Common as air? Lewis Hyde challenges museums on questions of culture, property, and the collective good

June 20th, 2011 by myriam

Lewis Hyde at 2011 AAM ConferenceThanks to Myriam Springuel of Springuel Consulting for this guest post. She is Vice-Chair of The Museum Group, sponsors of Lewis Hyde’s Thought Leader session at the Houston 2011 American Association of Museums Conference. Hyde is author of Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership (2010), The Gift, Creativity and the Artists in the Modern World (1979), and Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art (1998).


Lewis Hyde challenges those working in the cultural arena to be more engaged in protecting the cultural commons – those inventions, discoveries, and creative works that are our common heritage. It is a tough challenge because this is not about joining a campaign based on a sound-bite slogan. Rather it is about understanding the complicated ways in which we create civil society based on the idealism of the founding fathers of the United States. Ultimately, it is about the ways in which the expression of culture, limited by enclosures or encroachments – like those that shut 18th-century English villagers out of the commons on which they had traditionally grazed their sheep – defines how we express ourselves as human beings. Part of what makes Lewis Hyde’s challenge so difficult is that we have to learn vocabulary and pay attention to history to talk about the subject.

Common as Air, by Lewis HydeThe focus of Lewis Hyde’s presentation at the recent AAM conference was on questions raised in his latest book, Common as Air, around who owns the cultural commons, why that commons is being increasingly restricted, and ways in which various communities are organizing to challenge those restrictions to find new ways of working that are appropriate for the Internet age.

It was in order to encourage creativity and the “useful arts” that the founders in 1790 created the legal tools that protect the work of inventors, writers, and artists for a limited time. They believed democratic self-governance requires a free flow of ideas; copyright and patents allowed for a limited monopoly, giving the inventor or thinker remuneration as an incentive to work, with a limited time during which others could not profit from that work. Recently, the length of time for exclusion, originally about 14 years, has greatly increased; in many cases, the burden of proof has shifted, making it more expensive and complicated to defend fair use.

Property, whether tangible or intangible, is a right of action; those actions have limits. For example, I own my house and can keep people out. But I cannot turn that house into a factory or a parking lot, or do any number of other things with or from that house. The 18th century saw important arguments about property and ownership. Jefferson, for instance, argued that the only way to exclude someone from an idea is to keep it in your head. Non-rivalrous and non-excludable property was much discussed by the founders. It has long been understood that water, air, and fire are common goods. Public policy generally addresses the balance between property held in common and property held individually. The Internet had fundamentally challenged how we share ideas. In response, we are just starting to develop different ways of owning and sharing ideas.

Hyde was particularly provocative in reminding us that these questions are rooted in how we imagine the human self. For whom do we make works of art, explore science, or express creativity? Where do ideas come from? Hyde reminded us that the creative self is both individual and collective. He offered the term “dividual” – the many parts that make me including my self, my family, my community – as opposed to “individual.” Benjamin Franklin and Bob Dylan, for example, had remarkable gifts. But their talent is both an expression of the many influences on their work and their “dividual” self. Once I mix my labor with culture, how much can I take credit for?

In museums, Hyde suggested, I become myself. I become present. What is the self that comes to life? Is it a dividual or an individual self?

Practices around cultural property allow us to be certain kinds of selves. With them we enable or disable ways of being human. Hyde challenges us to participate in the debate about what it means to be a cultural citizen in the 21st century; knowing the history of the debate is critical to understanding its implications. Hyde did not provide pat answers but gave examples of how some fields are responding to these questions. For instance Creative Commons, the Bermuda Principles for the Human Genome, or the principles behind Cap and Trade are each grounded in “declaration”; academic scientists, French chefs, and comedians police each other, yet build on each others’ work through agreed-upon conventions.

During this AAM Thought Leader session, Lewis Hyde challenged museum professionals to be active participants in discussions about the philosophies and values that will guide the choices we make as a society – a discussion that is much broader than the museum field, but is at the heart of why so many of us are passionate about museum work.

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