There’s an old joke from grade school that I still remember. It’s rather dumb, but the punch line turns on a thought that has relevance. Maybe that’s why I remember it. Two guys on an island. One is a millionaire smoker who has a ton of cigarettes but no matches. He’s freaking out. The other guy has a book of matches and says to the millionaire smoker, “I’ll give you my matches for $1,000.” The smoker jumps at the chance, hands over $1,000 and the guy with the book of matches rips out the matches from the book and hands them to the smoker. “That’s not fair,” implores the smoker. “I still can’t light a cigarette. I have no striker.” “So true,” says the guy with the empty book of matches containing the striker. “But I will sell you the striker for $50,000.”
Let’s call this the “striker phenomenon” or SP for short. SP occurs when someone controls, often a monopoly control, some single thing that substantially impacts the life chances of another. Okay, are you still with me? Enter Pissarro.
Pissarro, as you know, was the philosophical leader of the Impressionists. What historians wish us to remember is that the Impressionists broke the rules of traditional painting and came up with a new aesthetic. This isn’t wrong. But this emphasis trivializes, to say the least, the Impressionist contribution. The Impressionist contribution that is much more relevant to painters today was not their rule breaking aesthetic. Instead it was their brilliant way of avoiding the SP or to say it another way, they devised a way to sidestep what was an aristocratic state-controlled monopoly over exhibitions (think distribution) of their work, i.e., the Salon. In short, the Salon of mid-19th century Paris required that artists paint certain themes and in a certain way (in order to make noble and moral the vast accumulation of wealthy by a few). If you didn’t you would have a hard time surviving. The model that Pissarro came up with was based upon a baker’s union that had pushed for economic democracy during the Paris Commune: the Impressionists (called “intransigents” at the time, after a Spanish anarchist political party) launched a series of independent exhibitions, gained control over the exhibition/distribution of their work and, hence, the production of their work as well. Or to put it in plain English, they became free to paint whatever the hell they wanted in the way they wanted at the same time that they would enjoy a direct relationship to the public.
But alas, the story doesn’t end well. Yes, the control by the aristocratic state faded away, but a new control over the exhibition of their work (and hence their production) arose in the guise of the private entrepreneur or dealer, the most famous of which at the time was Durand-Ruel. To be sure, Durand-Ruel was credited with opening markets, especially internationally for the Impressionists and for a time, especially early on, was praised by the painters themselves. But the SP, unmistakably, reasserted itself. Pissarro, ever alert to the control by another over his direction, would lament, as he struggled financially, that he had “to please Durand.” Resigned to his fate, Pissarro wrote to his son when he was 68, “Durand-Ruel, who has given me the same prices for ten years….It is true that he takes all my work, but on the other hand, he has too much power over me.” The Impressionists, jumping out of the state controlled SP-frying pan, jumped into the fire of the private enterprise-SP.
And how does Angelina Jolie fit into this story? As noted above, she underwent a double mastectomy because tests showed that were she not to do this, she would have a high risk of developing either breast or ovarian cancer. The tests in question are tests that can identify the mutation of specific genes, and it is this mutation that could lead to life-threatening cancer. But here’s the rub: the private SP is back in spades. There is private monopoly control over these tests:
A Utah biotech company Myriad Genetics owns the patent to BRCA1, the so-called “breast cancer gene” responsible for Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a preventative double mastectomy. They also own the patent on a similar breast cancer gene called BRCA2. Moreover, these gene patents also give Myriad a monopoly on testing for these genes.
At present a suit cancer groups have filed to invalidate these patents is being heard in the U.S. Supreme Court. Cancer advocates argue that it’s illegal and unethical for biotech companies to patent nature. Joseph Stiglitz has written in Slate that allowing Myriad to hold exclusive patents for BRCA1 and BRCA2 removes the opportunity for other scientists to come up with better and cheaper tests. In this way, they make the tests less widely available and possibly prevent women from knowing they carry these genes and taking preventive measures.
In the U.S. a full test for each of these genes costs about $3,000. Private insurance policies may (or may not) cover the cost. But this highlights the problem. Access to those things that give us life, be they medical tests for someone like Angelina Jolie or creative processes as in the case of Pissarro and painters, are less likely to be controlled by the state in the western world today, and more likely to be controlled privately by those seeking to maximize profit and market share. Myriad Genetics is the Durand-Ruel of the gene world. They seek, in all their creativity, to control the distribution of golden eggs so that they are able to control the goose that lays them.
So what’s the point of all this? The point is that painters today are quite aware of the great boogie-man
of “censorship” when it is government doing the controlling. But what we totally ignore are the private
enterprise controllers who shape what we do, how we do it, and who we are. Not long ago I was explaining to a painter the method of painting that I teach. One of its virtues, I offered, was that it affords the painter “a great deal of control.” My artist friend recoiled at the mention of the word “control.” It was as if I had said that the method I teach gives you a deadly bacterium. “Control” over what a painter does, painters will declare, is to be avoided like – well – like the plague. And so it goes: painters today, unknowingly –or perhaps I should say unreflectively – embrace practices that control the very creative processes that could give them life. “To be an artist today,” I heard someone say recently, “you really need to get into marketing.” No, I thought to myself; that would be an entrepreneur (who bends every creative urge to meet the schedule, aims, and interests of a myriad of agents and investors and consumers), not an artist (whose only interest is taking the next step in her unfolding). The entrepreneur is someone who plays the private enterprise game, establishes points of market control – monopoly control if possible, and is someone who is both market and profit driven. The artist is someone who seeks freedom from the control that market-driven entrepreneurs, market-driven investors, all those people who control exhibitions-exposure-competitions, and all those people who grab you by the short hairs require.
“Here’s the work I do to make money. And here’s my own work,” is the refrain of so many painters. Oh crapola. What kind of creative people are we if we slink along as a servile folowing half the day and during the other half hope to find ourselves? “Freedom” (as would be found in a participatory economy) was the clarion call of the Impressionists, be it from public or private centers of power. But guess what? We are taught that the only source of censorship is public; private enterprise is always good. We are taught, too, that the Impressionists were about the end result, the brush strokes, or the mode: going outside. This is not surprising, but it is appalling history. Here’s the deeper truth: the Impressionists, arguably the most successful and popular art movement in human history, said screw you to power – both to the state and the capitalist-entrepreneur (Pissarro: “we are exploited from all sides.”). We know our self-worth, they declared, and we will find an independent means of entering upon the scene of history. The scandal that still instructs us today was not about their paintings, their product. It was about their disobedience. It was about their insight that scared the hell out of those in power: ordinary people are quite capable of devising institutional responses to institutional constraints on their freedom and on their empowerment.