Was Muhammad Ali a commoner? He may not have used that term, but in a spontaneous moment at Harvard University in 1975, Ali certainly revealed his personal inclinations.
Thirty-three-years old at the time, Ali was widely admired for mixing his flamboyant style with deeper truths, all of it leavened with witty wordplay and a generosity of spirit. He preened as “The Greatest,” but showed great humility as a humanitarian and civil rights activist.
After delivering a commencement address to 2,000 Harvard students, someone shouted out, “Give us a poem!” A hush descended and Ali thought for a moment.
Out tumbled what has been called the shortest poem in the English language – “Me. We.”
That arguably encapsulates Ali’s philosophy of life – his struggle to align two poles of one’s life, individual and collective experience. Ali celebrated the joy of being totally himself, but he invariably saluted the larger reality of “the We” that enframes anyone's life.
One can make too much of an impulsive utterance, but Ali's poem does point to a complicated existential reality that American culture tends to ignore.
Ali’s poem came to my attention last weekend when I visited the Smith College Art Museum. In the lobby, a 2007 installation piece by the artist Glenn Ligon, “Give Us a Poem,” greets everyone. Made of PVC and neon, the word “Me” lights up and goes dark just as the word “We” lights up. The piece was originally created for The Studio Museum in Harlem.
Artists tend to be finely attuned to subtle vibrations of our culture. They hear and see things, and intuitively know what needs to be amplified.Then they come out with creative, sometimes shocking interpretations that often make us realize, “Oh wow, so that’s what I’ve been sensing all this time!” I think that’s one reason for the upswell of artistic works about the commons these days. Something's going on.
The Arts, Culture and Commoning working group is interested in using commons-based approaches “to transform the landscape of arts and culture toward equity, abundance, and interdependence as part of a social movement engaged in and in conversation with this urgent moment. Cooperation, collaboration, mutuality, and co-creation bring us together.”
“It is our belief that art can and must play a significant role in shaping culture….Art and artists play an important role in helping people process and grieve inevitable collapses of our current systems and institutions in a culture of disempowerment, disconnection, isolation, disembodiment, distraction, and anxiety. Art is a powerful antidote as a force for social cohesion, embodiment, sustainability, and mutuality. Art catalyzes imagination, creativity, and cooperation in any culture, informing the character of social, economic, and political realities. In recognition of the destructive nature of capitalism, we seek to make art that questions the prevailing capitalist framework and looks to the commons for alternative forms.”
In 1979, I remember reading Lewis Hyde’s stunningly wise essay about the social dynamics of gifts in CoEvolution Quarterly -- the offshoot of the Whole Earth Catalog. I was twenty-three, and immediately chased down the book from which the essay was drawn, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. The book has gone on to become a classic, especially revered within artistic and cultural circles, enough to warrant a 25th anniversary edition (with the disappointingly flat new subtitle Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World – and in the current edition, How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World).
Hyde’s book explores the strange dynamics of creativity as a mysterious, beautiful gift. While markets try to turn creative works into (private, bounded, inert) property and make money from them, they cannot really understand or explain the origins of creativity; that is an irreducibly human, poetic, and mythological enigma. Yet the culture of giving gifts is profoundly important because it brings people together in enlivening ways and enlarges the human spirit across time and space.
In Hyde’s reckoning, “the gift must always move” – it must constantly circulate if its value is to be sustained. So it is only appropriate that his book has now, finally, inspired a film to showcase the spirit of the gift. The wonderful new documentary film Giftis itself the result of many gifts -- “invisible means of support” from strangers and friends -- given to Canadian director Robin McKenna as she struggled to bring the ethos of the gift to the big screen.
McKenna toiled for years finding and shooting a diverse variety of gift cultures and raising the money to complete the film. And while the theme is inspirational, it is hardly commercially attractive. The film bravely challenges the juggernaut of market culture, showing us that the most valuable things in life are gifts that cannot be monetized; indeed, introducing money into a situation often destroys value and creative vitality.
When I walk my dog Jackson along a burbling brook, I always smile when I pass the Bunny House. It’s like greeting a familiar leprechaun in the forest. The “house” is a small wooden box with a shingled roof, sitting atop a four-foot pole. One side of it is open to passing hikers.
Peer in and you can see two tiny stuffed rabbit-dolls sitting on chairs in a living room enjoying a cup of tea. There is a table in the house, with a thick book on it, and a tiny mirror on the back wall bearing the inscription, “Home, the spot of earth supremely blest / A dearer, sweeter spot than all the rest….”
It’s a mystery who had the whimsy to build this fairy-tale jewel in the forest. I’ve always appreciated it as a puckish gift to pleasantly startled strangers. In the years I’ve been walking there, no one has ever vandalized the Bunny Room. It has become a kind of folk-art fixture and landmark.
I have come to realize that the Bunny Room is no aberration in and around my town of Amherst, Massachusetts. There are other monuments of homespun generosity and expressive beauty that some anonymous souls simply decided would enliven the community. I call them micro-commons because they slyly build a shared community of appreciation that is rooted in a particular, meaningful spot.
Another micro-commons that I love is an impressive pile of stones on a hiking trail in nearby Pelham. The four-foot work sits like a prehistoric alter in the dark, quiet woods known as Buffam Brook Community Forest. There is a verdant forest canopy some 30 or 40 feet overhead and the happy sounds of a cascading stream off to one side. The stone pile – a four-foot high cylinder that tapers to smaller circumferences at the top and bottom – is made from hundreds of stones, each carefully fit together.
I realized how much the landmark meant to me when, after several days of fierce storms, I was walking by and noticed that a tree branch had fallen on the structure, destroying much of it. Tragic! I was so dismayed. The mess made me realize how much I had come to love this living piece of folk art and the thoughtfulness behind it. The next spring, lo and behold, the same anonymous stone-worker had quietly re-built the pile of stones. It lives!
I call these anonymous gifts to the world micro-commons because countless people have come to depend on them as welcoming landmarks and symbols of this place. They subtly convey a sense of care and appreciation for our favorite spots, and their own spirit. The anonymity of their creation makes them radiate a special feeling, as if to say, “Here is my expression of gratitude for this wonderful place.”
The micro-commons remind me of the cover image on the original edition of Lewis Hyde’s classic book The Gift, which featured a painting, “Basket of Apples,” by unknown members of the 19th Century Shaker Community in Hancock, Massachusetts. “The Shakers believed that they received their arts as gifts from the spiritual world,” writes Hyde. “Persons who strove to become receptive of songs, dances, paintings, and so forth were said to be ‘laboring for a gift,’ and that the works that they created circulated as gifts within the community.”
The proposed privatization of the grand public theater in Rome, Teatro Valle, has been defeated – but perhaps more importantly, the historic three-year occupation of the building has succeeded in achieving many of its primary goals, including the recognition of its demands to establish a new theater commons, after weeks of contentious negotiations.
The struggle was noteworthy because it pitted municipal authorities in Rome, whose austerity policies had resulted in severe cutbacks at the theater, against self-identified commoners who want to run the historic theater in far more open, participatory and innovative ways. At stake was not just the continuance of performances at Teatro Valle, but the governance, management practices, purpose and character of the theater. Shall it be a “public good” managed by the city government, often to the detriment of the public interest, or a commons in which ordinary people can instigate their own ideas and propose their own rules?
Beset by budgetary problems, the mayor of Rome had proposed privatizing the management of Teatro Valle. But protesters who had occupied the building in 2011 adamantly resisted such plans. Their protests inspired an outcry not just among many Romans and Italians, but among an international network of commoners, human rights advocates, political figures, scholars and cultural leaders.
In July, the city government threatened to evict occupiers and issued an ultimatum with a July 31 deadline. Thus began a series of negotiations. Commoners were represented by Fondazione Teatro valle Bene Comune, which entered into talks with the city government and Teatro di Roma, the public entity that runs the systems of the theaters in Rome.
Joseph Sax’s illustrious career in the law should be remembered for the importance of blending visionary thinking with rigorous scholarship. At a time when private property rights were the only serious framework for managing air, water, land and seas, Professor Sax single-handedly breathed new life into the public trust doctrine with his seminal 970 law review article. Sax died on Sunday, which prompts these reflections on the far-reaching effects of his creative legal scholarship.
In the late 1960s, as a professor at the University of Colorado teaching courses on mining, water and oil and gas law, Sax realized that all of it was oriented towards the maximal private exploitation of natural resources. He asked: “How come there’s no public dimension to natural resource law, and the public who uses these areas and actually owns most of them doesn’t have a say in what goes on?”
His answer, in 1970, was “The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resource Law: Effective Judicial Intervention,” in the Michigan Law Review -- a piece that went on to become one of the most influential law review articles ever.
The essay looked to Roman law, English common law and a handful of U.S. Supreme Court rulings to declare that the “public trust doctrine” empowers courts to intervene in government and market actions to protect citizens' sovereign interests. The basic idea is that the government does not own natural resources; it is merely a trustee who must act on behalf of the unorganized public to protect their interests and those of future generations who cannot yet represent their interests in court.