Men In Black: Chromophobia in Western Culture
Color is a code, a sign, a message –we use it to communicate and in turn it has the power to shape how we think and feel. For the last 500 years or so, black has been making its way to the front of the line as the color of sophistication, culture, power and self-control. On the streets of Paris, New York, London and Tokyo, black rules supreme. To be civilized, is to eschew color, to resist it’s temptations and it’s charms. As Goethe observed of his times, nearly 200 years ago, “… savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colors… … people of refinement avoid vivid colours in their dress” (1). And Charles Blanc, the French Minister of Culture, expressing a sentiment shared by many scholars and art historians, over the perceived opposition between line and color in art, stated in 1848 that, “…colour is the peculiar characteristic of the lower forms of nature, while drawing becomes the medium of expression, more and more dominant, the higher we rise in the scale of being” (2).
These quotes belie a sentiment common in Western culture, and eloquently documented in David Batchelor’s fascinating book on the topic (3), a sentiment that sees color as “something for children, savages, minorities and women”: a loathing and a fear of color that he calls - chromophobia. But it wasn’t always this way. In fact the history of the west is nothing if not colorful – but very little of that evidence exists nowadays. Color has either faded with time and the elements, or it has been purposefully removed and whitewashed. The Greek and Roman statutes of antiquity – pure and ethereal in their whiteness, are an illusion. They were never white. Instead, they were painted, in great and often garish detail (fig.1).
fig.1 Color reconstruction. Archer, Temple of Aphaia, on the Greek island of Aegina. ca.500BC
The same applies to those great classical monuments of architecture, like the Parthenon. They were richly colored and gilded. Rather than the cerebral and pristine image of Greek philosophers strolling among the olive groves in white tunics at the foot of the Acropolis, all white against the azure blue of the sky, we would do well to remember that Ancient Greece was more like the polychromatic frenzy of an Indian bazaar than anything found in Hollywood or the museums. And it didn’t stop there – The cathedrals of Europe, those magnificent stone monuments to transcendence, were also richly painted, inside and out (fig.2). They too fell victim to the ravages of time, but they also encountered something else – the Reformation. Because of the ideas of Calvin, and especially Zwingli in Switzerland – color was seen as a distraction from God, and so all protestant churches were systematically stripped of their catholic ‘sensuality’ and excess.
fig.2 Wells Cathedral, Somerset, UK. Top: Wells Cathedral today.
Below: Reconstruction of original colors before the later addition of the towers (courtesy of the BBC)
Color was feared and marginalized in the West for two main reasons. It spoke of the primitive, the feminine, the infantile and the pathological – it was thought of as a dangerous distraction and a corrupting influence because it appealed to the emotions rather than reason. Even Aristotle referred to color as a drug and a poison (pharmakon) Secondly, it was considered superficial, not essential. It was about adorning, deceit, and pretending. In fact the Latin for color, celare, means to conceal or hide. It was cosmetic and fake. Why do you think they call it ‘makeup’? In short, color was suspect and dangerous. Which brings us to the taste for black. With the advent of Protestant Europe and the dominance of Dutch mercantilism, black came to signify renunciation, self-control and business. With its aversion to all the superficiality and primitiveness associated with color, black became the uniform of power and control. Through Victorian England, the banking classes, and then high society by way of Chanel’s little black dress – black became the uniform of seriousness, high culture and sophistication (4). Go to any opening gala or event at the Museum of Modern Art, even one featuring colorists such as Matisse, Warhol or Ellsworth Kelley and you will find yourself engulfed in a sea of black. So does this mean that everyone who wears black is afraid of color? Of course not, but it does mean that our cultural preference for black has a pedigree and a history; it didn’t happen by accident.