The Case for the Artist as Pharmakos / by Chris Hall

Colors available to the Ancient Greeks.

Colors available to the Ancient Greeks.

Pharmakon:  Ancient Greek word meaning drug (both poison and cure), remedy, medicine, charm, spell, artificial color, and paint.  

It is interesting to me that painted color can be equated with drugs and losing control, with spells, charms, and magic.  It is an extended analogy, but one I can definitely get into, and one I think the Greeks might have have recognized as well.  The Greeks loved color.  Their temples and statues were painted in all sorts of garish colors, but all of it has washed away and faded with time, and we are only left with the white marble work underneath.  Today, when we look at a good painting, we can be intoxicated by its color and become lost in it, mesmerized, as if in a spell.  Despite our attempts at color theory and chemical analysis (we can codify color relationships and understand pigment composition), the effects of color remains something of a mystery, an irrational science.  Like a drug, colors can stimulate and they can arouse.  Colors can also be a healing tool and good medicine. Color can even be poisonous and used as a weapon.  I've heard of a library in Seattle that purposefully painted their restrooms a nasty pharmaceutical green to discourage vagrants from loitering.  

Derived from the same etymological root, the Ancient Greek word Pharmakos (later Pharmakeus) translates as druggist, poisoner, wizard, magician, and sorcerer.  The Ancient Greeks had no proper word for “artist” and some have suggested that the closest word to approximate the concept of “art” might be the word “techne,” meaning “mastery of any art or craft.”  (By the way, it is from the Latin word “tecnicus” that we derive English words like technique, technology, and technical).  I do not think this does the concept of “art” and “artist” justice, as it strips it of its shamanistic, sorcerer roots, leaving in its place the idea that an artist is merely an accomplished craftsman, and not someone who seeks out deeper truths.  This is why I nominate the word Pharmakos (druggist, poisoner, wizard, magician, and sorcerer) as a proper substitute, and considering Pharmakos already has etymological connections with Pharmakon (drug, medicine, poison, remedy, charm, spell, painted color), you can see how I might think the connection to be appropriate.  

Interestingly enough, Phamakos also refers to a sacrificial ritual, where a city-state would purge evil by exiling (after being beaten and stoned), or by killing (either thrown from a cliff or burned) a Pharmakos, which in this case would be a human scapegoat and community outsider (usually a slave, a cripple, or a criminal).  The ritual was done during times of great stress, such as a famine, invasion, or plague, in hopes that the fortunes of the city would make a turn for the better, or during times of calendrical crisis, where the object was to restore a sense of balance.  But in times of great stress today, is it not the art and artists who are first on the chopping block?  Are not artists today generally thought of as outsiders in the community, at best barely tolerated by society?  Sure, a select few artists might become famous and afforded celebrity status, but for the vast majority of us, we are indeed outsiders, outcasts, and social pariahs.  I suspect quite a few creative types back in the days of Ancient Greece might have become a Pharmakos in the dual sense of the word, being both an artist and human scapegoat/sacrifice.  And the analogy goes further still.  The Pharmakos ritual wasn't just a community catharsis, it was also viewed as a sacrifice.  After the Pharmakos was killed, they would cremate the body and the ashes would be scattered to the ocean.  Vincent Van Gogh, the man who Antonin Artuad writes was “suicided by society,” was a Phamakos of sorts, in that he was shunned by the community during his life, but almost immediately following his death, his work began to be honored and appreciated.  It is a recurring pattern, one that I think is still true and relevant today.