Proudhon on Property (1846) – Part 4

[continued from Part 3]

Of all the forms of property, the most detestable is that which has talent for a pretext.

Prove to an artist, by the comparison of times and men, that the inequality of works of art, in the different centuries, above all stems from the oscillating movements of society, from the changing of beliefs and of the state of minds; that whatever a society is worth, so much is the worth of the artist; that between the artist and his contemporaries there exists a community of needs and ideas, from which results the system of their obligations and their relations, so that merit, like wages, can always be rigorously defined; that a time will come when the rules of taste, the laws of invention, composition and execution being discovered, art will lose its divinatory character and cease to be the privilege of a few exceptional natures: all of these ideas will appear excessively ridiculous to the artist.

Tell him: You have made a statue, and you propose that I buy it. Gladly. But this statue, in order to be truly a statue and for me to give the price for it, must meet certain conditions of poetry and formal beauty that I can recognize, although I have never seen a statue, and I am entirely incapable of making one. If these conditions are not met, whatever difficulties you have overcome, however superior to my profession seems your art, you have made a useless work. Your labor is WORTH nothing: it does not accomplish the goal, and only serves to excite my regrets by showing your weakness. For it is not a comparison between you and me that it is a question of establishing; it is a comparison between your labor and your ideal. Do you ask me, after this, what price you should claim if successful? I answer you that this price is necessarily commensurate with my faculties, and determined as aliquot part of my outlay. However, what proportion? Just the equivalent of what the statue has cost you.

If it was possible that the artist to whom one addressed such language would have sensed its strength and accuracy, it would be because reason had replaced imagination in him; he would begin to no longer be an artist.

What particularly shocks this class of men is that one dares to put a price on their talents. As they understand it, weights and measures are incompatible with the dignity of art: the mania for bargaining over everything is the sign of a decadent society, which will produce no more masterpieces, because one will not know how to recognize them. And this is what I want to enlighten the minds of men of art about, not with arguments and theories they could not follow, but with facts.

At the last exposition, 4,200 objects of art were sent by close to 1,800 artists. By taking at 300 francs, on average, the commercial value of each of these objects (statues, tableaux, portraits, gravures, etc.), one is certain not to remain too far below the truth. There is then a total value of 1,260,000 francs, the product of 1,800 artists. Supposing that the disbursement for marble, fabric, gilding, frame, models, studies, exercises, meditations, etc.., was 100 francs on average, and the labor at three months, there remains a net 840,000 francs, that is 466 fr. 65 c. per head per 90 days.

But if one reflects that the 4,200 articles sent to the exposition, and of which nearly half have been eliminated by the jury, form in the judgment of the authors themselves, the best and most beautiful of the artistic production during the year; that a great part of these products consists of portraits, of which the very gracious recompense greatly surpasses the current price for objects of art; that a considerable quantity of the values exhibited have remained unsold; that outside of that fair a crowd of fabricants work at prices much inferior to those on the price list of the exposition; that some analogous observations apply to music, to dance, and to all the categories of art: one will find that the average salary of the artist does not reach 1,200 francs, and that, for the artistic population as for the industrial, the level of well-being is expressed by the crushing formula of M. Chevalier, fifty-six centimes per day and per head.

And as poverty stands out more by contrast, and as the function of the artist is all for luxury, it has become a proverb that no poverty is equal to his: Si est dolor, sicut dolor meus!

And why is there this equality before the social economy of the labors of art and of industry? It is because apart from the proportionality of products, there is no wealth, and because art, sovereign expression of that wealth which is essentially equality and proportion, is for that reason the symbol of equality and of human fraternity. In vain pride revolts, and creates everywhere its distinctions and privileges: the proportion remains inflexible. The laborers remain solidary among themselves, and nature is charged with punishing their infractions. If society consumes five percent of its product in luxury goods, it will occupy in that production a twentieth of its laborers. The share of the artists, in the society, will then be necessarily equal to that of the manufacturers. As for individual division, society abandons it to the corporations: for the society which accomplishes everything through the individual, can do nothing for the individual without his consent. So when an artist takes for himself alone one hundred shares of the general remuneration, there are ninety-nine of his fellows who prostitute themselves for him or die penniless: this calculation is as certain, as tried and proven, as a liquidation of the stock market..

Let the artists know it then: it is not, as they say, the grocer who haggles, it is necessity itself which has fixed the price of things. If, in some eras, the products of art have been on the rise, as in the centuries of Leon X, the Roman emperors and Pericles, it was due to special causes, to a favoritism which has ceased to exist. It was gold or Christianity, the tribute of indulgences, which paid the Italian artists; it was the gold of the vanquished nations which, under the emperors, paid the Greek artists; it was the labor of the slaves which paid them under Pericles. Equality has come: do the liberal arts want to bring back slavery, and abdicate their name?

Talent is usually the attribute of a disgraced nature, in which the disharmony of aptitudes produces an extraordinary, monstrous specialty. A man having no hands writes with his stomach, there is the image of talent. Also, we are all born artists: our soul, like our face, always strays more or less from its ideal; our schools are orthopedic institutions where, by directing growth, one corrects the deformities of nature. That is why education tends more and more to universality, that is to say, to the equilibrium of talents and knowledges; why also the artist is only possible surrounded by a society in community of luxury with him. In matters of art, society does nearly everything: the artist is much more in the mind of the amateur than in the maimed being that excites his admiration.

Under the influence of property, the artist, depraved in his reason, dissolute in his morals, full of contempt for his colleagues whose publicity alone give him value, venal and without dignity, is the impure image of selfishness. For him, good morals are only a matter of convention, a matter of figures. The idea of the just and of the honest slides over his heart without taking root; and of all the classes of society, that of the artists is the poorest in strong souls and noble characters. If one ranked the social professions according to the influence that they have exercised on civilization by the energy of will, the greatness of feelings, the power of the passions, the enthusiasm for truth and justice, and set aside the value of the doctrines: the priests and philosophers would appear at the first rank; next the men of State and the captains; then the merchants, the industrialists and the laborers; finally, the scientists and artists. While the priest, in his poetic language, is regarded as the living temple of God, the philosopher speaks of himself in the same way: Act in such a way that each of the actions could serve as model and rule. But the artist remains indifferent to the meaning of his work; he does not seek to personify in it the type that he wants to render, he abstracts it; he uses the beautiful and the sublime, but he does not love them; he puts Christ on the canvas, but he does not carry him, like Saint Ignatius, in his chest.

The people, whose instincts are always so sure, preserve the memories of legislators and heroes; they trouble themselves little with the names of artists. For a long time even, in its rude innocence, it felt for them only repulsion and contempt, as if it had recognized in these illuminators of human life the instigators of its vices, the accomplices of its oppression. The philosopher has recorded in his books that mistrust of the people the for the arts of luxury; the legislator has denounced them to the magistrate; religion, obeying the same sentiment, has struck them with its anathemas. Art, that is to say luxury, pleasure, voluptuousness, is the works and pomps of Satan, which delivers the Christian to eternal damnation. And without wanting to incriminate a class of men that the general corruption has rendered as estimable as any other, and who after all make use of their rights, I dare say that the Christian myth is vindicated. More than ever, art is a perpetual outrage to public misery, a mask for debauchery. By property, that which is best in man shortly becomes that which is worst in him, corruptio optimi pessima.

Work, the economists repeat ceaselessly to the people; work, save, capitalize, become proprietors in your turn. As they said: Workers, you are the recruits of property. Each of you carries in his sack the switch which serves to correct you, and which can serve one day to correct the others. Raise yourself up to property by labor; and when you have the taste for human flesh, you will no longer want any other meat, and you will make up for your long abstinences.

To fall from the proletariat into property! From slavery into tyranny, which is to say, following Plato, always into slavery! What a perspective! And though it is inevitable, the condition of the slave is no more tenable. In order to advance, to free yourself from the salariat, it is necessary to become a capitalist, to become a tyrant! It is necessary; do you understand, proletarians? Property is not an optional thing for humanity, it is the absolute order of destiny. You will only be free after you are redeemed by the subjugation of your masters, from the servitude that they have made weigh on you.

One beautiful Sunday in summer, the people of the great cities leave their somber and damp residences, and go to seek the vigorous and pure air of the country. But what has happened! There is no more countryside! The land, divided in a thousand closed cells, traversed by long galleries, the land is no longer found; the sight of the fields exists for the people of the towns only in the theater and the museum: the birds alone contemplate the real landscape from high in the air. The proprietor, who pays very dearly for a lodge on this hacked-up earth, enjoys, selfish and solitary, some strip of turf that he calls his country: except for this corner, he is exiled from the soil like the poor. Some people can boast of never having seen the land of their birth! It is necessary to go far, into the wilderness, in order to find again that poor nature, that we violate in a brutal manner, instead of enjoying, as chaste spouses, its heavenly embraces.

Thus, property, which should make us free, makes us prisoners. What am I saying? It degrades us, by making us servants and tyrants to one another.

Does we know well what his is but the salariat? To work under such a master, jealous of his prejudices as much and more than of his command; whose dignity consists above all in wanting, sic volo, sic jubeo, and never explaining; that often one underrates, and for which one is mocked! Not to have any thought of his own, to study without ceasing the thought of others, to know of stimulus only the daily bread, and the fear of losing a job!

The wage-worker is a man to whom the proprietor who praises his services directs this discourse: What you have to do does not concern you at all: you do not have to control it, you do not answer for it. Every observation is forbidden to you; there is no profit for you to hope for save from your wage, no risk to run, no blame to fear.

Thus one says to the journalist: Lend us your columns, and even, if that suits you, your ministry. Here is what you have to say, and here is what you have to do. Whatever you think of our ideas, of our ends and of our means, always defend our party, emphasize our opinions. That cannot compromise you, and must not disturb you: the character of the journalist, it is anonymous. Here is, for your fee, ten thousand francs and a hundred subscriptions. What are you going to do? And the journalist, like the Jesuit, responds by sighing: I must live!

One says to the advocate: This matter presents some pros and cons; there is a party whose luck I have decided to try, and for this I have need of a man of your profession. If it is not you, it will be your colleague, your rival; and there are a thousand crowns for the advocate if I win my case, and five hundred francs if I lose it. And the advocate bows with respect, saying to his conscience, which murmurs: I must live!

One says to the priest: Here is some money for three hundred masses. You don’t have to worry yourself about the morality of the deceased: it is probable that he will never see God, being dead in hypocrisy, his hands full of the goods of other, and laden with the curses of the people. These are not your affairs: we pay, fire away! And the priest, raising his eyes to heaven, says: Amen, I must live.

One says to the purveyor of arms: We need thirty thousand rifles, ten thousand swords, a thousand quintals of shot, and a hundred barrels of powder. What we can do with it is not your concern; it is possible that all will pass to the enemy: but there will be two thousand francs of profit. That’s good, responds the purveyor: each to his craft, everyone must live!… Make the tour of society; and after having noticed the universal absolutism, you will have recognized the universal indignity. What immorality in this system of valetage! What stigma in this mechanization!

The more the man approaches the tomb, the more the proprietor shows himself irreconcilable. This is what Christianity has represented in its frightening myth of the final impenitence.

Say to this old man, libidinous or devout, that the governess that he intends benefit to the detriment of his closest relatives is unworthy of his cares; that the Church is wealthy enough, and that an honest man has no need of prayers; that his relation is poor, laborious, honest; that there are young men to establish, and young women to endow; that in leaving his fortune, to them his insures their gratitude, and does good for several generations; that it is the spirit of the law that the testaments serve the union and the prosperity of the families. I do not want it! the proprietor responds drily. And the scandal of the testaments surpasses the immorality of the fortunes. Now, try to modify that right to privilege and transmit, which is a dismemberment of the sovereign authority, and you fall back immediately into monopoly. You change property into usufruct, and the rent into a pension for life; you replace the despotism of the proprietor by the absolutism of the State, and then one of two things occurs: either, slipping back to feudal and inalienable property, you stop the circulation of capital and make society regress; or you fall into community, into nothingness

The proprietary contradiction does not end for man at the testament, it passes to the succession. The dead seize the living, says the law; thus the fatal influence of property passes from the testator to the heir.

The father of a family leaves on dying seven sons, raised by him in the ancient manor. How will the transmission of his goods take place? Two systems present themselves, tried by turns, corrected, modified, but always without success. The formidable enigma has yet to be resolved.

Under primogeniture, the property is assigned to the eldest: the six the six other brothers receive a trousseau, and are expelled from the paternal domain. The father dead, they are strangers on the land, without assets and without credit. From ease, they pass without transition to poverty: as children, they had in their father a nourisher: as brothers, they can see in their eldest brother only an enemy… Everything has been said against primogeniture: let us see the reverse of the system.

With equal division, all the children are called to the preservation of the patrimony, to the perpetuity of the family. But how can seven possess what only suffices for one? The licitation takes place, the inheriting family is dispossessed. It is a stranger who, by means of cash, finds himself the inheritor. Instead of the patrimony, each of the children receives some money, with ninety-nine chances against one of soon having nothing. As long as the father lived, there was a family; now, there is nothing more than some adventurers. Primogeniture insured at least the perpetuity of the name: that was for the old man a guarantee that the monument founded by his fathers and preserved by his hands will remain in his race. The equality of division has destroyed the temple of the family; there are no more household gods. With sedentary property, the civilized have found the secret of living as nomads: what then was the use of heredity?

Let us suppose that instead of selling the succession, the heirs divide it. The land is parceled out, truncated, cut up. One plants boundary posts, one digs moats, one builds barricades; one makes a seedbed of trials and hatreds. With property cut into pieces, the unity is disrupted: however you look at it, property leads to the negation of society, to the negation of its own ends.

[to be continued…]
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