Art is once again fighting for its life in the good old US of A--but this time it's not against Bible-Belt mores and closet-case loons like Jesse Helms, and nothing racy or blasphemous is prompting the siege.
Art is now fighting not against weird carbon-based beings, but against legal persons of a much more predictable ilk: corporations, who are extending their battle front against public space into the virtual... as they must.
Now if you call yourself, say, www.PissChrist.com, you've got nothing to worry about from the censors or crazy politicos (Giuliani's lunacy in response to the recent Brooklyn museum blasphemy resulted in nothing but his own ridicule, and perhaps a few added hinterland votes)... but oh, God save you if Microsoft, say, spins off a Christian letter-finishing service and calls it www.PSChrist.com. Because visitors might be confused, cutting into Microsoft's profits, your venerable www.PissChrist.com will just have to piss off, saving Jesse the trouble and Jesus the stench.
What this amounts to, of course, is a war on expression, on speech, on language itself--but a mechanical one, waged not by fire-and-brimstone nuts defending crazy notions of purity but by ultra-efficient entities who know only one simple thing: how to fight for their shareholders' profits. Crazy notions be damned: it's a Gulf War to the Helmses' Inquisition.
eToys.com, a two-year-old online toy retailer (and you thought a Christian letter-finishing service sounded stupid!), is defending its assault on five-year-old etoy.com, the oldest and most important Internet art group, by insisting that it's only defending its interests: "Do you think we're a horrible company that gets up every day thinking of ways to go after artists?" eToys spokesman Ken Ross asks USA Today. "Our only interest in this matter is making certain that there's no confusion in the marketplace. Period."
Ross is correct, eToys is blameless. Like the dozens of other corporations laying claim to URLs much older and more interesting, useful, and important than themselves, eToys is doing the one and only thing it knows how to do: blow away whatever's in its path in order to "make certain there's no confusion in the marketplace," "be responsible to the shareholders," etc.--in other words, profit.
That's all that the two-year-old Leonardo Finance, for example, is doing by suing for its name the thirty-year-old Leonardo magazine. Leonardo, not surprisingly, is a magazine about art. Its founders and managers never worried about trademarking a name that, after all, they were borrowing from a prominent long-dead Italian--nor, for that matter, did they have the budget to do so.
Likewise, the HMO Health Net is only defending its profitability, as it is programmed and required to do, by trying to destroy HealthNet.org, founded in 1993 by Nobel Prize winning cardiologist Dr. Bernard Lown to provide low-cost connectivity for rural health care workers around the globe. This attack, too, is only natural and healthy for the two-year-old HMO--seeking profit is all it can do, and it can no more care about rural health than eToys can care about art.
The list goes on and on and on and on. Of course these companies are not themselves "horrible" in any human sense; like General Motors destroying public transportation, like Monsanto forcing its poison on Europe, they're just doing what they were created to do. Disturbingly enough, even someone like Milton Friedman, the most recent major prophet of economic liberalism, is completely clear about corporate greed, and insists that corporations not only don't, but should not have any goal other than profit: it's their responsibility not to.
The question then becomes, of course, how to explain this state of affairs, in which loons like Friedman are listened to, and these mechanical entities, whose sole avowed purpose is to profit at any cost, are permitted and even encouraged to do whatever it takes to fulfill their profit potential, no matter what the human, aesthetic, or cultural damage. And how is it that these entities of pure greed, after demonstrating for so long their not-so-surprising capacity for destruction of every environment, are now being allowed to do the same thing in the virtual?
The answer is that free-market theory, which began as a well-funded, top-down religion, still is one. The supremacy of profit is the keystone in an entire cosmology that dates back to the 1700s and which has as little basis in reality--then or now--as Jesse Helms's vision of heaven. It is beautiful and comforting, and permits one the expectation that with time and the natural functioning of the basest human drives, all things will turn out for the best. Failures of free trade to result in improvement of any sort are chalked up to impurity, to the incomplete implementation of its principles.
Free-market theory is a beautiful idea, and like many beautiful ideas it is immensely and perpetually dangerous, and also completely false--as false as greed is base. Unfortunately, there are many parishioners eager to assure its message keeps coming across.