This piece is part of a weekly series of articles curated by Voluntary Arts and authored by cultural thinkers and doers. The series will be published between November 2017 and February 2018. It is being shaped in response to the emerging practice of cultural commoning and as a way of articulating ideas that have arisen in conversations about Our Cultural Commons over the past two years across the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Our intention is that the series will help make visible the cultural commons in action and will encourage new approaches to sustaining creative cultural activity in local places. And we hope that the articles and the conversation they stimulate will contribute to the forming of ever more enabling cultural policy.

Cultural Commons and Social Wellbeing

Researchers are making headway in trying to understand and assess what brings people satisfaction in life, based on psychology and better knowledge of the material conditions people need to live a decent life. While this will always be incomplete, we are perhaps on the threshold of having a workable social science of human wellbeing. And any wellbeing science needs to include the values of aesthetics, creativity and self-realisation.

A lot of old certainties are fading, such as full-time jobs for life, home ownership, widely shared religious faith, and guaranteed access to a social ‘safety net’ of core public services. People move between more localities than in the past, and may have various networks through which they derive income for work. Many of us have contact with far more people than previous generations did, but so many of these connections are fleeting—often mediated by social media—rather than long-term relationships.

All of this can undermine our sense of identity and cause angst rather than give a solid foundation to our lives. With the radical shrinking of the foundations of collective identity and sense of self, many people feel the need to find new forms of kinship to reassert their humanity in an increasingly alienating economy.

To be a force that brings people together in new ways, cultural commons have to harness all of the power of the arts to speak frankly about the deepest concerns of people—mortality, frailty, loss, loneliness, meaninglessness and despair. If an unexamined life is not worth living (Socrates), cultural commons at their best should help us examine our lives and to commune with others in the achievement of a mindful and worthwhile human existence.

That does not mean that manifestations of cultural commons cannot be fun. On the contrary, merriment, celebration and joyfulness are also an important part of life lived well.

If I were to describe a cultural commons, I would say it allows anyone to claim the public square—at least for a time—in order to put forward their ideas in whatever form their creativity takes, and to invite both friends and strangers to share the experience.

The three elements that come together to empower cultural commons are:

  • local infrastructure
  • creative resources
  • custodianship

Local infrastructure can be permanent or temporary. It includes physical space and buildings, but also invisible infrastructure such as insurance cover or local authority permission. Public bodies, voluntary bodies, businesses and even private individuals can provide such infrastructure.

Cultural Commons and Social WellbeingCreative resources are held by individuals and groups, and include imagination and ideas, as well as skills, but also resources including art materials, musical instruments, electronic equipment, or whatever is needed to bring a creative vision into existence.

Custodianship implies that motivated individuals need to co-operate in order that whatever they create does not fade with the dawn, and continues to benefit the wider community. Some creativity may be purposefully ephemeral, but nonetheless even bringing something into existence in the first place requires some organisation and forethought.

Commons are shared resources carefully minded by a community for their mutual benefit. Traditional commons—from the park bench to the public library—have for centuries permitted people to make basic contact with one another in a civilised and civilising environment.

For new cultural commons to make a worthwhile contribution, there needs to be a self-aware network of cultural agitators who understand their role as more than providing entertainment, and who collectively work towards the emancipation of humanity from the constraints imposed by unregulated capitalism and environmental ruin. Cultural leaders need to be informed about human psychology and the factors that help people lead good lives.

We know that people need a minimum level of material conditions to attain a decent quality of life—for example as illustrated by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Minimum Income Standard for the UK, or the Minimum Essential Standard of Living described by the VPSJ in Ireland. People need the means to have a decent quality of food and drink, clothing, housing and domestic fuel, household goods and services, transport, personal goods and services, and social and cultural participation.

At the same time, researchers have developed an impressive evidence base supporting Self Determination Theory, which argues that people are most motivated by intrinsic things—such as having the capability to do things for themselves, having autonomy to make decisions that matter to their lives, and feeling positively related to other people.

Those championing cultural commons need to be sensitive to the fact that people who possess very limited material resources are less likely to have the capability to engage in cultural activity. Severe deprivation is likely to rob people of even the ability to passively appreciate a cultural experience. Cultural commons need to empower people—in peer networks—to be creative for themselves. Human beings prefer to be active doers rather than passive recipients.

Cultural Commons and Social WellbeingHomo sapiens evolved for over one hundred millenniums in small, close-knit social groups. The transition to postmodern life has been too abrupt, too brutal. It is no wonder that mental illnesses—depression, anxiety and addiction—are the fastest growing health problems of the developed world. Yet a social science of human wellbeing can help us to understand our limits, and to rediscover our strengths.

As the world begins to recognise the yawning chasm between western TV lifestyles and the actual material resources the Earth can provide, there will be greater demand for authentic cultural experiences rather than throwaway consumer products.

Cultural commons have the potential to be a sustainable source of sustenance for people’s hearts in an era of constrained global resources. They can go deep and provide spaces and moments within which people can find deeper kinship and solidarity with one another, as part of a global movement for human flourishing.

Nat O’Connor
Lecturer in Public Policy and Public Management, Ulster University, Belfast

Nat O

Nat O’Connor is Lecturer in Public Policy and Public Management at Ulster University. Prior to that, Nat worked with the independent think-tank TASC in various roles. He co-authored Cherishing All Equally: Economic Inequality in Ireland, among other reports. In a voluntary capacity, Nat is the independent chairperson of his local drug and alcohol taskforce and been involved in various civil society initiatives including the Living Wage Technical Group, The Wheel’s subgroup on policy and the People’s Conversation. Nat’s current research interests include how civil society organisations can foster active citizenship.

Next week, on Wednesday 15 November 2017, Jamie Gahlon, Co-founder and Senior Creative Producer at HowlRound offers the Boston-based, open source platform for theatremakers as a case study in cultural commoning.

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This article is published under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.
Images: CC0 Creative Commons, Pixabay