Readers of STIR will no doubt be familiar with the concept and politics of the commons and the struggle against enclosure, so I will not revisit them here except to say that creativity is an elemental part of the commons and of struggles to defend, expand and reinvent them. Indeed, creativity itself can be understood, at least in part, as a commons.
Consider, for instance, the incredible creative gifts that have emerged from the Black experience in the United States. As historian and philosopher of cultural politics Robin D.G. Kelley has shown in his incredible book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, cultural forms from gospel to blues to jazz to funk to hip-hop emerged collaboratively from popular movements against racism and exploitation. They served, at least initially, as catalysts for common struggles. But, likewise, these cultural forms have each been the subject of enclosure by the music industry, advertising and other capitalist forces eager to transform these into opportunities to sell cultural commodities and, in the course of this process, the history of collective, collaborative creativity is distilled into a lineage of individual figures.
That is to say that creativity always emerges from a context of shared and collectively cultivated cultural and intellectual ‘resources,’ and in turn contributes to that context, and that the politics of creativity are in many ways defined by capitalism’s attempts to conscript, shape, co-opt or charge rent for access to that creative commons. Indeed, this is the key argument of the Creative Commons licensing platform, an open-source initiative that allows creative producers—from musicians to artists to programmers—to “copy-left” their work, acknowledging its shared sources and its contribution to a shared cultural landscape while, at the same time, affording the option of ensuring authorial recognition and preventing future profiteering.
The hidden history of creativity
This argument may sound a bit odd or abstract because we are accustomed to imagining creativity in highly individualistic ways, ways that are fundamentally shaped by a capitalist worldview. Indeed, the idea of creativity, at least in the English language, only emerges as a distinct and recognised term amidst the rise of capitalism, the enclosure of the original commons and the processes of European colonialism and imperialism. This makes disentangling creativity from capitalism and developing a notion of the creativity of the commons fairly difficult, but also well worth attempting.
Essentially, the idea of creativity came into existence primarily to give cultural commodities added value. As the capitalist class was forging itself in the 17th and 18th centuries, largely based on their ability to expropriate and profit from commons lands and resources, they began to demand the means of what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “distinction”: artifacts and social practices by which they could set themselves apart and afford themselves an exalted self-image and class solidarity. Unlike their aristocratic predecessors, the new capitalist class made no pretense towards some sort of inherited biological superiority. They wished to believe that their wealth and success was due to intelligence, cunning, hard work and entrepreneurial spirit. But in order to reproduce this illusion, and to cultivate a community of like-minded ruling class persons, a range of social institutions were required: elite schools and clubs, professional associations and guilds, and, importantly, a sphere of cultural refinement and cultivation. New cultural forms, from the novel to opera to private paintings to fine crafts emerged to meet the demand of a rising class of individuals eager to showcase not only their wealth but also their intellectual and cultural superiority.
The value of these commodities, both in terms of how much money they cost and their usefulness in reproducing ruling class culture, was based, at some fundamental level, on the signature of the unique artist—the authentic and singular mark of the individual that guaranteed the uniqueness of the cultural work in question. Around this figure of the unique artistic persona, the capitalist mythology of creativity grew. Creativity, it came to be understood, emerged from the divine wellspring of the individual soul. The white, male European artist achieved a celebrated status. While some of the earliest proponents of the idea of individualistic creativity posed this romantic ideal against the growing corrosive power of capitalism and in contrast to the crass and base cupidity of the businessman, the archetype was quickly enclosed: The artist came to be seen as the glamorous mirror image of the entrepreneur, the heroic, driven individual who tamed chaos and created profitable beauty and order in the world through force of will.
Such a mythology of individualistic, capitalist creativity depended (and still depends) on the defamation and degradation of its ‘others.’ The emergence of a bourgeois culture based on the ideal of individual creativity was created in contrast to the belittled creativity of the commoners: peasant dances, popular folktales, the music of travelling bards and community tradition, all these were castigated as mindless, derivative and fundamentally uncreative, in large part because they were collective or common practices, which had little place for naming a single original artist or author and were also difficult to commodify. Further, this enclosed form of ‘creativity’ made a fundamental if artificial separation between the fields of arts and culture and the realms of everyday life, discounting the creative work that is an integral part of raising children, cultivating community, telling stories, tending gardens and reproducing social life more broadly. Women, who had long been cultural leaders in commoners’ communities, were now dismissed as incapable of ‘real’ creative genius and excluded from the canon of great artists, authors and creators. The phenomenal cultural work of non-European civilisations was dismissed as merely the semi-conscious playing out of cultures locked in time, unable to achieve true creative innovation, capable only of reproducing old forms. Or, worse: they became the raw aesthetic material for European appropriation and enclosure, as in the case of the ‘primitivist’ art movements, emblematised by painters like Picasso.
This should not lead us to dismiss or reject the incredible European cultural and creative treasures of the modern, capitalist period. Nor should it encourage us to devalue the importance of gifted individual creators. But we ought to recontextualise them. No artist, composer or novelist exists outside a society that produces the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the tools they use and the community on whom they rely. In turn, no creative producer creates in a vacuum: they speak back to that society and help to shape it, often in very subtle but not unimportant ways. Further, while capitalist storytelling encourages us to remember cultural history as a parade of great men, of isolated, iconoclastic creative geniuses, the reality is that, as important as each character may indeed be, each existed as part of a community of other creative producers: critics, collaborators, rivals, friends, patrons, neighbours, and on and on. Each relied on a commons pool of cultural meanings, ideas, forms, styles, and techniques pioneered by previous generations of creative producers, and in turn contributed to this pool.