ESR 3 Blog November 2021: Maria Mkrtycheva

Pursuit of an open, accessible and participatory environment within art institutions can be seen as an incentive for creating an on-site small-scale model of a democratic society, where both displayed art objects and values like creativity, cultural expression or – on a bigger scale – civil justice stand for public goods. Derived from economic theory, public good is a commodity or service that is provided without profit to all members of a society in order to benefit their well-being. And I think the key issue is in this ‘provided to’ locution.

Public goods contribute to social inclusion, help generate the public forum, and foster national identity[1]; they are non-rival and non-excludable. Unlike private goods that are produced for individual consumption and imply restricted access, everyone should be able to enjoy city lighting, fresh air, knowledge, and even freedom and prosperity. But while these benefits are taken for granted, they are not inalienable.

The concept of care has been ascribed to the curatorial field through the etymological link between curating and its Latin derivation ‘cura’, which means ‘care’. Be it caring about a museum collection or other people within the participatory paradigm, this notion bears an ambiguous character of being institutional and personal at the same time, thus creating confusion between impersonal mechanisms of power and sovereign decisions and actions. Art institutions, like the welfare state, protect their ‘citizens’ according to the principles of equal opportunity, but is this protection unconditional? Can this protection, unlike the welfare state, be based on radical disinterest as a true gift, in Derrida terms?

Gift-giving indicates taking responsibility for the ‘other’ but it is also binding and obliging, and it creates relations on certain conditions. In economic terms, public goods are secured by the government in exchange for finances from willing taxpayers. Does an art institution as a provider of public goods seek any kind of gratuity?

It may be that converting yourself from a viewer to a participant is this tax to pay. In order to receive the gift of becoming a member of this on-site small-scale model of a democratic society, one needs to act like an active participant. Trying to create conditions for communication and solidarity instead of exchange, art institutions create platforms,

where being ‘active’ gives a green pass, and being ‘passive’ denies access.

But similar to Derrida’s idea that a question of the gift should seek its place before any relation to the subject in order for it to be unconditional, art institutions should provide a hospitable environment without looking for immediate justification from their audiences in a form of active participation. Democracy – even on a small-scale, is not a completed project but a starting point for an equitable society. Solidarity follows when the goods and values are not provided but shared.

[1] Angela Kallhoff, Why Democracy Needs Public Goods, Lexington Books, 2011

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