Color is central to art and making, not only as an element, but also as an idea. Throughout the years, artists have affirmed color as pure sensation, embraced it as a tool and even denounced it as decorative and decadent. Those who loathe color have had as much to say about it as those who love it. Color is “diverse and divergent; fluid, elliptical and contradictory; often obscure, esoteric or strange; sometimes funny, and altogether fascinating.”1 .
Umberto Eco argues that the puzzle of color is a cultural one, for as we filter our sensations and perceptions through linguistics they become tainted by the cultural information that dictates the ways in which we interact with the world.2 In this sense, the experience of and interaction with color is conditioned by the culture and history that surrounds it. Thus, Jean Baudrillard’s argument that colors derive their significance from outside themselves and are simply metaphors for fixed cultural meanings is proven correct as the histories of both aesthetic and racial hierarchies come together to create a system that places certain colors, i.e. white or whiteness, above “other” colors whose meaning becomes attached to specific nations, cultures and races as identifiers. 3
Evidence of the prejudice to which color has been subjected in the West can be found as far back as Aristotle, who established the superiority of white by advocating for its objectivity and connection to the mind as opposed to the senses and the body.
The white marble statues and temples of Greco-Roman times later influenced the production of artistic capital and an admiration of their beauty and chromatic lack became a quality that was sought out by artists in an effort to emulate the ‘perfection’ achieved. This ideal however, emerged from ruins that had long been stripped of the color that decorated them and marble statues that were copies of Greek originals cast in bronze. During the Renaissance artists looked to the Greeks and Romans for inspiration, and in an attempt to revive Classicism touted the importance of unity, order, form, and off-course whiteness. In the early 19th century, Neoclassicism once more resurrected the same ideas; forming part of a cycle that kept reviving the past and with it the perceived superiority of whiteness. This art historical narrative, however, is in no way solely accountable for the ways in which we group, categorize, and give meaning to color.