IT IS DIFFICULT FOR collectives not to lead politically, even if their missions are not explicitly political. After all, the word ‘collective’ arrives pre-politicized, with the assumption of a left-wing, even radical, inclination. Outside of the arts, ‘collective’ has been most commonly used as a noun in the context of communism: collectivist agriculture in the former Soviet Union and in China, for example, or in reference to workers’ cooperatives and communes. In the United States, art collectives arose in the 1960s as a natural outgrowth of the community spirit of youth culture. For contemporary artists, at least part of the collective’s appeal could stem from an ambitious, nostalgic desire to recapture a community spirit that they themselves were not alive to enjoy. Perhaps it also stems from a shared sense of desire, even despair, for answers to seemingly intractable social, political and environmental challenges that stifle the efforts of individuals acting alone.
Indeed, the collectivization impulse runs counter to the dominant American way of individualism, which elevates singular achievements over communal ones, perpetuating the myth of homemade success in politics, business, the arts, and beyond. So much of everyday life in the United States is tailor-made and curated: multivitamins formulated for your specific body chemistry; data-driven data about how you sleep and how often your heart beats; health treatments tailored to your genetic code. The wealth structures in the country are doing the same, and have been skewing dramatically since the Great Recession, not just toward a class, or even a percent, but toward a handful of individuals and families we now know by name.
In the arts, too, the individual usually stands above the group. The term “multihyphenate” has emerged in recent years to celebrate a new breed of cross-genre creatives — many of whom are people of color, such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Janelle Monáe, Donald Glover, Rihanna, and Zendaya — while the working closely with others who make most of their work possible. The striking nature of nominations and awards perpetuates the mythology of the unique genius who creates in seclusion. Contrary to the idolatry of the individual is the impulse to collectivize: for anointed individuals to take their crews with them and also give them credit where it is needed. We’ve seen this recently in the fashion industry. Designer Telfar Clemens’ clothing and handbags are often decorated with “Telfar”, or simply with his initials, but his unisex designs are born of collaboration and community. (The brand’s motto is, “It’s not for you, it’s for everyone.”) Similarly, Kids of Immigrants, the Los Angeles-based streetwear label founded by Daniel Buezo and Welem Dennis, sees itself more as a movement than as a fashion brand, with community initiatives and conscious collaborations (with partners such as Vans) reinforcing the core principles of love and public service. The emergence of collectives may also indicate a shift in the primacy of certain arts over others. The individual genius of poets, novelists and visual artists has been supplanted by the more transparent collective work done in television, film and music. Who wouldn’t want to form a band? Who doesn’t want to be on set? Even the previously more solitary arts now bend towards the common. That they can do that says something about the fact that they were always more communal and collective than we allowed ourselves to think. As a culture, we question the misleading notion of individual genius in favor of the wisdom of the commons.
While the concept of a collective may seem anachronistic — a throwback to 1960s love and hippie communes — it’s often a call to belong, to be protected, and to find a place like home. Melissa Bunni Elian of Authority Collective, a 34-year-old multimedia journalist from Yonkers, NY, belongs to multiple collectives for exactly this reason. “You just have your different groups of people for different things,” she explains. In addition to serving on the board of AC, Elian is also a member of the Black Shutter Collective, an invitation-only virtual community of black photographers. “It’s really a group chat — there are things I only want to talk about with black people because I need that perfect understanding.”