Behind preservation laws lies a broader cultural fact: the collective belief that some works of historical and artistic value are inalienable and that their true value is over and above any exchange value they may acquire on markets.
by Alexandra Kowalski
Image: Ħaġar Qim by John Haslam (Flickr/Some Rights Reserved). Amended using Fotor & GoArt.
Heritage as Commodity
Heritage has become a commodity, and heritage-making is today a well-tried recipe for commodification, profit-making, and privatization. It all started in the 1970s, when tourism showed the first signs of its turning into the mass industry that it has since become—an engine of economic growth, spatial control, and ecological transformation, the profoundly destructive potential of which has only recently appeared in bold relief, in a decade of low cost flights, single-use plastic, and universal airbnb-fication.
From our end of global history, heritage and the conservation laws that embody it are legitimately perceived and cast as tools in the kit of “neoliberal governmentality” and a major form of “enclosure of human being” or at the very least a variety of “club commodities” the use of which is restricted to the relatively privileged.
We have forgotten that it was only 60 years since our dear “old towns” and the “ancient centers” of our cities were called “slums,” all pretty much slated for destruction by various brands of modernizers: mayors, planners, or industry moguls, or a combination thereof.
Such was not always the case, however. Before the symbolic and cultural capital of old stones became easily convertible into economic capital, ancient buildings and old city centers were often obstacles to the commodification of land, economic appreciation, and easy profits. Unless the ancient housing stock was some gentry’s family property, it was left for a variety of working class, destitute, migrant, and other craftspeople’s populations to use in exchange for low rents and no comfort. We have forgotten that it was only 60 years since our dear “old towns” and the “ancient centers” of our cities were called “slums,” all pretty much slated for destruction by various brands of modernizers: mayors, planners, or industry moguls, or a combination thereof.
Heritage as Public Good
Before “heritage” became the commodity we know (that is, in fact, for the largest part of the modern period: roughly between the decades of 1830 and 1970), preservationist groups and the conservation laws they advocated were themselves a thorn in the side of a budding capitalist order. They antagonized liberal defenders of property rights. The preservation movements of the 1960s were oppositional movements based in alliances of local residents at risk of eviction, social activists, liberals, and “friends of old stones” who all got in the way of capitalist development, at least temporarily. Even in the late neoliberal age, heritage mobilizations still often reflect this kind of alliances against commodification on the ground.
Nowhere was the battle more ferocious than in the parliaments of France, England, and the United States when, in the late 19th century, laws protecting ancient buildings and natural sites were proposed by an increasingly powerful, educated, and organized preservationist camp, against the opinion of defenders of property rights and industries’ interests.
The conflict between the two segments of the bourgeoisie (the socially concerned and the industrial parties) explains that the richest countries were among the latest to adopt conservationist protections for ancient and natural sites and buildings—mostly after 1900, when poorer states like the ones in Greece and the Ottoman empire, Romania and Bulgaria, Tunisia, Egypt, and India, were all innovators or early adopters of international legal standards in matters of conservation, as early as the 1830s.
The conflict between the two segments of the bourgeoisie (the socially concerned and the industrial parties) explains that the richest countries were among the latest to adopt conservationist protections for ancient and natural sites and buildings, when poorer states were all innovators or early adopters of international legal standards in matters of conservation, as early as the 1830s.
Elaborated collectively by transnational elites and academic communities in the second half of the 19th century on behalf of their respective national governments, laws protecting heritage regulated the destruction or transformation of certain types of buildings and sites. The model was roughly the same everywhere: sites were placed on lists of “national landmarks,” under the watch of state experts and culture bureaucrats. This typically meant that their destruction was prohibited, and that any alteration or modernization had to be vetted by the administration’s experts (historians of architecture, urbanists, ethnographers, architects, depending on countries and cases).
Laws on cultural heritage effectively interfered with the smooth circulation of capital. Conservation laws slowed down the pace of commodification in cities, increasing the costs involved in the transformation of a site into a real-estate commodity. Sometimes, especially in the case of national park designations, they removed large portions of territory from the circuits of commodity circulation, amounting to plain and simple de-commodification.
Behind preservation laws lies a broader cultural fact: the collective belief that some works of historical and artistic value are inalienable and that their true value is over and above any exchange value they may acquire on markets. This belief sees heritage sites as a common good to be defended against private property rights, and against their reduction to commodities for exchange and speculation. It is this belief that was expressed and maintained throughout the modern and contemporary period through the concept of “heritage”. As Victor Hugo put it in 1834: “The use value of a monument belongs to its owner; its beauty belongs to everyone; it is thus no one’s right to destroy it.”
The symbolic value of heritage defines it as a public good. As such it is commonly owned by an imagined community of past, present, and future members.
A heritage good is regulated by a regime that is distinct from the basic regime of common property and commercial law. It is a good that can never be fully appropriated privately, as its designation as heritage means that it is subject de facto to constraints about its use and manipulation.
It is also in terms of an exceptional property regime that preservationist and art historian John Ruskin defined historic places: they “don’t belong to us. They belong in part to the generations that created them, and in part to future generations.” The symbolic value of heritage defines it as a public good. As such it is commonly owned by an imagined community of past, present, and future members. As the word heritage suggests, it is a bequeathal of which the present members have custody rather than own it.
Heritage as Commons
It is thus important to remember that some contemporaries of the early heritage movement were not content to consider “ancient monuments” (the 19th Century name for heritage) as a form of public property to be regulated and protected through adequate laws and regulations. This was especially the case in 19th Century England, where an avant-garde of artists, historians and thinkers took the theory a notch further, casting ancient sites as a radical incarnation of the commons—that is, of a regime of enjoyment and use that was the precise opposite of commodity consumption.
We often think of the pre-Raphaelites, of the Arts and Crafts movement, of Ruskin, Morris, and others, as theorists of decorative arts and of historic conservation, all particularly interested in medieval architecture. In fact, these craftsmen, artists, writers, and the flurry of organizations that they created in order to represent their views effectively in an age of great societal transformation (the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the Federation of Artists, the Arts and Crafts [Society]) were not interested in “monuments” for monuments’ sake or in just “pioneering modern design” (to paraphrase the title of Nicolaus Pevsner’s 1960 classic). Monuments of art and architecture only mattered for them because of their use and place in social space—past and present. Monuments were appreciated as part of a broader human and natural ecology that gave them their meaning, as creations of a shared culture of the past.
Monuments of art and architecture only mattered for pre-Raphaelites because of their use and place in social space—past and present. Monuments were appreciated as part of a broader human and natural ecology that gave them their meaning, as creations of a shared culture of the past.
Heritage (art) was for this movement an expression of culture—not in any distinguished sense of the term, but rather in the sense of a set of shared skills and know-how, serving everyday functions and uses. In spite of the anthropological leanings of some of these theorists, culture for them meant less a Durkheimian kind of consciousness binding the social body together, or as some Hegelian “spirit” of a time or of a people, than a phenomenological principle of interaction and connection between people doing things to and for each other. This principle, crucially, was based in the provision and experience of pleasure; pleasure, it should be added, in, for, and from labor.
All of the words we use to talk about heritage, about history, art, beauty, taste, were redefined by the Arts and Crafts crowd as functions of a collective enjoyment principle. Per Ruskin: “Perfect taste is the faculty of receiving the greatest possible pleasure from those material sources which are attractive to our moral nature in its purity and perfection. He who receives little pleasure from these sources wants taste; he who receives pleasure from any other sources has false or bad taste.”
Art according to this view is the pleasure of producing beauty for every day, for the quotidian, for common people; it is also, on the user’s side, the pleasure of using beautiful things in everyday life. It was in this sense that, for these “radical Victorians”, heritage (art) was part of the commons; and that art was to participate in the advent of a more egalitarian and more just society.
Theoretically and practically, this theory of art went against the grain of two views (and sociological realities) that were becoming dominant at the time. One of them was the bourgeois understanding of the beautiful and the enjoyable as a costly commodity that can be appropriated in the form of private real estate and decorative bibelots. Making art a function of beauty and beauty a function of pleasure fundamentally democratized art. “Beautiful things are useful to men because they are beautiful, and for the sake of their beauty only; and not to sell, or, in other way, turn into money.”
Radical Victorians contradicted another view, this second one held more specifically among professional artists and craftsmen: the view according to which craft and art were two distinct activities producing different sorts of objects, the second more noble than the former. Only in the modern age did the division of labor separate, in minds and practice, art from craft.
Only in the modern age did ornamentation become a superfluous quality, one monopolized by privileged classes. In this sense, the pre-Raphaelites’ and other Ruskinian focus on Middle Age culture was far from the nostalgic gimmick to which it has often been reduced. Middle Age art and culture, religious motifs and architecture were imminently respectable, not as a thing of the past or as some foregone aesthetic golden age, but as a total societal, pre-modern counter-model in which art (craft, beauty) served life and life respected art and the labor that produces it. The Middle Ages was the age of art before art was separated from craft by industrial capitalism and its division of labor. The radicalism of the early heritage movement rested on and fed back into a strong critique of industrial capitalist society.
The Middle Ages was the age of art before art was separated from craft by industrial capitalism and its division of labor. The radicalism of the early heritage movement rested on and fed back into a strong critique of industrial capitalist society.
Some sociological insights may be needed to explain such convergence of art and radical critique in the 19th Century preservation movement. At the core of this movement were craftsmen (like Morris and Ruskin themselves), which is to say professional “decorative artists”, whose skills and inclinations were offended by industrial mass production, and whose work conditions were threatened by it.
The political radicalism of some of these professionals can be understood as a reaction against the corporatization of art which, on the one hand, created symbolic boundaries that excluded some of them from the most prestigious and most legitimate practices (art for art excluding craft and decorative arts, especially); and which, on the other, alienated labor in general from its legitimate claim to meaning and enjoyment. This explains the importance of craftsmen, skilled workers, as well as of artists such as Courbet, Corot, and even Manet in the French Commune experiment. They naturally joined a revolution, as Kristin Ross argued in her recent study of the Commune, that sought to reclaim the “communal luxury” of beauty and pleasure for all.
The social, cultural, and political history of heritage invites us to consider heritage as a complex, dialectical, contradictory historical reality. Heritage is not, or at least has not always been, a tool in the kit of late-capitalist, neoliberal governance. The ethics, politics and policy of the kind of cultural property that we call heritage are, culturally and historically, moral features defining a symbolic regime that, in practice, more often than not, is mobilized by actors to critique the commodification of social space, as well as to effectively decommodify social space through laws and regulations. The notion of heritage can even, on occasion, be part of a radical imagination of the commons, as undivided spaces of beauty produced and managed collectively for everyone’s enjoyment.
Alexandra Kowalski teaches sociology in the department of Sociology and Social Anthropology of the Central European University, Budapest/Vienna. She is also teaching faculty and board member in the CEU’s Cultural Heritage program (MA). She holds a PhD and an MA in Sociology (New York University), and an MA in Philosophy and Epistemology of the Social Sciences (Sorbonne-Paris-IV). Her publications deal mainly with the history of historical expertise, conservation, and the heritage field in the modern era
This article was originally published in Three Nights in Utopia, a publication of the Utopian Nights project.