The Color Pharmacy

By January 18, 2017
Artist David Batchelor penned a book on color called Chromophobia. Pictured, his work Brick Lane Remix I, 2003. Saatchi Gallery, London.
Pharmakon: Ancient Greek word meaning drug, poison, cure, remedy, medicine, charm, spell, recipe, artificial color, and paint.

Words can be strange things. They have hidden histories that, once uncovered, can give us insight into other cultures and illuminate our own. Sometimes this exploration can take us to unexpected places. The ancient Greek word for color, pharmakon, is one such word, leading us to drugs, poison, wizards, and ritual human sacrifice.


For contemporary readers, associating color with drugs, spells, magic, and medicine might not come to us as quickly as maybe it did to the ancient Greeks. It is there, however, hidden in our word for a drug dispensary, our pharmacy. The analogy exists in our popular culture as well. Two film examples that immediately come to mind are the psychedelic drug scene in Easy Rider and the transition from black-and-white to color in The Wizard of Oz. It is an extended analogy, but shall we go for a ride?

In a 2016 project called “Color the Temple,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art used projection-mapping technology to simulate the vividly colored paint that covered the walls of the Temple of Dendur in ancient Egypt.

The Greeks loved color. Their temples and statues were painted in bold and garish color, but all of it has since washed away and faded with time, leaving us with the white marble underneath. We can appreciate the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum today and endlessly debate about whether they should be returned to Greece. Less controversial is whether or not the ancient sculptures, scrubbed free of their pigment during “conservation,” should be restored to their original color, perhaps tacky by today’s aesthetic standards. The Metropolitan Museum of Art found a good compromise with digital light projections on their ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur exhibit.

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, color can both stimulate and calm; it can be a healing tool and good medicine. Conversely, color can be used as a noisome deterrent. There is a public library in Seattle that purposely painted its restrooms a nasty clinical green to discourage vagrants from loitering. Even as an abstract concept, the idea of color is powerful stuff. In his book Chromophobia, artist David Batchelor writes that “colour is a lapse into decadence and a recovery of innocence, a false addition to a surface and the truth beneath that surface. Colour is disorder and liberty; it is a drug, but a drug that can intoxicate, poison or cure. Colour is all of these things, and more besides, but very rarely is colour just neutral.”

Derived from the same etymological root, the ancient Greek word Pharmakos (later Pharmakeus) translates as druggist, poisoner, wizard, magician, and sorcerer. Perhaps the person grinding the color pigments in ancient Greece might with the same mortar and pestle concoct a medicinal cure for an illness, or even put together a charm or spell with magical properties. It is worth noting that the ancient Greeks had no proper word for “art” and “artist,” at least as we know these terms in the contemporary, modern sense. Some scholars have suggested that the closest word to approximate the concept of “art” might be the word techne, meaning skill or the mastery of any art or craft. Techne, by the way, is where we derive English words like technique, technology, and technical. Sculptors and, more especially, painters, did not hold as high a social position as, for example,a supposedly divinely inspired poet or dramatist. Plato ranks sculptors and painters in the sixth of seven ranks in his social hierarchy. Roman philosopher Seneca writes of the Greeks, “One venerates the divine images, one may pray and sacrifice to them, yet one despises the sculptors who made them.” 

Seattle’s Central Library painted its bathrooms an unpleasant shade of green in 2004 to discourage long-term use by the homeless. The library advocated for the city to build a downtown day shelter and hygiene center to better serve those in need.

Our understanding of “artist”—that is, the artist as quasi-religious figure, or a magician, or a truth teller and trickster—stands in contrast to the ancient Greek notion of the artist as craftsman or skilled decorator. Much of our contemporary understanding of the role of the artist comes from ideas born of 19th-century Romanticism. But perhaps the ancient Greeks had a much more contemporary understanding of “art” and “artist” than many scholars realize. With pharmakos meaning druggist, poisoner, wizard, magician, etc., could we not very easily suggest the addition of artist to this list as well? The artist as pharmakos is not so much a stretch, being the purveyor of pigments and skilled, perhaps, in the masterful use of pharmakon (artificial color and paint) in such a way as to cast an intoxicating spell on the audience — whether to heal or curse, or perhaps poison our sensibilities, like the green library bathroom in Seattle.

But the artist as pharmakos is a double-edged sword, and once again the meaning is found in the word. Pharmakos: someone with the ability to poison or cure, and pharmakon: either a poison or a cure. This duality mirrors our own contemporary treatment of artists, of course, where artists are often perceived as being different from the general populace, by turns celebrated and vilified. Never completely trusted (like anyone with the ability to poison and cure), artists are perennial outsiders, held in suspicious esteem. And perhaps the ancient Greeks had an understanding of this, too, because as it turns out pharmakos also refers to a sacrificial ritual, for which a city-state would purge evil by exiling (after being beaten and stoned), or by execution (either thrown from a cliff or burned) a pharmakon, a human scapegoat and community outsider (usually a slave, a cripple, or a criminal). 

The pharmakos ritual was performed annually and during times of great stress, such as a famine, invasion, or plague, in hopes that the fortunes of the city would take a turn for the better. But this should not be such an alien concept to us. In times of stress today, even simply financial stress, art and artists are often the first thing to be placed upon the sacrificial chopping block. Art is perhaps taken for granted because of its ubiquity. It is there when you step off the elevator on the way to a doctor’s appointment. It is there when you pick up a novel or when you turn on the radio. What happens when art is removed? Even a philistine, when stranded on a desert isle, would inevitably hum a crude song, draw with a stick upon the sand, or construct a shelter. Art, though hard to qualify in terms of physical necessity, is nonetheless vital to our well-being, necessary for our spiritual, emotional, and psychological well-being. Simply put, you cannot live without art.

The Elgin Marbles have appeared as white marble for centuries. In the 19th century, scientists used substances including nitric acid to clean the statues, which they erroneously believed “originally possessed… [a] state of purity and whiteness.”
Artaud’s 1947 essay “The Man Suicided By Society” inspired a 2014 exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay that paired paintings, drawings, and letters by Van Gogh with graphic works by Artaud.

The analogy of the pharmakon-artist goes further still. The pharmakos ritual wasn’t just a community catharsis; it was also viewed as a sacrifice. After the pharmakon was sacrificed, the community would cremate the body with respect and the ashes would be scattered to the sea. Vincent van Gogh, the man who Antonin Artaud writes was “suicided by society,” could be viewed as a pharmakon of sorts, in that he was shunned by society during his life, but almost immediately following his death, his work began to be honored and appreciated. It is a cliché, of course, the starving artist finally appreciated following death, but one that still has a foundation in truth. Returning to Chromophobia, David Batchelor reminds us that the colourful are not meant to survive, that “to be called colourful is to be flattered and insulted at the same time. To be colourful is to be distinctive and, equally, to be dismissed . . . The colourful illuminate their surroundings, but they consume themselves in the process . . . Such peoples’ obituaries are smiling with the knowledge that the colourful do not survive. (We knew they wouldn’t.) They pay the price of their colour. (We knew they would.) And in knowing that, we know that for all our own greyness we will at least have the last word.”

Artists shouldn’t be too ready to adopt the pharmakon analogy just yet, though. The last thing we need is more artists with a persecution complex. Society could do better by supporting the arts, of course, but artists should try their best at maintaining their idealism, continue to produce art for the benefit of their community, and seek to communicate with the world at large. Art and society need not be antagonistic towards each other, passing too quickly into anti-art or an art that purposefully excludes the community with an obfuscated rhetoric. Van Gogh, despite his difficulties, still endeavored to produce an art which he thought was beautiful, even if others did not always think it so. The ideal is to maintain a mutually beneficial working relationship between artists and the community in which they operate. It may be difficult, but art and artists must continue to shine brightly, especially in darkness, because this is where positive changes can occur. Idealistic thought and action, perhaps, but it might beat accepting, and thus perpetuating, the artist-as-sacrifice pharmakon model.

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