, as they are shaped in most European countries anyway. These too are primarily aimed at individual development.

Perhaps it has to do with the bitter aftertaste of the Second World War, but post-war cultural policies in most European countries still avoid an explicit association of culture with collective identity. Both the bourgeois and liberal Bildung politics and the social-democratic edification-of-the-people are not so much aimed at forming the nation, in those post-war years, but rather at the unique artist and the development of the individual cultural participant (Ten Thije, 2017; Otte & Gielen, 2018). Such an individual perspective has only become stronger since the 1970s, and cultural participation, like religion, is increasingly seen as a private matter. The postmodern turn of the 1980s has only encouraged this trend. For sure, cultural participation is still promoted but the nature of that participation is increasingly seen as the outcome of a personal preference in taste for which there is no accounting, as the saying goes and which is in fact nothing but a consumer issue. The cultural offering is indeed increasingly regarded as a ‘supply’ on the leisure market where it has to compete with other more or less popular and commercial cultural products. In addition, in this market, institutions are confronted with a growing group of cultural omnivores. They are ‘consumers’ who are ‘shopping’ in a wide range of cultural activities, unlike the cultural monolith of before who would study mainly one artistic genre discipline from ‘high culture’ (Peterson & Roger, 1996). In addition, the number of private players in the global cultural market is growing since the 1970s – a development leading to veritable multinational culture chains such as the Guggenheim museums or, more recently, the Art Basel group, in the years 2000. Finally, public and government-funded institutions are more and more directed towards market logic. The prevailing cultural-political discourse is quick to translate democratisation of culture and participation into visitor numbers and tickets sold. It is perhaps no coincidence that in the course of the 1990s study programmes for cultural management and marketing at universities begin to boom. Here too, culture is framed as a product for which competitive PR campaigns and smart marketing strategies need to be developed, just like for other commodities, albeit tailored to culture, but still… The results are blockbuster exhibitions and other international mega events. Former national and publicly funded cultural institutions start to ‘filter’ differently, as a consequence. An exhibition of a promising experimental artist is followed, for example, by one about David Bowie in order to compensate for the limited public response to the first. Likewise, the ‘philharmonic market’ of classical music becomes fixed in a classical canon. After all, Johann Sebastian Bach sells better than, say, Wim Henderickx or Krysztof Penderecki. It is of course inevitable because the latter are simply younger composers. However, the point is that within a growing market logic their chances are relatively diminishing when compared to the classical canon (Herman, 2018). Finally, the recent competition among creative cities—and in Europe among cultural capitals—is only inflating this cultural homogenisation. Competing for the streams of tourists, cities, festivals, and biennales try hard to distinguish themselves but by looking at each other they paradoxically only succeed in becoming more similar. This is a phenomenon that the sociologists Walter Powell and Paul DiMaggio have described as ‘competitive isomorphism’ (Powell & DiMaggio, 1991; Gielen, 2018). Already since the postmodernism of the 1980s, the ‘local’ has been dissolving into global sameness (McEvilley, 2001). In combination with the global market economy this results in biennales, dance and theatre festivals with more and more similar art and artists, and in philharmonic orchestras having more and more the same composers on their repertoire. And although the group of artists in an exhibition or on stage looks more international and more multicultural, their art is much less so. Chinese violinists are easily more virtuoso than their European colleagues these days but they play mostly European works and do so according to European standards. Likewise, Ai Weiwei is a visual artist with a Chinese passport but in China itself his work is seen as thoroughly Western. Both exemplify a liberal arts model in which the individualistic perspective is leading.

The same analysis can be made of the cultural policies of most European countries. They are not only aimed at the individual. Although today explicit nationalism and national cultural politics are resurfacing everywhere, they were anathema for many years following the Second World War, as mentioned earlier. However, says cultural scientist Christiaan De Beukelaer (2017), concerning the Netherlands, anyway, such national politics have always been implicitly present in the pursued cultural policy. The – national – de-politicising of cultural politics generated an apparently neutral cultural policy. In such a policy politics appears like an administrative skill of experts without politics, like cream without fat, coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, or the Colin Powell myth of a war without victims (Žižek, 2005: 15). Such a policy presents itself as democratic and pragmatic, but internally it uses highly selective quality criteria and, again, individually oriented and competitive tools. De Beukelaer calls such an implicit politics ‘methodologically nationalistic’ (De Beukelaer, 2017; Otte & Gielen, 2018). As a result, nowadays the institutional filter appears to have more multicultural flavour. However, when we look behind the scenes at the ideology behind the prevailing creative industry policy and the ruling government bodies and management of culture, they turn out to be mainly monoculturally white and middle-class. Such ‘window dressing’ politics led the philosopher Slavoj Žižek to opposing the following thesis in his controversially titled book A Plea for Intolerance:

And so, multi-culturalism involves a patronizing Eurocentrist distance and/or respect for local cultures … Nonetheless he [the multiculturalist – PG] retains this position as the privileged empty point of universality from which one is able to appreciate (and depreciate) properly other particular cultures. The multiculturalist respect for the Other’s specificity is the very form of asserting one’s own superiority. (Žižek, 1998, pp. 49 and 52-53)

The cultural policy that over the past decades has been traded in for a ‘creative industries’ policy, both on the European and national level, does indeed advocate tolerance and openness. According to social geographer Richard Florida, the ‘T’ of Tolerance is one of the important keys to creative activity (Florida, 2002). But this tolerance ends as soon as it no longer aligns with Western morality of liberal freedom, individualism, cultural entrepreneurship, and competition.

The same applies to the institutional filter that started to colour the cultural landscape since the 1970s. As mentioned earlier, this landscape may appear more multicultural in the exhibition spaces and on the stages, whereas behind the scenes it remains structurally monocultural, because of the methodological nationalism as defined by De Beukelaer. It not only shows in the predominant white skin colour of policymakers, museum directors, and festival curators, but also in the ‘global time’ filter, which is predominantly aimed at the individual artist and the individual culture consumer (also see Araeen, 2001). Unlike ‘local time’, ‘global time’ no longer confines the artistic selection to national borders to then canonise them within a linear chronological or art-historical perspective. Within the global time frame museums, theatres, and orchestras make their selection not so much with an eye to the future, but rather preserve, conserve and consecrate with an eye to their own survival in the present. In the art world the shift from ‘local time’ to ‘global time’ can therefore be traced in the renaming of modern art to contemporary art (Gielen, 2013). In the course of the 1980s, several museums and theatres renamed themselves as institutions for contemporary art. As the term indicates, this culture radically focuses on the present. Cultural institutions look far less at what they have in their archives, libraries, and depots to determine their selection, but rather at what national and foreign fellow institutions may have to offer. Creativity and innovation are therefore measured by quite different barometers. Curators and programmers are digging less and less ‘vertical’ in deep caves of history but instead are looking ‘horizontally’ to what others currently have to offer (Gielen, 2013). And they do so not so much in order to preserve the – national – cultural heritage for future generations, but to attract a large enough audience to face the competition on the globalised cultural market. For the record and for the sake of nuance: of course, there are still linearly conceived art historical exhibitions today that are sometimes even strictly confined to national borders. All the same, this choice for such a ‘local time’ supply is also judged by its selling point on the contemporary market of cultural events. Today, national cultural heritage works in the same way as a handy brand in which an ‘authentic’ cultural identity easily persuades cultural consumers to make an arty city trip. Just as agriculture and the industrial age was reassessed within Fordist criteria, the national art canon has been compellingly re-articulated within a globalised creative industry. In practice this means that a national canon is less regarded as a cultural frame of reference and a foundation to build on, but rather as an exchangeable and therefore relative cultural product that is supposed to guarantee the profitability of the cultural institution that is temporarily hosting it. Just like the many identities and cultures within the current multiculturalism, the national monoculture is also primarily valued for its economic potential these days. But outside of the nation state as well, monoculturalisation is promoting stereotypes, as we have seen, for example, with the commodification of so-called ‘African literature’ in the globalised book market (Saha, 2015, p. 520).

To regard the horizontalization as a democratisation of culture and its mediating institutions would be a mistake. The hierarchy within cultural institutions is not abolished, even though the power relations are rearranged. Whereas in museums and theatres the artistic staff—cultural experts with a degree in art history or other cultural disciplines—were defining the artistic canon until well into the 1990s, business management was increasingly making its impact (Hye-Kyung, 2005). This MAN-agement also installs a patriarchal, hierarchic model but works with other barometers. Whereas the artistic management changes every four or five years (as sometimes even stipulated in statutes) the business management usually stays in place thereby consolidating its institutional position of power, both internally in the organogram and externally in the contacts with policymakers and sponsors. And whereas the artistic directors were able to substantiate their arguments with their cultural expertise and cultural capital, management nowadays presents its case with visitor numbers and a balanced budget. When national or local governments start looking more and more to the latter in order to legitimise any public funding, it goes without saying that the authority of the business management carries more weight than that of the artistic directors. And ‘business management’ has a more objective ring to it since its arguments can simply be read in tables and numbers. This shifting of the power relations therefore does not resolve hierarchy. A qualitative order based on content is simply replaced by a formal-quantitatively calculated canonisation. The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk phrased it like this in relation to schools:

… they [schools – P.G.] became empty selfish systems, focused exclusively on the norms of their own operational management. … At the same time, schools become ‘anti-authoritarian’ in an inferior way, without ceasing to exercise formal authority. (Sloterdijk, 2011, p. 447)

Selfishness should not be understood here as a personality trait or pathological mental condition but as a structural phenomenon prompted by a growing global market competition. Cultural institutes simply have no choice but to act ‘selfish’ if they are to survive in a hypercompetitive leisure market. As a consequence, by now the Tate Modern in London has been converted into a showroom for the Swiss bank UBS’ private collection and a handful commercial galleries decide which artists to select for the Arsenale at the Venice Biennale. In other words, the cultural canon is not so much defined by national politics but by global capital (Michaels, 2011, pp. 100-101; Haiven, 2018).

It is perhaps no coincidence that in 2008 artists and other cultural actors started to tamper with this new institutional politics and canonical filter. The financial crisis was already shedding an unfavourable light on the economic protagonists and at the same time it questioned the growing intertwining of the world of money and that of art and culture (Haiven, 2018). The Occupy and Indignados movements that were popping up massively all over the world resulted in a new institutional critique of the cultural domain, for example with the Occupy Museums action. At the same time, it rekindled the kind of artistic activism known from initiatives like Debtfair and the Yes Men. In the wake of these protest movements, institutions started to fundamentally re-think themselves, for example Teatro Valle in Rome and Ex Asilo Filangieri in Naples. They seemed to herald a new age for cultural institutions as organisations that proved to be capable of using completely different cultural filters.

Emancipating Cultures and Commoning Art Constitutions

Since the beginning of the 2000s, various art institutions begin to seriously consider their role and function in society. On the one hand, traditional national cultural institutes question their initial national role within a strongly globalised context (Gielen, 2010). Colonial and postcolonial criticism levelled at many of such institutes only strengthens the debate about their future identity and role in and for society. On the other hand, there is a growing discontent with institutions about the dominant role of capital and the art market in their own acquisition policy and programming. In the world of the visual arts, for example, it becomes increasingly difficult for many, even renowned, institutes to buy quality art. The speculative art market has taken much artistic work outside of their financial reach. In the performing arts sector the artistic selection is becoming more and more dependent on private donors and media sponsors. As a ‘counter offensive’, several institutes attempt to install a different filter, one that has been referred to as ‘glocal time’ (Gielen, 2004). This not only attempts to re-establish a connection between global art tendencies and local cultural history but also designs programming with more collective, social and political aims. One of the front runners in Europe in this respect was MACBA (Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona), which launched a new museum model under the directorship of Manuel Borja-Villel. Between 2000 and 2008, against the aforementioned paradigm of individuality, it attempted to re-establish the constituting role of the museum for the public sphere. The aim was to arrive at an alternative reading of modern art history by acquiring work by and organising exhibitions of artists and art scenes that were being ignored by the prevailing discourse of modernity. In addition, the museum undertook several attempts to establish a lively relationship with the city and its various public spheres. This included bringing artists’ collectives in contact with social movements to establish how they could improve urban life through joint civil actions (also see Mouffe, 2013, p. 71-72).

MACBA’s initiative can be traced in several art institutions that began to (re)organise themselves differently. In any case, we see today various initiatives to reverse the classic hierarchic structure of a management at the top and artists as the proverbial ‘foot-soldiers’ at the bottom of the pyramid. Within the management structure of traditional cultural institutions, artists often have little say and economically speaking this cultural worker is usually the least paid contributor in his field. As mentioned earlier, this precarious situation led to a new institutional critique following the financial crisis. Artists have sought and continue to look for a way out through alternative forms of self‑organisation and collective solidarity structures. One example of this we find in the music world in Amsterdam, where fifty composers and musicians have joined forces in order to acquire and collectively manage a former bathhouse in the city centre as a music venue. Splendor, as the organisation was named in 2010, has no hierarchic management, no PR or programmer, no public funding and no free market mechanisms either. In the tradition of the Do-It-Yourself culture the artists simply do everything themselves and have meanwhile established a broad audience for not always evident and sometimes also experimental new music. These fifty artists share responsibility for all aspects of the cooperative institute. Its financial structure consists of a modest one-time contribution (1000 euro per artist), bonds that were issued, and subscription fees of 100 euros per year providing access to membership concerts. Since the agenda of the venue provides playtime for all, a grassroots-democratic programming is assured in a simple manner, guaranteeing full artistic freedom for all. The curious thing is that the fifty participants have never physically held a meeting, neither for the establishment or management of the organisation nor for the programming. This means that the board relies completely on mutual trust and in its by now eighth year of operating that trust has hardly ever been betrayed. All this makes Splendor one of the examples of new art institutes that organise themselves according to the principle of the commons (Ostrom, 1990; De Angelis, 2017). All over Europe similar developments can be noted in which civil initiatives create their own third space between government (or state) and assemblies. Following constantly recurring bottom-up organisational principles, such as a grassroots‑democratic decision-making structure, a horizontal organogram, self-governance, peer to peer consultation, and assemblies, an age-old principle of shared use of common ground is given new life (Gilbert, 2014).

At Splendor this collective management—following one of the design principles for the commons as defined by economist Elinor Ostrom (1990)—is done by a relatively closed and homogeneous group with a shared culture. Other cultural organisations try to break open this relative seclusion by following the commoning principles as developed by political economist Massimo DeAngelis (2017) and others. Here, following radical democratic principles of inclusivity, the aim is to give access to cultural goods and their production to anyone, regardless of social class, age, nationality, gender, religious persuasion, and so on. One example of this is the impressive venue Ex Asilo De Filangieri in Naples, where weekly assemblies determine how a landmark cultural building is used. The result of this decision-making structure is that the studios and rehearsal spaces are used by both local carnival clubs and renowned theatre directors. All those who participate in the assembly are allowed to co-determine the organisation’s functioning and programming. The Spanish architectural studio Recetas Urbanas takes that grassroots-democratic commoning principle even further by providing its designs for free on the Internet and by actively inviting, in their interventions, collaboration with those who are not yet being represented (by politics, unions, NGOs or organised social interest groups). Prisoners, people with disabilities, drug addicts, refugees, illegals, Roma, and so on, who are neglected by representative democracy—often having literally and legally no voice or right to vote—are given the opportunity to still have an impact on society through collaboration in building projects. In that sense, the commoning practice of these artistic and creative organisations, in line with Jacques Rancière, is always also political: they render visible what has until then been invisible. According to this philosopher, every political act is aimed at a rearrangement of that communal visible space. In relation to this he speaks of the common basis of art and politics as ‘the sharing and (re)distribution of what can be perceived with the senses’ (partage du sensible). This is the aesthetic moment of politics, but also precisely the ‘political of art’, in that it is capable of showing what had been neglected until then. Art can make us aware of voices that we did not hear before, of political emotions and interests that suddenly acquire a public face (Rancière, 2000; Gielen & Lijster, 2015).

While Splendor provides self-governance for the bottom layer in the creative chain, especially the artist; L’Asilo and Recetas Urbanas attempt to uncover neglected cultures from the bottom up, time and again. Although all these organisations unmask a cultural hegemony and an artistic canon, they do so in entirely different manners. Whereas with Splendor it is done by a limited number of ‘initiated’ from the same art discipline. L’Asilo attempts to reach out to everyone who wishes to organise cultural activities in the city, according to grassroots-democratic principles. At Splendor they may be rewriting music history but this re-articulation remains the privilege of a relatively exclusive group of commoners. L’Asilo and especially Recetas Urbanas are opening the door to a much more permanent cultural recalibration.

Whether once-only or not, all these organisations focus on that which is, or those who are not yet being represented; those who are at the bottom of the symbolic or economic ladder or have very little power over making decisions. That’s why their practices can be called constitutive and their organisations can be called constitutions instead of institutions. They share the aspect that they are trying to provide firmer ground to that or those who do not yet have it, to those whose voices are not really heard or those who are not yet represented. In Dutch, the word for ‘the constitution’ is grondwet (literally ‘ground law’) containing the prefix grond (ground, soil, bottom, base). The fact that this operation is done through communal decision forming processes also supports the choice for the term ‘constitutions’. The prefix ‘con’ is a reminder of its collective character. Finally, Splendor, L’Asilo, and Recetas Urbanas operate in a civil domain between market and state for which very little is legally regulated so far. Commoning art organisations therefore frequently find themselves in the same position as the founding fathers of the constitution. The philosopher Hannah Arendt once said about them:

(…) those who get together to constitute a new government are themselves unconstitutional, that is, they have no authority to do what they have set out to achieve. The vicious circle in legislating is present not in ordinary law making, but in laying down the fundamental law, the law of the land or the constitution which, from then on, is supposed to incarnate the ‘higher law’ from which all laws ultimately derive their authority. (Arendt, 1990, pp. 183-84)

Whereas Splendor made the conscious decision not to supply for public funding as it does not wish to play according to the rules of the government (and the Dutch Performing Arts Fund) Recetas Urbanas calls its field of operation ‘a-legal’. Ex Asilo Filangieri produced its own Declaration of Urban, Civic and Collective Use for the commonal running of its venue in Naples. This declaration was later adopted by the city authority and thereby also became applicable to other civil initiatives. In addition, both Recetas Urbanas and L’Asilo often rely on the national constitution to defend and legitimise their activities and self-regulation (De Tullio, 2018, pp. 299-312). After all, many national constitutions already guarantee commonal principles such as the democratic use of and free access to basic community goods and services (such as education, culture, work, healthcare), inclusivity, equality, and the right of self-governance. Constitutions were, in most cases, drawn up by people who once fought for commonal principles themselves, such as autonomous government, equality, and mutual solidarity for the people of, in those cases, nation states. Commoning art constitutions, however, do not focus exclusively on the own monoculture of a national community. And unlike feminists, other-sexuals, migrants or ethnic minorities, they also do not rely on identity politics for the recognition of their community. Also, unlike multiculturalism, commoning practices do not let the recognition of a unique identity determine the collective use of and access to the commons. Commoning focuses primarily on the collective, democratic use by everyone and therefore addresses issues or those with little or no access to the commons. In that sense, commoning art differs fundamentally from community art (Otte & Gielen, 2018). Gilbert clearly illustrates this distinction with regard to classic identity politics:

What is particularly useful about the idea of the commons as distinct from the idea of community is that it does not depend upon any presumption that the participants in a commons will be bound together by shared identity or a homogeneous culture. Rather, they will be related primarily by their shared interest in defending or producing a set of common resources, and this shared interest is likely to be the basis for an egalitarian and potentially democratic set of social relationships. (Gilbert, 2014, p. 165)

Gender, sexual orientation, ethnic background or nationality therefore are primarily not relevant to commoning practices. The often politically-correct use of identity politics is left behind in commonal practices in order— according to a radical equality and inclusivity principle—to focus on what or who is not represented yet, whether this concerns artefacts or people, plants or animals, women or men, allochthones or autochthones, legals or illegals, precariat or proletariat, the healthy or disabled, heterosexuals, homosexuals or transgenders. The basic activity of commoning art constitutions is that of time and again exploring the bottom and the margins of their own domain. That at least is the principle, because, as mentioned elsewhere, commoning organisations can also fall into the pitfall of exclusivity by reserving their commonal control for a closed and homogeneous community of commoners (Gielen, 2018). However, as cultural commons often consists of hardly retractable immaterial goods that have a low degree of excludability—such as language, codes, affects, knowledge, artistic experiences—the use of them by one person hardly excludes their use by someone else (Hess & Ostrom, 2007; DeAngelis, 2017). The philosopher Alain Badiou adds: ‘We must emphasise that everybody creates and always does so for everybody. Art is for the masses and if it’s not, we should make sure that it is, voilà.’ (Badiou, 2012, p. 56).

In democracies, public cultural institutions such as municipal or national museums or libraries were charged with countering subtractability by showing artworks outside of private collections and making books accessible for everyone (Michaels, 2011). However, because of the dominant speculative market, more and more cultural assets have become exclusive. But even if they don’t have financial thresholds, public art institutions still often raise symbolic barriers—such as exclusive bourgeois, middle-class or European codes of behaviour—causing the cultural commons to become or remain enclosed (Bourdieu, 1990). Besides, the growing creative industry and cities market feed the competitive isomorphism mentioned earlier, causing the diversity of cultural expressions to decrease. Commoning practices, by contrast, try to oppose such enclosures and homogenisation of the cultural commons. Only by making, time and again, a radical, democratic grassroots move towards suppressed histories, undervalued professionals, social minorities, or repressed cultural practices can make commoning practices go beyond the exclusive monoculture and identitary multiculturalism.

Such a move does not happen without a struggle. To free up space, time and again for those who have no voice yet often requires hard struggles and debates, like those held in the aforementioned assemblies and other places. Whereas in a monoculture there is a consensus about the canon and cultural taste, this consensus has to be constantly re-discussed and decided upon through dissensus. After all, constituent practices are driven by permanent tensions in which cultural values may be questioned again at any moment. Each newcomer who enters the assembly can break the consensus previously arrived at. This permanent openness does however also generate enormous freedom as it can also break open the suffocating nature of institutions, time and again. This openness does not refer to the individual and often noncommittal freedom of choice mentioned earlier, but rather to the right of fighting for one’s freedom (of expression and artistic practice). In that sense it is not an individual freedom but rather a collectively gained, responsible freedom. Against the dispositif of bourgeois individual freedom within a national culture and the liberal competitive freedom of choice in the creative industries market, commoning practices in other words provide an alternative dispositif of freedom, especially that of a freedom for which the collective is responsible. Within a constituent system the opportunity for new artistic expression and cultural practices does not depend on the personal choice of a particular curator or programmer, nor on the preference of the cultural consumer. It does depend on the persuasive power of the artist and/or the artwork within the deliberative process of the assembly. Those who succeed to gain their freedom through struggle, immediately have public support or a base in society because this freedom was gained expressly in a collective decision-making process. In short, in commoning art practices freedom takes a completely different form with collective responsibility in which the artificial opposition between individual freedom and institutional determinism is dissolved.

To Conclude: The Democratic Project

From research and theory, we may conclude that the democratic project in fact rests on a system with at least two pillars: representation and deliberation (Held, 2006; Gielen, 2011). While representation is intended to make the voice of the majority heard through traditional political institutions and elections, deliberation is aimed at empowering citizens through education, culture, and media. However, by making education and culture more and more exclusive—for example by privatising education, raising enrolment fees, and cutting down on the study grant system, privatising and monopolising both cultural institutions and the media—this second pillar is being undermined. Relying on the first pillar, many governments still call themselves democratic while at the same time systematically eroding the democratic project through the deprivation of the second pillar. A similar development can be seen today with regard to the migration issue. In line with multiculturalism, traditional cultural institutions often find it sufficient to ‘represent’ other cultures, sometimes purely on the basis of figures and quota. Unlike such politically correct policies in which artists are often used as an excuse because they supposedly represent a certain cultural identity, constituent practices aim for the emancipation of all those who are socially, economically, culturally, or ecologically ‘less’ or oppressed. The point is therefore not to equate cultures and treat them equally, simply because they are different. By contrast, commoning practices (re)politicise social reality through emancipating cultures. These are cultures that retain the cultural differences by reconciling them with solidarity between very heterogeneous subjects or a so-called heterodoxy. These are not cultures that need to be emancipated, but cultures that emancipate by constantly again developing democratising tools and experimenting with them, like in the aforementioned deliberative processes in assemblies and peer-to-peer exchanges. Otherwise the existing inequality within these cultures (including the ‘own’ culture) remains in place. Present-day neoliberal politics covers up such structural power relations by pouring a multicultural sauce over it, thereby depoliticising inequality through culturalisation.

Traditional cultural institutions may have been the champions of an emancipatory culture since the nineteenth century. Social-democratic regimes in any case relied on institutions to translate their political ideal to reality through the second pillar of democracy. Organisations of modern and contemporary art, for example, have generated and are still generating an unprecedented openness to other, deviating ideas and most singular cultural practices. According to the doxa of modern art, only those who come up with something that is authentic, radical, and transgressive can become professional artists (Heinich, 1995). In other words, the art world is open to ambiguity and to that which is always otherwise possible. However, this openness to otherness was mainly limited to an exclusive white bourgeois culture in the national monoculture. Today, it is a wealthy middle-class culture that takes what is otherwise possible no further than the multicultural representation outlined above (Areaan, 2002; 15-30). Commoning art constitutions now follow in this emancipating cultural tradition as well, but they radically apply this deliberative character to the collective organisational structure. Like all constituent movements they do so through exhaustive meetings and hard disputes. After all, emancipation shall be heterodox or shall not be at all.


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[1] The notion of chronotope was introduced by Michael Bakhtin in 1973. With this neologism the Russian literary scientist expressed his view that time and space are symmetrical and absolutely interdependent. In any case, since modernity they make up the observation grid by which modern man understands himself, places himself in the world, and organises his labour and therefore also his cultural production. As to the latter, Bakhtin focused mainly on literature, particularly on the novella, in order to better understand both the production and perception of this artistic genre (cf. Gielen, 2004).