We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Why the little black dress? The black Model T? The black telephone? The white operating theater? The white cube? White paper? Whitewash? Why the determination of “serious” newspapers to be the last to welcome color? Of “sophisticated” parties to be black-tieor white-tie? Why blue funk, yellow journalism, red alert?
Why do decorators discard dust jackets and have the library rebound in matching leather? Why do architecture students, a particolored bunch on matriculation, depart in the dark uniform of their profession? Why do black-and-white photographers, having fought for the recognition of their métier as art, look askance at their colleagues who trade in color? Why is analytic cubism so drab?
Though he addresses only some of these questions directly, British art writer David Batchelor implies that the answer to all is “chromophobia,” a deeply ingrained Western prejudice, dating back to antiquity, by which color is denigrated and suppressed. Chromophobia, his brief, accessible, clear, and rigorous book the color of a synthetic raspberry creme, asserts that the
purging of colour is usually accomplished in one of two ways. In the first, colour is made out to be the property of some “foreign” bodyusually the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infantile, the vulgar, the queer or the pathological. In the second, colour is relegated to the realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential or the cosmetic. In one, colour is regarded as alien and therefore dangerous; in the other, it is perceived merely as a secondary quality of experience, and thus unworthy of serious consideration. Colour is dangerous, or it is trivial, or it is both. (It is typical of prejudices to conflate the sinister and the superficial.)
Batchelor isn’t canting or crying wolf when he calls chromophobia a prejudice. As with all societally entrenched types of bigotry, you find yourself subconsciously reliant on its forms, even if you’re temperamentally indisposed or philosophically averse to accepting its arguments. Its language shapes our metaphors, (dis)colors our speech, and sways our behaviors. As I sit here in my green hat with its gold embroidery, in my burnt-orange shirt and red striped socks, sipping Chartreuse and tending my nails with a pink Swiss Army knife, I’m wondering, why did I think my Aeron chair needed to be upholstered in basic black to match its frame? And why is it that the thing actually seems to be black, not just colored black? And why would a red Panton chair seem to me more chair than red?
Batchelor would place the answer in the age-old opposition of form and color, most visibly inscribed in the Renaissance grudge match of “disegno versus colore: drawing versus coloring-in.” He employs a 19th-century critic, “the appropriately named Charles Blanc,” as his partisan for the former: “The union of design and colour is necessary to beget painting just as is the union of man and woman to beget mankind, but design must maintain its preponderance over colour. Otherwise painting speeds to its ruin: it will fall through colour just as mankind fell through Eve.” So it is that color is seen as a fall from grace, from a prelapsarian ideal of reason and harmony with the divine into sensuality and chaos.
In The Marzipan Pig, Russell Hoban and Quentin Blake’s bizarre and lyrical children’s book about aesthetic longing and the great chain of being, an owlwho has eaten a mouse that devoured the titular hero back on Page 3 and so has absorbed the pig’s sweetness, its pinknessswoops down from a branch to pitch woo to a taxi meter, which glows impassively violet in the night. When the meter goes dark, the owl turns to purse-snatching so that it might once again be illumined. He, too, has fallen, has been infected by color, within and without, has even had his morals corrupted by color; only he has fallen into grace, not from it. Why should a chromophile’s story follow the narrative established by chromophobia?
Using the example of Pleasantville, Gary Ross’ film in which a gray-scale ’50s sitcom town is adulterated by ’90s lust, youth, and color, Batchelor writes that
chromophobia and chromophilia are both utterly opposed and rather alike….On those occasions when colour is given a positive value, what is most striking is how its chromophobic imageas feminine, oriental, cosmetic, infantile, vulgar, narcotic and so onis, for the most part, not blocked, stopped and turned around. Rather the opposite: in chromophilic accounts, this process is usually both continued and accelerated. Colour remains other; in fact, it often becomes more other than before. More dangerous, more disruptive, more excessive….[C]hromophobia recognizes the otherness of colour but seeks to play it down, while chromophilia recognizes the otherness of colour and plays it up. Chromophobia is perhaps only chromophilia without the colour.
In a swoop as fell as the owl’s from his tree, Batchelor has confirmed why color is such a difficult thing to think aboutand to defend. If color’s opponents perceive all its attributes rightly, but despise them, a chromophile is left with little room to maneuver.
Thus Chromophobia may have a hard time convincing color’s foes, especially those who deem color more a distraction and a cosmetic than a corrupter, of the importance of its discussion. But suffice it to say that the book speaks to but a specific case of a general intellectual malady, one whereby morals and aesthetics are confounded. In the course of awakening susceptible readers to the full spectrum of visual experience, Batchelor arms them with the skepticism appropriate to discerning whether a purported virtue is simply a self-imposed poverty in disguise.
Chromophobia, which came out about four months ago, was mentioned in some year-end best-of lists in Artforum, but otherwise it doesn’t seem to have found much of an audience. So when I tell my friends about it, I always predict that it has the potential to be the next Invisible Dragona small, tight, powerful book that prods people into examining a cultural blind spot, a book that, in the words of Peter Schjeldahl’s cover blurb for that collection of essays on beauty, if “read widely and above all well, word for word…will help the world.”
There’s little doubt that Dave Hickey’s 1993 book has had an enormous influence on the art world, but the real world never really gave up on beauty. Beauty’s exile, an artifact of the renunciatory bent of modernism, was more historically restricted than is color’s subordination, which is altogether more pervasive and more enduring, less dependent on the quirks of the cultural moment. Although Batchelor’s book is less personal than Hickey’s, less virtuosic and less indebted to the finesse of its author’s rhetoric, it is more likely to help not just the art world but some of the rest of it, too. CP