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  • Art and the Commons
  • Amy J. Elias

This special issue of asap/journal takes as its starting point the growing body of artistic work addressing the need to rethink collectivity in the late Anthropocene, particularly in relation to what seems a very familiar idea: the creation of commons. The issue challenges us to consider how the arts and contemporary theory structure “the commons” anew: how the commons becomes both a goal and a trope in post-millennial art and cultural theory.

In everyday usage today, the commons is often made synonymous with “fair-use” space. Protest movements such as Occupy construct both material and political commons based on ideas of spatial and financial equity, whereas the migratory global precariat understands commons spaces as vestigial communal life.1 Global ecological movements now use the commons to denote the planet itself, understood as an evolving, living ecosystem shared by all, rather than a discrete site or resource legislated by a particular community. By contrast, in an era when many people in overdeveloped nations spend most of their waking lives online, the commons is often redefined in technological terms so that working in the commons simply means navigating through cyberspace information hubs offering open, user-controlled features. In this context, the commons designates user-produced content for which copyright licenses define fair-use by others.

It is important to remember, however, that the rhetoric of the commons has been present, if not dominant, in the creative arts since the early twentieth century. As articulated by participatory and public art projects, the arts of the common are those that value inclusivity, the exchange of ideas, and play and creativity between human (and nonhuman) entities. The term designates arts that support and employ alternative spaces and public performances; that encourage public participation in the making of art; that wish to undermine or redefine the authority of institutions such as museums, universities and, ultimately, markets in order to allow the public to engage with and [End Page 3] control art production and interpretation; and that use art as a means to facilitate the creation of new models of community and sociality. Projects built upon these ideas can be found in the modernist avant-garde and through different strands of twentieth-century movements, from Fluxus interventions to Allan Kaprow’s Happenings and Augusto Boal’s legislative theatre, and through the late-century’s relational aesthetics and participatory art movements.2 After the 1990s, artists, curators, and cultural theorists increasingly asserted the urgency of creating new social models and political collectives based in commons logic.

While many artists and theorists today continue to center twenty-first century aesthetics in an ethics of relationality, they often redefine the foundational concepts—such as anthropocentric humanism and principals of exchange—upon which older relational models and collectives were based, or which remained in those models in residual form. Older models of collectivity and exchange are seen as inadequate to meeting calls for more just and historically accurate definitions of “artist” and “audience,” to new techniques and platforms for artistic production, and to heightened challenges posed by impending environmental and political crises on a global scale. Scholars and artists today have sought to reconceive aesthetics through modes of relationality and subjectivity that might address these developments and, in turn, allow new social formations to emerge. Numerous strands of contemporary theory and aesthetics now engage in such reformulation: participatory art, collaborative art, practical aesthetics, the art of the everyday, posthumanism, affect theory, new materialism. Comprising a diverse and sometimes warring collection of thinkers and artists, the advocates of such practices nonetheless agree that reconceiving the commons requires rethinking the relations between ethics, art, and politics in ways that take into account the hegemony of the world capitalist system and the marketization of everyday life as well as the ongoing degradation of the planetary ecosystem. The essays collected in this issue implicitly or explicitly assert that in our moment, the spatial logic of commons thinking and the temporal logic of publics seem to coincide in an unprecedented and urgent way.

The contributors to this inaugural issue of ASAP/Journal both assert and address the need for new commons and new thinking about the commons...


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pp. 3-15
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