Color Me Bad

It's not just a black-and-white issue.

THE TERM CHROMOPHOBIA refers to an underlying fear, distrust, and disliking of color as well as an overarching prejudice against that which is colorful. In his hip, witty account of the wrongs color has suffered through the ages, author David Batchelor sets out to prove that Western culture generally frowns on anything too chromatic, deeming it second-class (or Third World) in a hierarchy that, above all, favors white and continually places structure, line, and form over all things "cosmetic" (i.e., superficial coloring). Batchelor's argument is somewhat farfetched, but he does a good job of drawing together disparate cultural tendencies, a wide range of historical references, and his own keen observations about human behavior, language, and art. Pretty soon, he'll make you believe that we're all chromophobes, guilty of furthering society's mistrust of color. Considering minimalist and modernist tendencies in art theory, there is certainly some truth that such hierarchical underpinnings dictate our collective aesthetic. Chromophobia

by David Batchelor (Reaktion Books, $19.95 paperback original) While Batchelor argues that Western philosophers, artists, art historians, and others have "systematically marginalized, reviled, diminished and degraded" color, this is by no means a purely academic, art-historical treatise. A senior tutor in critical theory at the Royal College of Art in London, Batchelor continually strays from art, musing on the role and interpretation of color in society, from ancient Greece to modern Hollywood; literature, Moby-Dick to sci-fi; film; and language. A good portion of the book is taken up with various accounts of drug-induced, hallucinogenic experiences of color. The first part of this quick read is devoted entirely to the primacy, aesthetic, and even political preeminence of white. "Pure white," Batchelor states, is certainly a "Western problem." He points out that terms like "pure white" do indeed drive, or are driven by, our understanding of right and wrong as well as our sense of aesthetic values. This argument, focusing on minimalist architecture and painting, also brings the author to a rumination on black and white, which inevitably ends in an analysis of the lack of color in "art" photography and the use and perception of color in film. Western culture tends to favor white. Moreover, we favor clean lines, lack of clutter, and minimal decoration—more than having a mere propensity for what is white, we favor the lack of color. In another, more semiotic sense, we recognize the idea of "generalized white," that is, whiteness in the abstract. Therein lies the danger associated with color: It contradicts, clouds, contaminates empirical whiteness. As the Bible says, "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow." BY THE TIME BATCHELOR gets us thinking long and hard about the absence of color, we're primed for his shocking introduction of color into the playing field. We are led down a path cluttered with big-name artists and theorists who have condemned color to a secondary, often nonexistent rank among other attributes in art (form and line reign supreme). A long-winded discussion blooms out of an analysis of The Wizard of Oz, a film that employs the sudden infusion of Technicolor to evoke a change in state of mind, a transition from reality to dreamland, from what is "normal" to what is scary, different. The basic premise is that color is made out to be the property of some "foreign" body—the other, usually the feminine, primitive, infantile, vulgar, queer, or pathological—and, in a different sense, that color is relegated to the realm of the superficial, supplementary, inessential, or cosmetic. Overall, these theories are utterly serious and Batchelor's arguments sophisticated, but his broad statements and sharply exacted examples are also presented with a fair amount of humor. The chapter that outlines the perceived corruption embodied by "cosmetic color" is entitled "Apocalypstick" (incidentally, after a song written by Serge Gainsbourg, sung by Jane Birkin). At one point, Batchelor argues that if color, continually the object of such severe and widespread prejudice, were a furry animal, it would be protected by international law. In absolutely no way is the author afraid to digress. And it is in the digressions that he most often strikes upon something brilliant.

 
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