Color, Chromophobia, and Colonialism: Some Historical Thoughts

updated Mar 11, 2020
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Piet Mondrian used reds, yellows, blues, and blacks. Donald Judd’s palette has included green, pink, and orange. Carl Andre relied on the colors of specific materials like wood and metals. And yet somehow, the term “minimalism” today calls to mind an image of a pure, clean, and orderly space with white as the dominant color. Why, despite seeing color everywhere, do we still tend to associate the minimal and the modern with whiteness?

David Batchelor has argued that “in the West, since Antiquity, colour has been systematically marginalized, reviled, diminished, and degraded.” This chromophobia, or fear of color, manifests as the valorization of white as the color of rational, clean, controlled spaces, while color is seen as dangerous, superficial, and potentially contaminating.

Obviously, white is a color, so the opposition of these terms might, at first, seem a bit simplistic. But what Batchelor and other scholars like him are interested in is the idea of “generalized white,” or what Batchelor has called the “negative hallucination” of white— the fact that even when color is present, as in the minimalist works above, we still tend to be blind to that color, thinking only of the white space, tending to privilege form over color.

Your initial objection might be that it’s quite simple to look around us and see plenty of color: green trees, blue sky, vibrant flowers. But consider this: in the things that we make or buy, color tends to be reined in. While there are some rule-breakers out there, generally speaking, we think that bright colors are acceptable in limited doses, but too much vivid color can seem like an assault on the senses, or we just dismiss it as tacky. For instance, it would be considered fashionable to wear a bright pink tie, so long as the suit is gray, but in general, we would find it eccentric or odd to wear a bright pink suit with a gray tie. And in terms of home decor, we’ve had plenty of heated debates about how tacky or inconsiderate it is to paint one’s home in a “loud” color, and it’s been reported that the most popular color for home exteriors is white.

Chromophobia is marked, not just by the desire to eradicate color, but also to control and to master its forces. When we do use color, there’s some sense that it needs to be controlled; that there are rules to its use, either in terms of its quantity or its symbolic applications (e.g., don’t paint your dining room blue because it suppresses appetite). Please note that I’m not arguing against color psychology; it’s undeniable that certain colors carry certain cultural assumptions and associations, a fact that has led anthropologist Michael Taussig to argue that color should be considered a manifestation of the sacred. But what I am arguing is that there is a pervasive idea that color gets us in the gut: it’s seductive, emotional, compelling. Color, in the words of nineteenth-century art theorist Charles Blanc, often “turns the mind from its course, changes the sentiment, swallows the thought.”

According to some art critics, sensory anthropologists, and historians, this mutual attraction and repulsion to color has centuries-old roots, bound up in a colonial past and fears of the unknown. Michael Taussig has recounted that from the seventeenth century, the British East India Company centered much of its trade on brightly colored, cheap, and dye-fast cotton textiles imported from India. Because of the Calico Acts of 1700 and 1720, which supported the interests of the wool and silk weaving guilds, these textiles could only be imported into England with the proviso that they were destined for export again, generally to the English colonies in the Caribbean or Africa. These vibrant textiles played a key part in the African trade, and especially in the African slave trade, where British traders would use the textiles to purchase slaves. According to Michael Taussig, these trades are significant not only because they linked chromophilic areas like India and Africa, but also because “color achieved greater conquests than European-instigated violence during the preceding four centuries of the slave trade. The first European slavers, the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, quickly learned that to get slaves they had to trade for slaves with African chiefs and kings, not kidnap them, and they conducted this trade with colored fabrics in lieu of violence.” Ironically, many of these slaves were then put to work in the colonies cultivating plants like indigo, that yielded dyes whose monetary values sometimes surpassed that of sugar.

In England, contemporaries often called the Indian textiles “rags” or “trash” and scorned their bright colors, and in Europe more generally, bright colors were taken as a sign of degeneracy and inferiority. The German writer Goethe famously stated that “Men in a state of nature, uncivilized nations and children, have a great fondness for colors in their utmost brightness,” whereas “people of refinement” avoid vivid colors (or what he called “pathological colors”). In short, a love of bright color marked one as uncivilized, as not possessing taste, as being “foreign” or other. Color represented the “mythical savage state out of which civilization, the nobility of the human spirit, slowly, heroically, has lifted itself — but back into which it could always slide” (Batchelor, 23).

This danger of descent, of falling into degeneracy, disorientation, and excess, resulted in a valorization of the “generalized white” mentioned above. According to Batchelor, prejudice against color “masks a fear: a fear of contamination and corruption by something that is unknown or appears unknowable,” and the highly minimal, white spaces of contemporary architecture mark an attempt to rationalize and strictly limit an interior, to stop its merging with the world outside. The “hollow, whited chamber, scraped clean, cleared of any evidence of the grotesque embarrassments of an actual life. No smells, no noises, no colour; no changing from one state to another and the uncertainty that comes with it.”

All of this is not to say that if you love white and abhor the thought of a red, pink, or yellow room, that you are fearful of difference. Nor do these arguments even mean that you shouldn’t have an all-white home. What I think they do show us, though, is that some of our cultural preferences have deep-seated histories, associations, and legacies. The very idea of “good taste,” as opposed to the “garishness” and “tackiness” of colors that we say hurt our eyes or that we find offensive, draws on a deep well of cultural assumptions of what is “normal” or “refined.” Knowing this, I doubt that I will go paint my bedroom a vibrant red, but I very well may rethink my gut reactions to rooms that initially take me aback.

Furthermore, it seems incontestable that it’s far too easy to fear vibrant color when you’re designing your own home: “What if I get that green sofa I love and hate it in five years? I better go for gray;” “What if that shade of yellow is too shocking?” “What if I retile my backsplash in blue, and it diminishes the resale value?” Maybe instead of giving into these fears, we should just step back and say, “It’s okay to lose myself sometimes, to go a little bit crazy, to have fun with this whole thing, and to stop controlling the color.” White is great when it’s a color amongst other colors, but when it’s meant only to contain, suppress, and keep other colors at bay, you may want to resist its temptation. Our lives aren’t “pure” and “perfect,” and our homes don’t have to be either.

For more on color, chromophobia, and colonialism, see:
David Batchelor, Chromophobia
• Michael Taussig, What Color is the Sacred?
Colour, edited by David Batchelor
this delightful short film by Raoul Servais

(Images, left to right: Light Locations via Home Designing & Coastal Living)