'Of the “Devil’s Party”: Creative Commons – A Marriage of Heaven and Hell?' Transcript of recent talk at Birkbeck...

I took part in Communalities, urbanities and artistic commonalities - a symposium at Birkbeck School of Arts on 5th June 2018. This is a transcript of my talk. I billed it as the meeting of William Blake and Half Man Half Biscuit via a trip to Trumpton. There's a video to accompany the talk which I'll upload soon...

Loads of Tories waving flags and singing "Jerusalem" at the Last Night of the Proms. A screenshot from the film I made to accompany my talk...


Of the “Devil’s Party”: Creative Commons – A Marriage of Heaven and Hell?


Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.

From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.

Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.


The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.

(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake, c. 1790).


Contradiction is what makes us human.  It creates dialectical tension.  If it is ‘good’ to passively obey heavenly reason and ‘evil’ to energetically disobey it, to exist in hell, then is it not better to be of the Devil’s party?  If, as the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott argues, ‘living creatively is a healthy state’ whilst ‘compliance is a sick basis for life’, does this mean we, as artists, are of the Devil’s party (Winnicott, 1971, p. 65)?  If the artworld is now so utterly instrumentalised and normalised in the service of technocratic neoliberal governance and corporate exploitation, does it fetter us to reason, to rationalism?  Is this what creativity is increasingly becoming today – effectively creativity as non-creativity: uncreative?  Uncreative creativity is about obedience, false consent, compliance and conformity.  This, psychoanalysts illustrate, deprives individuals of their freedom to achieve self-realisation and relative autonomy; it kills creativity; it disempowers and alienates us.  Art (particularly in its recent creative industries reincarnation) has entered into a Faustian pact with neoliberalism, gaining power and influence but only by becoming entirely incorporated into market economics, entrepreneurialism, commodification and consumerism.

The term creative industries represents the fusion of neoliberalism with arts and cultural policy and, as such, cannot but reproduce and endorse the exploitation and inequalities inherent within neoliberalism (Hesmondhalgh, 2008, p. 567).  In other words, as a neoliberal entity, the creative industries are not only ‘creative’, they are also ‘destructive’.  Neoliberalism has not only become a hegemonic political economic practice, it has also become a hegemonic ‘mode of discourse’ that has altered how we act and think about everything, everywhere; it is the new common-sense – ‘taken for granted and beyond question’ (Harvey, 2006, pp. 145-6).  It is therefore essential that arts and cultural policy and the institutions reconsider what they accept as common sense, what they take for granted, what goes unquestioned.  For example, what appears to be about ‘freedom’ is, in fact, ‘anti-democratic’, and what seems to be promoting ‘equality’ instead restores and entrenches ‘class power’ (Harvey, 2006, pp. 157-8).

This neoliberal hegemony has extended its grip to the margins - to the excluded and the oppressed – but only with the aim of further shackling them with, to borrow from Blake’s London (1794), ‘mind-forged manacles’ wrought from a barbed consumerism that disguises the City’s lust for wealth, for robbery.  And it has smothered the arts and culture under a fog of New Public Management-speak, Art Speak, numbers, money, property and privatisation.  It drives arts institutions and artists to pioneer new gentrification processes and to support culture-led Creative City regeneration initiatives.  The arts bathe in the pool of artwashing.

Artwashing is a gloss that can increase an area’s desirability and its property values as well as reinforcing property developers’ social licences to operate and offering positive PR and enhanced ‘consumer trust’ for developers and local councils.  Yet it also functions at a smaller-scale within communities.  What I term ‘community artwashing’ does not seek to increase the value of physical assets such as property and land, nor does it feed from cultural capital.  Instead, socially engaged art and creative placemaking become vehicles for the often-vacuous process of community-consultation-by-art.

Community artwashing claims to ‘build’ or ‘grow’ social capital within ‘deficient’ communities, using participation in arts activities as a façade for the simultaneous ‘harvesting’ of local people’s existing social capital.  Social capital is used to create ‘memorials’ to disadvantaged communities displaced by gentrification, and as a way of showing how local people were consulted and perhaps even consented to their displacement by property developers and local councillors who invested in soon-to-be-displaced communities by bringing in an artist or arts organisation as creative consultants.  I argue that social capital theory underpins the quiet rise of community artwashing; that socially engaged artists employed as its agents should be thought of as ‘social capital artists’.  Social capital artists gather then sanitise the one thing that capitalism could not commodify – until now – the intangible bonds and ties that keep struggling and long-abandoned local people together.  Social capital artists gain people’s trust only to exploit it in neatly packaged, PR-friendly bundles; magically turning the valueless into monetary value via its recycling as an intangible asset.

But does it have to be this way?  Do we need to be wedded to the ‘glocal’ yoke of neoliberalism in all its chimeric forms?  Clearly, it is uncreative to utter marriage vows at the alter of the ‘heavenly’ creative industries.  To do so is to obey the God of Capital, of Money.  To do so is to build fortunes on the false premise of building communities: to be part of the neoliberal project of building mirror-glass temples to Mammon anywhere and everywhere.  Art can surely offer more than this.  Art is creative when it is playful, disobedient; when it dissents and refuses to comply or become complicit in tyrannical oppression.  My practice and research take D.W. Winnicott’s (1971) ideas of playing and reality, of the third space – the potential space – and Erich Fromm’s work on freedom and disobedience as starting points.  I believe it is possible to create safe spaces in which shared senses of not-knowing and discovery can develop, in which radical ideas can be explored.  This can be achieved by reintroducing notions of playing, living creativity, the aesthetic experience as cultural experience, potential space, noncompliance, disobedience, self-realisation, and freedom.  Art and creativity are part of everyday life.  They can explore what it might mean to live creatively together – to be together.  The arts are essentially humanistic and social.  This is the moment to think of the arts as such rather than instrumentalise them in the name of conformity or financial gain; or reduce them to numbers and evidence-based functions in the positivist conceits of measurability and accountability.

And so, I have entered into a marriage of heaven and hell.  On the one hand, working with developers, planners, state agencies, etc.; on the other, working with grassroots groups, artists, feral educators, etc.  The marriage of capitalism and the commons.  The marriage of institutions and the anti-institutional.  The marriage of regulation and freedom.  The marriage of private property and mutual ownership.  The marriage of self-interest and collective self-organising.  No privileging of pop-ups or hipsterism, squats or bohemianism, staid business models or Molotov cocktails.  There is space for all these elements, so long as they’re part of a commons.

Can we regenerate regeneration?  Regeneration has become a dirty word.  Yet it is also a positive word – a spiritual word.  Can we improve and build in ways that benefit everyone?  Yes.  We can regenerate and rebuild without displacing working-class communities, without resorting to social and ethnic cleansing.  Accumulation by dispossession (Harvey, 2008) is neoliberalism’s dominant economic paradigm, yet it need not be.  It is possible for arts and culture to operate according to the principles of cultural democracy – of equity and difference.  Arts, culture, creativity can release itself from the chains of capital, power and property.  But attempting this marriage – this reconciliation of land grabbing and shared communal ownership – is never easy.  Nevertheless, it must be attempted.  My research has shown arts and culture can be a positive means to achieve some degree of autonomous community decision-making and, in some instances, ownership.  Encounters Arts helped the town of Totnes to plan and implement a new development that resulted from genuine community engagement.  The Stove Network in Dumfries are successfully bringing the town’s high street back to life by ‘buying back the high street’, leading the community in the development of a community benefit society which offers shared ownership and shared decision-making.  Artefacting – a global collective of ‘socio-cultural’ artists, architects and designers – have by operating as a ‘pseudo-NGO’ in villages in India and Mexico channelled international arts funding to deliver community infrastructure improvements with sufficient an artistic veneer to keep the funders happy whilst offering local people answers to their own productive and economic needs in ways which are shared and owned by everyone in the communities.  These are but three examples.

I am currently working with a new creative commons business model which develops and relies on mutually beneficial community alliances to create community benefit societies or large ownership community interest companies.  The idea is to develop self-ownership, collective working, shared learning and self-governance – participatory democracies and cultural democracies that are self-sustaining (or relatively self-sustaining).  They work using the principles of the creative adhocracy in which everything that happens within the cooperative structure takes the form of a project and in which each project team is relatively autonomous and democratic.  The model is flexible enough to be adapted for different contexts: cities, post-industrial towns, more rural settings.  Each incarnation is unique; driven by the needs of communities and members.

The concept is a marriage of heaven and hell.  It operates on the principle of Robin Hood – taking from the rich and giving to the poor.  For instance, it involves working with a big property developer to provide an alternative to the art centre as another shiny, temporal for sale sign.  Instead it could be a long-term lease to a community benefit society – to the community – with some new genuinely affordable housing leased to the cooperative to rent to a long-term creative community.  This can generate significant surplus for the cooperative, thereby ensuring self-sufficiency.  It is a case of helping developers realise that artwashing gentrification and social cleansing is bad PR.  Rather, developers showing they really are committed to communities – old and new – is very good PR indeed, and costs very little.

This marriage of heaven and hell is fraught with contradiction (or, for Blake, ‘Contraries’) but is, I believe, necessary.  For me, this marriage is not about property and it is not about the arts.  Rather it is about trying to show that creativity can be social and humanistic; that capitalism must make concessions in return for profit.  We are all consumers nowadays.  We are all part of neoliberal society – for now.  Cooperativism is a form of capitalism, the creative commons is a form of capitalism, but not neoliberal capitalism.  We need to find new ways of living and being on this planet and in our communities; to value cultural experience and creativity – living and being creatively.  We need to call for cultural democracy and participatory democracy because we all have a right to the city and it is up to us to demand that right.

So, am I of the Devil’s party?  I would argue yes and no.  The marriage of heaven and hell, of good and evil is not what it first seems and, even if we turn traditional understandings upside down, as Blake did, we still are left sifting through the gaps between the poles and the moments between the moments of the dialectical situation some of us are beginning to rediscover again right now.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.  For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thru’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake, c. 1790).

Thank you.