serial ownership

Roy Hoffman has a good essay today in the NYT called My Private New York City.

He describes his visit to the Rembrandts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this way.

Among them [the paintings], I also have the chance to become a thief. When the guard steps to an adjacent room, and other museumgoers drift out before a new batch wander in, I steal a heightened moment. Of the billions of people on the planet, I, alone, commune here.

The portraits are all mine.

This is serial ownership. Every Met visitor owns a Rembrandt in their turn. It’s a charming idea, a deeply proprietary feeling for things we do not own…or a feeling of ownership that lasts a moment and leaves no mark. Cats, I believe, think of the world as a matter of serial ownership. This is why they jump up on counters when you’ve told them not to. If you’re not using it, the feline argument goes, then for the moment it’s mine.

Skeptics will say that serial ownership is an illusion that serves the idea of property and its institution of theft. Romantics will say it’s a way of stealing things back.

But what’s called for is a more careful inventory and analysis of the possibilities. What, precisely, are the connections, satisfactions, meanings, definitions and functions of the things we own? How many of them can be true of the things we don’t? What satisfactions, etc, are unique to the things we own serially? (It should count for something that we can have daily access to the wonders of Rembrandt, without have to spend a penny in upkeep, conservation, insurance, security…and not a “penny” in insecurity of ownership.)

I don’t think anyone has broken this down. You would think, of course, that museums and other institutions would take an interest here. Pragmatically, it supplies the logic with which they could persuade an art collector to put their collection into the public domain. It is also the logic of museum support at the membership and the philanthropy level.

Some of the web is a commons. We own it serially. Some of the culture it cares about is a commons, too. You would think someone in this community would have “run the numbers” on this argument.

Most of the city is owned serially…even as it is owned by other parties and interests. If there is something to the Putnam’s Bowling Alone argument (Putnam, Robert 2000. Bowling Alone: The collaspe and revival of American community, Simon and Schuster), it comes from this proprietary feeling that we cultivate for things we own in this temporary way, in Hoffman’s. Putnam’s argument says that it is when this temporary sense of ownership is abandoned that cities begin to decay in earnest.

There are some really difficult ideas swirling around here. What if claims (to identity or ownership, say) no longer need to endure to hold. We could dismiss this vista as nonsense…a refusal of the felicitous conditions that have always held and must always hold. But then we now see lots of claims to identities being made on a temporary basis that once required full time committment.

In a postmodern culture, we can say at least that the ideas of ownership are being tested. In the case of the Rembrandt’s, it belongs to the philanthropist, the museum, the curator, and to Hoffman. Oh, no, he just left. Now it belongs to a rather attractive women in a rich red coat.

go here for the original essay

1 thought on “serial ownership

  1. Ken Ames

    From Ken Ames:

    I have any number of responses. The first is, why does this
    appear in the NYT rather than somewhere in academic discourse?
    Perhaps it is there but it strikes me yet again that the
    intelligent lay press (and trade publishing) is often much more
    interesting and engaging than academic stuff. The literature on
    museums has nothing to say about this. Now, isn’t that peculiar?

    Second thought is that this line of pensing opens up in several
    directions. I have been musing a bit on personal ownership, self- development, and learning, a compoite topic needing much more
    address that it has had (although you have written well and
    usefully about it in C&C). Profound and very complex.

    I am struck how ownership, which might be accused of being self- indulgent, can also benefit a community — pace, the reference to
    ownership and urban decline. In our little CT village we see this
    play out in interesting ways, one of which the communion of (many
    of) those who own old houses. Ownership is a bond and a social
    responsibility. The quaint notion of stewardship becomes relevant
    here. Who would have thought it? Our village is our museum. We
    are happy to share it but we also have very strong opinions about
    how it should be …. Social class, as always, plays a role here
    too (but that is not today’s topic).

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