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Dialogues on Color

Dialogues on Color Aaron Fine

Are Not Books & Publications

Contents Acknowledgments ........................................................ vii Introduction .................................................................. ix Prologue: The Blue ..........................................................1

The Rainbow................................................................... 7 The Cave ........................................................................33 The Mandala................................................................. 67

The Silence.................................................................... 97

The Pink Cadillac ........................................................ 125

Coloring Plates ............................................................ 153

Suggested Reading......................................................201

Dedication & Colophon ............................................ 204




he support of many individuals and institutions went into this labor of love. Truman State University provided an invaluable year-long sabbatical during the 2015–2016 academic year. The Osage Arts Community and its band of irregulars nurtured the work in its infancy by providing a mindaltering artist’s residency opportunity and time on the river. Are Not Books & Publications, through the generous activity of Matthew Smith, provided this publishing opportunity. Chief among the individuals to thank is my editor, Jon Boggs, whose kind attentiveness, heroic manuscript editing, and oracular awareness made him the ideal guide for this journey. Plug Projects of Kansas City and Boston University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning both published versions of an essay that ended up in this book. Josef

Albers dedicated his Interaction of Colors to his students. As I have dedicated this book to my teachers I would like to acknowledge a few of them here: Robert Strobridge from my childhood; Judy Morgan from Athens High School; Ron Kroutel, Dr. Weckman, and Dr. Petrick from Ohio University; Michael Brewster, Anne Bray, and Roland Reiss from Claremont Graduate University; Monica Baron and Jamie D’Agostino of Truman State University, and BK Loren at the Iowa Writers Festival. I cannot thank friends and family enough, but I must name three names. My brother, Peter Fine, was a guide and inspiration. My mother, Charlotte LaGalle, and my wife, the artist Priya Kambli, were both sources of encouragement and providers of precious time and space. To these and many others, whose support made this work possible, I give my thanks and this book.





prolonged meditation on color, such as I offer the reader here, brings one into contact with a number of unexpected questions about the underlying structure of the universe. Our attitudes towards color hinge on our reception of a heady mix of influences from ancient religious teachings to contemporary particle physics, and through the course of this work I found my own logic traveling some unfamiliar paths. The thinkers encountered along the way have the widest possible range of attitudes towards the invisible world, and the advisability of seeking it out. And spiritual beings, reincarnation, and heavenly contact are recurring themes of this journey. As I finish, watching the far bank of the Gasconade River dissolve behind a screen of rain, I think of the Greek messenger Iris. She is the link between the Gods and humanity,

a rainbow arc that travels both above and below the world we dwell in. Iris is the very stuff of visual delight—“lust for the eyes� as the forbidden fruit is described. She is also all business; her tidings are sometimes terrible. Far from the deceiver it is taken as by a certain materialistic worldview, color brings us news of the origins of the universe, travelling at the very limit of speed, and halting time. Before I began this work, I would daydream about light to keep my mind occupied as I jogged around the track of the gym. I imagine I am orbiting the earth at fantastic rates, up to the speed of light. As I approach that limit, I see the blueshift before me and redshift behind, color being distorted as light waves in front of me are compressed by my overwhelming velocity and those behind are stretched out by my slipping forward and away. I come closer and closer to the image of my own backside


Dialogues on Color

as the light I leave in my wake is able to cover smaller and smaller distances before reaching my eyes. I am watching myself accelerate forward a moment ago in time. Finally, I reach the limit. The blue world in front of me slips into ultraviolet and the red behind drops into infrared. I reach the place where I was before the light can travel from there. This is what it looks like to be a particle of light. The world goes dark. And time stops. The structure of this work is an ancient one. A collection of teachings worrying at the same subject from multiple points of view. Plato wrote in this manner, but because we sort genre with an inconsistent filter we do not file his writings in the fiction section of the library. No more than we do the parables of Jesus, or any other philosophical or spiritual text. Like those writings of Plato, the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu text contemporaneous with him, is also written in dialogue form. In this case a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, but only as reported to the blind King Dhritarashtra by his advisor Sanjaya, and this dialogue is itself nested within a telling of the overarching story of the epic Mahabharata. That recitation is, in turn, described in the opening passages

of the book, where the fabled author Vyasa and his followers are entertained at the court of King Janamejaya. Knowing that his guest is the author of the origin story of his people, the King asks for the recitation, which is given, but not by Vyasa. It is Vyasa’s follower Vaishampayana who recites the tale. A side-by-side comparison of the Gita with Plato’s earliest Socratic dialogues is quite dramatic. Indeed this dialogue may have been written at the same time as Plato’s, and like his Phaedrus, is often interpreted as an allegory of the soul—where driver, rider, horses, and chariot may represent different elements of the soul on its journey through life. Consider finally that both are overwhelmingly concerned with how to conduct oneself virtuously in an unjust world and you have convergent cultural evolution at the very least. It would be good to know what else those Greeks knew or had learned from other cultures about color, but a global intellectual history of color is beyond the grasp of our current project. Color, along with decoration, must have been a powerful means of transmitting culture, and there is indeed plenty in the record of pottery fragments to document the movements of such patterns and usage



amongst the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean. Artifacts from India may not have arrived frequently enough to have much effect, but it is tempting to look at India’s intellectual legacy and imagine how the Persian Empire may have served as a conduit of ideas to the West. The yogic tradition of meditation arose in the Indus valley civilization long before the emergence of the Greek city states. And though not divorced from religiosity in the signature manner of the pre-Socratic philosophers, meditation does suggest a method of inquiry that skirts dogma and allows for detached observation of the processes of the soul. My own, less densely tangled form came to me accidently, bidden by my messenger Iris, if you will, as a playful

means of bringing the uncertainty about color to life. The reader is invited to consider various perspectives on color in the first person, addressing various thinkers’ work on color in their own voice. Even the voice of those sections given as comments by the author strikes me as something other than my own. Perhaps this too is the work of Iris. The whole, I hope, is suggestive of a necessary ambiguity, while harnessing a kind of collective wisdom. It wouldn’t do to be doctrinaire about the matter of color, as color bumps up against the limits of what we can know. Light, being the means of our knowledge of just about everything, is a difficult thing to observe. Wittgenstein would say it is the limit, and would advise philosophers to go no further.




The Blue

Or a monologue by David Hume, with commentary by the author David Hume (1711–1776) was a Scottish philosopher in the tradition of British Empiricism. In 1748, he published Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding Understanding, which was later retitled An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Understanding. That work contains a famous passage about a “missing” color blue, which seems to contradict his overall philosophical system.


They like to make a debate around my statements on color perception. They call it the “Problem of the Missing Blue.” But the problem is theirs, arising from their over-attention to the structure of my words. As though the topic of my argument was the words themselves and not the sensations I spoke of. I fill up my books with words about experience and so they lose themselves in the words and fail to turn to the experience. They are like Descartes, separating mind from body. They do not read the Ancient Greeks. Philolous, a follower of Pythagoras, said “The body is loved by the soul, because without the body the soul cannot get sense impressions.”

liked to walk along the beautiful rushing streams of my family’s land, and follow them up into the jagged hills. When I say that I walked, I mean that I would head out in the direction of some burbling landmark and then, disconnecting feet from thought, simply meander with the lay of the land, as an ass might, in search of the sweetest tufts of grass. At some unforeseeable moment in this wandering, I would simply cease moving in any direction at all, and then lay myself down to let my senses be filled. And I would wonder: whose senses am I filling?


Dialogues on Color

Those who misread my discussion of the missing blue think of the self as the captain of a ship. They imagine this captain sits not on the bridge, but deep within the hull and awaits reports of conditions outside, relayed to him by his officers. He then gives orders to change course, way anchor, or the like. But here is where they are wrong. The ship has no captain. Thinking occurs within this vessel in the form of the ceaseless activity of its crew. They climb the rigging, scrape the bow, swab the decks, pump out the bilge, hoist sails, run up and down from fore to aft and through all the many decks—all with no choreographer. It is like the dance of bees, performed in the hive. And if one comes along and buzzes about a color of blue that did not come from the eyes, so be it. I merely seek to describe the dance; nothing but a bundle of sensations that follow one upon another with such astounding rapidity and seeming regularity that we assume some singular entity guides it all. This assumption, that we sit apart from these impressions and direct their dance, is founded on nothing but pure superstition. This is what I said in the first place and this is what I said again when they came to me as I lay dying. They came, I suppose, in the hope that


I would soften my tone as the boatman approached. I recall standing with my feet in the piercingly cold water of a mountain brook, watching hawks circle and dive in the sparkling light, hearing the thump of the wind as it turbulently broke upon itself, and smelling the teeming mud. These things seemed sufficient to me then and now, to fill a mind up with all adequate ideas. And ideas not grounded in that spectacle of experience are no better than ghost stories. Cause and effect. God the Father. My very Self. These are props to flatter our vanity; that we are someone, worthy of love, and with our hands on the levers of a predictable world machine. Some have called me a “mere empirical bastard” because I ask for the specific connection between the facts that we have before us and these conclusions they draw. But I am not the first, nor will I be the last. The Sophist Protagoras, who famously said “Man is the measure of all things,” also said, “The soul is nothing apart from senseexperiences, and everything is true.” Or take up another of those Presocratics; we like to translate Heraclitus thus, “A man can not enter the same river twice.” We are impressed by his pointing at the river—at life—and

Prologue: The Blue

castles in the air. Let us build our castles upon the evidence of experience. Yes, our senses can deceive us, and yes, the qualities of things around us are always shifting. But it is the senses themselves that have allowed us to note these pitfalls. We think of these Empiricists as the most scientifically objective of philosophers, adhering only to what the evidence shows. So when empirical study at length causes us to doubt the very reality of cause and effect—and then to doubt the reality of our very selves—we are compelled to ask: “How did we get here?” Appearing in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Understanding, Hume’s infamous “problem of the missing blue” is simply this: Having comprehensively presented his radical version of Empiricism, he then posits a simple test case and gives, as it seems to his readers, the wrong answer. The principle at stake is simply that all of our adequate ideas—those that don’t arise from our imagination— come to us from our experiences. He then ponders the case of an individual who, having seen every possible shade of blue except one, imagines that missing blue. Hume wonders if that person could call up the image of the one

fearlessly embracing its ever-changing nature. But what is it that is in flux? Now it is one thing and then it is another. The river is no longer the river. Consider then that our translation does not even do full justice to Heraclitus’ radical insight, deep and quarrelsome old file that he was. For he was closer to saying, “A man enters the river and does not enter the river.” Or “A river is not entered twice by a man.” Which is to say, though I can call up the memory of my walk yesterday, I am not he! I am not that man who entered the river. I am a river, ever flowing, never the same me twice. There is no man. There is no river. There is only the problematical blue. ... When one begins to study the British Empiricist philosophers—chiefly Locke, Berkeley, and Hume—it seems to be the most ploddingly pragmatic mode of thought possible. They are eager to avoid debates about the number of angels dancing on a pin, as some would characterize the metaphysical gropings of much other philosophy. They simply say that sound thinking does not rest upon thinking alone, for that is building


Dialogues on Color

blue they had never seen. He has just persuaded his reader that the answer should be no. And then he says yes. Hume’s interpreters suggest several solutions to this problem, each of them an unsatisfactory compromise. In the monologue above we have imagined a Hume who is simply more radical and quixotic than one generally supposes from his treatises. There is some justification for this. For his radicalism indeed there is ample proof, for he stated openly many doubts about God, the self, and the logical foundation of cause and effect. As for his being quixotic—that he might have played games at our expense—we have merely that he kept his cards close to his chest, being particularly inscrutable in terms of his emotional life. Given that he also declared that reason is the servant of the emotions this is at least intriguing. Though indeed the Empiricists start out seeming to champion a dry and pragmatic objective science, their eventual repudiation of everything but sensory experience brings them into an odd compatibility with more subjective approaches. There is, however, a much more pedestrian solution to the problem of the missing blue. We might simply

suppose that this power to summon up an unseen blue was, for Hume, the same capacity we have to discover new numbers. We learn the number two from seeing two eggs. We learn the number five from seeing five. We are furthermore capable of drumming up the number seven by combining these ideas, even if we never saw seven eggs. If that is all there is to this mystery about blue, then Hume joins a considerable contingent of color scientists whose first and greatest member was Isaac Newton, thinkers for whom the things that matter about color are the things you can quantitatively measure. Twentieth century physicists have found those to be wavelength, brightness, and admixture with other colors. Hume would simply be a more radical version of this quantitative perspective, one that asserts that even the qualitative impression—what it is like to see a certain blue—is reducible to number. As the Empiricists began with an emphasis on experience as the path to knowledge, they logically were concerned with perception. But if we ask what their theory of perception was, we soon run into questions about the perceiver. Not accepting the abstractions of pure reason as any kind


Prologue: The Blue

the question of what color is and what different people of different cultures have made of it, from seemingly limitless angles. But those angles tend to form patterns. There are many who would dismiss color as an illusion, an unreliable and mercurial bit of flux. There are others who see color as a gateway to greater truth, a spiritual reality that transcends the mechanical world and gives it meaning. Color is a pivot point between our inner and outer worlds and thus is contested ground in debates about what exists and how we can come to know what exists. Many threads of philosophical inquiry lead to grave doubts about the existence of much we take for granted, or else they lead to a dismissal of much of the philosophical project. Color is one of those cases whose reality stares us in the face, but about which we find there is little we can coherently say.

of insight, they discover remarkably little evidence of any such perceiver, only the many perceptions. So who is it that sees in their mind’s eye this blue their physical eyes never saw? We come back to Hume’s reduction of the self to a mere “bundle of impressions.” The position is straightforward enough, but the puzzle lies in the imaginative powers he endows this bundle with. For here we have a teeming hive of impressions that somehow summons the creative ability to reason, to experience a neverseen blue, and to dream up a self. He even imbued this bundle with a kind of free will, rooted in a capacity for undetermined spontaneity. He rejected the so-called paradox of Buridan’s ass which, finding itself equidistant from two equally tempting morsels of food, starves to death for want of a sufficient cause to choose one over the other. Thinkers of all stripes, ranging from Aristotle to Warhol, approach



The Rainbow

Or a dialogue between Aristotle and Alexander, with commentary by the author Aristotle (384–322 BCE) was a Greek philosopher and student of Plato. Less disposed to immaterial forms than his forebears, Aristotle’s account of vision attained a level of physiological nuance that was new to Hellenistic thought. His color theory went unchallenged in the West until the time of Newton. Alexander (356–323 BCE) was a student of Aristotle.


Crack went the outer door and the Philosopher paused, looking up towards the entrance across from him which had a deep, covered patio jutting into the square of the garden. Sun streamed through the opening door and cast a boy’s shadow, like a spear, into the midst of the quadrangle—his sandaled feet slapping the paving stones as he sprinted out into view. With a scritch of dirt he pulled up, standing erect just within the shaded section, and held his hand to his brow to take in the scene. “Master, are you there? Am I late?” “I am here,” replied the teacher, and looked to the small orange flowers that always closed by mid-morning. “And you are just in time.” The boy was tall for his age— nearly the same height as

he Philosopher walked steadily about the perimeter of the garden within the grounds of the Temple of the Nymphs, ignoring the things about him as best he could. He was focusing his thoughts on their own activity, trying to perceive what he could of the elements of his soul. By soul, he had decided, he meant his awareness. The columns of the arcade cast regular shadows on the south and west sides, which distracted him a little, and also regulated his distraction in a manageable way. So he paced these two sides of the square only. The gardener there was a Persian slave, and this secluded space held some resemblance to his idea of eternity.


Dialogues on Color

he—and beautiful. The boy fell into step beside his tutor, matching his master’s steady tempo. “You have been riding, Alexander?” The boy nodded. “Good. The weather is fine. The horses can rest as the sun draws higher. Now, your father would have you trade physical training for the training of your soul.” “Sight is the soul of the eye,” recited the boy. “Certainly, and swiftness the soul of a prince’s horse.” At which the Prince smiled. “Tomorrow I will ride all day with friends, switching horses when they tire. How far do you suppose I will get?” The teacher tilted his head up, doing sums, and grunted, “You should be able to cover half the length of Macedon, or half that, if you wish to return.” They turned about at the end of the row of shadows, and he stopped the boy with a gesture, regarding him appraisingly. “And tomorrow is your fourteenth birthday, which is why you have liberty to travel so far. So today you choose your topic of instruction. You may ask and we will discuss it—whatever you fancy.” They resumed their walk, the effort of thinking apparent in the boy’s expression. “I’d like to talk about the movements of troops in battle, but that

is one of the things others fill me up with.” They turned at the corner and continued the length of the south side before he spoke again. “On my last birthday we went into the mountains and we witnessed a terrific rainstorm from above the clouds.” His dark, wide eyes seemed to show lightning deep within. “I saw the whole valley in a tumult, and as the sun moved west behind me, I saw a marvelous rainbow suspended before the storm—more perfect than any I have ever seen.” He looked up at his teacher as they reached the turning again. “Tell me about the rainbow. What it is, if anything.” “Why do you say that, as if you doubt the rainbow’s reality?” “Only that it is not like other things we see. It is there and then it isn’t—but not because it ran off, like some animal. And in other ways it is like a hallucination. Though truth be told, not only I saw it. Every one of our party remarked on it. I do not think hallucinations from drinking or dreaming, or from any other cause, can be apprehended by more than the one individual they come to.” “Very good. And what of these others who saw your rainbow—what did they say of it?”


The Rainbow

“They said it was good, and an omen for me on my birthday.” “What did this omen say? Did they tell you?” “That my rule would be as perfect as the rainbow we beheld. For this rainbow was like others but greater, in that it was a full circle, and not just an arc—or so it seemed to me.” “If you saw a circular rainbow, then you saw a circular rainbow. One cannot be wrong about what one sees, only about what one asserts about what one sees.” “Like the omen those men claimed to read in it?” His elder nodded in reply. “Though there was one there who said more. The blind man my father carries with him for his insight. That one said that because the rainbow came to me on my thirteenth birthday, my reign would be thirteen years.” He frowned. “Is thirteen a long time, do you think?” “Any length is sufficient unto itself if you live it well, I would think. Even a moment.” “It’s only that I want to achieve much. More even than my father.” “You will achieve much in this life, I believe, but only if you do not race to do it. You should seek the mean, avoiding excess, or you will be tripped up.” The boy kicked the dirt, but did not speak or


look angry. His eyes were always steady. “But what about the rainbow? Tell me what it is. What does it mean?” “The rainbow comes about from sun and rain. So it is, in a sense, only like all color which arises from light and dark, white and black.” He gestured to the garden. “Too much white or black destroys the sight, just as too much sunlight or too much shade destroys these plants. But these destructive opposites are creative when mixed in various proportions. Though there are countless potential colors, it is this proportion that makes them actual in a given case. As the elements in harmony bring forth so many different forms of plants, with a multitude of different properties and uses, so light and dark bring not just one kind of color between them, but many—of different natures and affecting us in different ways.” “The sunrise too? And the sunset? Do these not show color emerging from light and dark?” “Yes, and I recall you have heard some of this before. You are right that when the sun rises into the sky, or again is overtaken by darkness, it produces many colors in just this manner. The rainbow is only a particularly complete display of this action. And this action relies not

Dialogues on Color

only on rain and sun, as I said before, but also on your eyes. For though the colored objects in this garden have not actualized their color until we see them, even more so is the rainbow without color—being no object at all.” “But that is what troubles me. What thing is the rainbow if, as you say, and as I suspected, there would be nothing there if we were to trouble ourselves to go and touch it?” “That is indeed hard to say. But surely you don’t believe only in things you can touch?” “No, Master, not at all. There are the forms after all. And the mathematical objects. I swear these things are real.” “As to forms, that is a complicated problem. Let us say that these objects of thought exist potentially until thought actualizes them. But still, you should trust that the rainbow is real, too. And the rainbow, being an object of the senses, exists only potentially until actualized by seeing. And I have said that a sensation is always true. If you see a white object and think it is a horse, you cannot be wrong that you see something white, only perhaps that what you see is a horse. Just so, but only much more so, is the rainbow. Being essentially only a sensation of sight, brought about

directly by the elements in the storm— fire and water and air—the rainbow does not pretend to be a rainbow-colored something, about which you might be deceived—it only is those colors you see.” “But I have been fooled by it, Master. I have wanted to chase after such things. This is what concerns me.” “I see the issue then. You are weighing your future, what you even believe this omen says. And your ambitions are great, I know. But you have learned that some ambitions are foolhardy and this is good. You were not wrong, nor could you be, in seeing a rainbow. But like many do, you erred in attributing a connection between this sight and some colored object. You have gathered, nonetheless, that had you descended into the rain-swept valley you would not have found the rainbow there?” “Yes, I guess one knows this, but there is a temptation.” “Like the Siren for Odysseus and his men. They knew they should not seek out that music, but were entranced by it.” “Can we sit, Master?” He smiled, and gestured to a bench in dappled sunlight. “You have been very active. You should rest.”


The Rainbow

As they sat, the young man asked, “Can you tell me more precisely about the rainbow?” “Certainly, what little more I know. If the garden were to receive rain just now, with sun still angling in as it does at this time of day, it would be simple enough to go find your rainbow. You would position yourself so that the sun is behind you, as it was on that mountain, and look through the rain at the darkness clinging to the columns over there. They are opposite the sun but shielded from it by the roof. So you are looking into darkness with the sun at your back, and a screen of water before you. The water responds to the materials of color, light and dark. And it throws these colors back towards the sun, but at an angle to your vision. In fact, the shadow of your head always falls directly in the center of the rainbow, so that it appears in a perfect arc around that center. And the width of the arc is fixed. Of the whole vista, encircling you all around, the arc takes up two-ninths. The farther off the rain is, the more vast will the bow seem to you.” “But the others, they see it there too?” “No, they do not see precisely the same rainbow that you see, they each see their own rainbow, centered around

their own head’s shadow. At such great distances as you viewed it last year, the difference in location between your rainbow and the rainbow seen by any of your companions would have been too small to notice. I must say as well, I doubt your rainbow was perfectly complete. I see that you frown as I say it, but the shadow of the mountain you stood upon would necessarily take up a portion of the arc. Although in the haze of the storm this may not have been clear. I believe only birds, and other creatures with flight, can position themselves where a perfectly circular rainbow can be seen. But here in the garden, you could demonstrate that the rainbow is always centered on yourself. Simply take a pace or two to the left and then to the right again. You will see that the rainbow follows you around.” “Like the moon! It too follows me as I ride, appearing behind each hill or tree I pass in just the same place.” He pointed to the memory of a moon over his shoulder, but then frowned. His teacher frowned too, and shook his head vaguely. “I see I will need to work out all of this, these puzzles of vision, more thoroughly for you—and for myself. But no, I do not think the similarity there means what you might


Dialogues on Color

think. The moon has other features that make it of a different class. It, like the sun, is unique in the heavens. It is steadier and more predictable by far, than the rainbow. Indeed, a fixed rainbow might alarm those who gaze at the heavens as much as an eclipse does. I would assert that the sun and the moon are not only sensations of the eye, but are in fact objects we see. The rainbow is not an object like those things. The rainbow is in fact scattered all about the landscape, perhaps to infinite points in space, but only as a potentiality. It requires a viewer to make it actual, as I said.” “That is why the rainbow still troubles me. How it appears to be something before my eyes, but is only in them.” “Perhaps it would not be too misleading for you to take it as something like the omen your friends claimed it was. Iris is a divine messenger, yes? The rainbow you see is only for you, after all. And your attraction to it is well linked to your attraction to a certain future glory. The purpose for which you were born draws you towards it. It is your end cause, just as the oak tree is the end cause of the acorn.” The two sat quietly for some

minutes, and the air in the garden grew pleasantly cooler. Clouds shifted overhead, and then a gentle rain began to fall. The Philosopher smiled, a touch of irony in his eyes, and gestured into the garden. “Well, my Prince, here is the rain we asked for. Great omens seem to follow you all your days. Go ahead now, find that place where you can watch the sunlight pierce the darkness. Find your rainbow and today’s lesson will be complete.” ... It is hoped that these dialogues will serve to bring to life the perplexing issues and arguments that have always accompanied any consideration of color. We want to have a dialogue with Aristotle and his fellow enquirers into color, which traces the story of thought about color even as it dissolves its temporal barriers. Such an effort comes with obvious pitfalls. First, it is risky to place words in the mouth of Aristotle, he is both too great and too distant to be imitated lightly. This may be why we chose to refer to him here only by his honorific “The Philosopher” and why we find him and his student outside of normal time and space—in a garden on the model of the ancient Near East,


The Rainbow

where indeed King Phillip II assigned him a place to teach. A second pitfall is that centuries of Scholastics have already put words in Aristotle’s mouth. Indeed, centuries of academic convention still conspire to put his name on the cover of contemporary editions of On Colours, a text scholars agree was not written by him at all. Nevertheless, the impact of this philosopher’s work—the way others have taken it—is as relevant to such an intellectual history as his actual writings. So we find the Philosopher in his garden contemplating his soul, by which he seems to mean something other than we tend to mean today. An older, more Greek idea of the soul was that something is absent upon death that was there before. And this something, this “essential whatness of the body,” must be immaterial—as the body remains in all of its parts. They had every reason to consider the mind and all it contained of reason, imagination and so forth, to be this something. It was only as the more mechanistic worldview of the sixteenth century began to account for all processes that could be observed— even those of the mind—that we began to think of the soul as something even

more rarefied and ineffable than our collection of thoughts and thought processes. Alexander’s arrival allows us to turn our attention to the rainbow. The rainbow makes a good starting place for an examination of Aristotle’s work because it allows some explication of much that he did say about optics, while also taking us straight to issues that cause some difficulty in applying his color theory. Consider this quote on color and rainbows from Aristotle’s Meteorology. Clearly, then, when sight is reflected it is weakened and, as it makes the dark look darker, so it makes white look less white, changing it and bringing it nearer to black. When the sight is relatively strong the change is to red; the next stage is green, and a further degree of weakness gives violet. No further change is visible, but three completes the series of colors (as we find three does in most other things). . . . Hence the rainbow appears with three colors.

We can see here much probing, but also some confusion in Aristotle’s theory. There are his attempts to order colors by strength, and placing them between white and black which he believes are the


Dialogues on Color

source of all color. These efforts strike us as odd, but perhaps only because our own thinking is so influenced by Newton. But he also shows faith in the numerological significance of the number three, and describes sight as something that is weakened as it moves along optical paths, is reflected, and so forth. This (oddly for him) follows an earlier Greek idea called extramissionism, which held that sight is emitted by the eyes, rather than received. In these difficulties Aristotle has plenty of company, as the rainbow is at the heart of questions as to what color is, how it comes to be, where it is (“out there” vs. “in here”), and the reality of its qualitative properties. The Aristotelian Approach Aristotle’s discussion with Alexander already allows us to point to many chief characteristics of his color theory and of his philosophy in general, which are very much intertwined. We see the careful attention he paid to all the variations within a given subject, in which he is always ready to note differences between cases that call for a refinement of theory. We also see his interest in accounting for each thing from a variety of “causes.”

Some of these are simply what elements go into the making of a thing. Thus a rainbow is caused by sun and rain, or fire and water. Another of Aristotle’s causes we call the “effective cause.” These are precipitating forces, and appear closest to our notion of cause and effect. But Aristotle is taking a longer view, pointing to the father as the cause of the son, for instance. Our contemporary, rather-Newtonian notion of cause and effect is focused on the relationship between two billiard balls colliding. The effective cause is more like pondering the connection between billiard balls and billiard ball factories. Perhaps most characteristic is his interest in “end causes” or teleology. Alexander is a prince, and so his end cause is the king he will be. More sweepingly, his end cause is his destiny, that of a great general. This end cause is so near to the ancient Greek notions of essence and virtue that, for us, the concepts seem to superimpose. So we humans are unique among animals in our ability to reason, in which therefore is bound up an idea of our essence, our soul, our purpose, and our end cause. Our contemporary perspective, employing a conventionally Newtonian explanation of events, renders such


The Rainbow

talk of end causes quite absurd. But empiricists like Hume, philosophers of science more generally, and others like Wittgenstein are all quite convinced that our conception of cause and effect—we might call this an interest in “beginning causes”—are just as ill-supported as end causes. Neither of these conventions, they say, has any claim to either empirical data or logical necessity. An Emphasis on Physiology and Sense Data Perhaps most crucial to our subject is Aristotle’s physiological, or biological focus. He takes up color by considering the organ that senses it, and considers the effect of color upon it and the purpose of its processes from that standpoint. This seems straightforward enough—the eye is what brings this subject to our attention, after all—but later thinkers like Galileo and Newton will prefer to consider color as it is in the complete absence of any perceiver or organ of perception. Their objective stance allows them to say more than he about the quantifiable, sub-visible causes of color. But Aristotle’s approach allows him to speak about what it is like to see color. It even allows him to discuss

beauty—something for which Newton’s apparatus could find no place. From this biological foundation, he makes use of a common train of thought for him, that of the mean and excess. Although some of the oppositions he sets up—as between health and its absence— clearly place a value at one extreme, he generally notes that the mean between two extremes is healthful, beneficial, prudent, beautiful, and wise. Ultimately his notion that color arises from an interaction of light and dark, or white and black, would rule over color theory for over two thousand years, until Newton’s Opticks proposed an entirely different framework. We also see here that Aristotle is setting up a contrast between his own interpretation of the subject and that of his teacher Plato. A key distinction is his insistence that the senses do not lead us into error, but are instead the greatest authority as to the processes of individuals. This is a special use of the word “individual,” as Aristotle is deliberately setting up a dialectic with the universals of Plato. Aristotle considers knowledge of these individuals, gained through the senses, as being on par with Plato’s Forms. He makes a distinction between


Dialogues on Color

the reliability of the senses and the errors of judgment we make about the senses when we attribute one sensation to another or one sense to another sense. Indeed, he equates this task of connecting various sense data together with the task of drawing connections between various ideas, or objects of thought. Neither the data of sense (the whiteness we see) nor the object of thought (the species of animal we call a horse) is ever false, but the way we connect the two may well be false (Socrates is a man vs. Socrates is a horse). As we will soon see, this is decidedly not the approach taken by Plato. Potential Rainbows and Other Real Things On then to these difficulties in color theory that are so evident in the rainbow, being not so much a colored something as simply a color event. One problem is ontological—what sort of reality do we ascribe to color? The other is epistemological—how is it that we come to know what we know about color? Aristotle seems determined, in our dialogue, to ignore the ontological paradoxes (he never had much patience for Xeno)—though he and his pupil do frown now and again

as they wrestle with their topic. He does introduce the potent tools, however, of potential and actualized rainbows. These he again parallels with objects of thought, which have a certain reality even when not being actively thought of, or “actualized.” When conditions are right there are apparently infinite potential rainbows all about us, but only as many actualized rainbows as there are advantageously situated witnesses. Both sorts of rainbow are given their own status as somehow real. As for the epistemological issue— Aristotle’s emphasis is on the organism. He seeks to explain how it is that the eye comes to see things, and so “know them” at a distance. In much of Aristotle, we can almost hear him talking with those philosophers who will follow him— even as he very directly addresses those who preceded him. Wittgenstein, for example, would say in his Remarks on Colour that there is no such thing as phenomenology, but there are phenomenological problems. This is certainly one of those problems, and Aristotle seems to foreshadow Wittgenstein in pointing the finger at the words we use to discuss our topic.


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Consider this passage at the end of On the Soul Soul, Book II, Chapter 5: . . . a thing may be said to be potential in either of two senses. . . . There are no separate names for the two stages of potentiality. . . . We cannot help using the incorrect terms ‘being acted upon or altered’ of the two transitions involved. As we have said, what has the power of sensation is potentially like what the perceived object is actually.

Here we see that Aristotle blames some of the problem of color on people using the same word for different states of color that have very different essences. His overriding concept of perception is that the sensing organ is actually unlike, but potentially like, the object of perception until it is actualized by the act of perceiving. Thus the eye, observing color, becomes itself colored. ... “Your senses deceive you,” I had told the man, a servant in the house of a wealthy merchant from my homeland. But it was I who was played false by time and hard fate, and by this slave’s hair, which had turned white since last we had lain down together in our youth. I and the other guests were well into our cups when this old friend’s hand, which was lovely once,

sought out my own and pleaded—did I not remember him or any of the others? “The others?” I replied, aghast, and felt my stomach churn as I recalled the faces in the background throughout that long evening. I saw their lingering glances again as the night’s events played over in my mind. The slaves in this household, who I had scarcely noticed, were friends and acquaintances from my childhood in Stageira. That town that Phillip II, King of Macedon, had razed for being headed by the wrong families. “What of the others?” I asked. Sold into slavery like us, he said, or long dead. “What of the one we both knew, who was beloved by everyone?” Too beautiful. King Phillip’s officers used him for pleasure until he died. Earlier that evening our host had laughed about the three thousand whom Phillip had captured in battle. They had lain down their arms too willingly, he decided, so he had them all slaughtered. That is great power and great wealth, to be able to throw away a fortune in soldiers or slaves. This was a few years ago, during the time just before Plato’s death, when Phillip cast a long shadow. And though he was not ruler in Athens, many thought it good in those days to cultivate friends from Macedon. It was


Dialogues on Color

not long after that I took employment from this King, and met my Prince. ... I do not blame my teacher for turning away from the rough mechanisms of this world, and placing his faith (if I may call it that) in universals, those things whose insensible reality is so much more certain than the processes of individuals. Plato always did have a certain Pythagorean sympathy anyway. You might say that his mind was potentially given to spiritual subjects regardless of what accidents occurred in his own life. And then he did suffer that supreme accident, the loss of the truest friend Athens ever had, at the hands of the city itself. In this way, his own potential inclination towards the spiritual was actualized by his revulsion to that ignorance so common in conventional thought. So he pursued the truth with partial blinders on, never consciously ignoring such evidence as came before him, but often unaware of the significance of the particularities around him. Alexander knows that allure too; of the certainty that Plato’s universal forms offer to those who would keep their mind on them alone. But Alexander is a

practical creature. And while he enjoys frequent flights of imagination and even strenuous mental challenges, he soon loops back to questions of force. Where best to apply it and in what manner to achieve a desired end. He seems to be focusing his whole being on where best to throw his stone, so that a city might be brought down. And though he doesn’t know it, the student’s effort has taught the teacher something in this. For I have bent my mind to his nature in many ways, even as I sought to bend his to the purpose of his reasoning capacities—that which is divine in him—while not neglecting the animal he also is. For we are centaurs, as they say, an immortal spark joined to an animal nature. Plato would have the higher gain complete ascendancy over the lower and make kings of philosophers. But this is neither possible nor wise. Yes, I have told the boy that wisdom comes from the examination of universals, of first causes. But success depends upon our attention to individual cases—attention to the accidental properties of the things at hand. This I learned from my first teacher, my father, who was a physician. As his fifteenth birthday approached, I returned Alexander to the topic of the


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rainbow and more generally to color, as a reminder of those earlier anniversaries. I had already put before him all that has been said on the subject of color by Plato and others, and I found him prepared to argue some minor points. He seemed to await the moment when I took up Plato’s idea of a subtle flame emitted by the eye in order to see what is before it, contending, as I have, that this cannot be, else we would see at night. The Prince argued that this may be true of Empedocles, who spoke of eyes like lanterns, but that Plato had in mind a means by which the eye might activate that other subtle fire which comes from the sun. This activated substance creates the medium, therefore, by which still a third flame, this emanating from each colored object around us, may transmit its color to the eye. When added to a certain brightness, it might pierce the pores of the eye and bring forth fire and water in the form of tears. My student was adamant that this was all necessary to explain the action, at a distance, that is sight. Well, as I have told him often, I love both Plato and the truth above all things, but the truth must be preferred. And the truth is, Plato never fully believed in the reality of this

mechanism of his. He considered all this a suggestion of “mere probability� and asserted that no more could or should be asked of such investigations. For my part, I would simply say that when discussing how colors come about, the endless variety of cases we might encounter necessarily do limit how much we can know and what methods we might best employ. But perception remains the greatest authority we have for inquiring into the nature of individuals and their processes. And sight is the greatest of the senses. Are not men made to desire the acquisition of knowledge? And do not the senses delight us precisely because they bring us such vivid reports of the world around us? As to the physical mechanism of sight, I prefer simplicity. Plato seems not to recognize that the air around us is its own noble element, and is substance enough. And because he does not recognize this, he fills the air up with that subtle fire, that is light, in not one or two but three directions! Well, his interest in acknowledging the role of the eye in the activation of color is worthy. There are many who forget that the eye plays a role, and is itself colored, in a sense. But examine your soul closely and


Dialogues on Color

watch, as it were, your own watchfulness. You will acknowledge that when we see we do not only see, but also perceive that we are seeing. This is good, for the supreme Mind likewise thinks of itself. And its thought is thought about thought. The sophists also bedeviled my Prince, and various other philosophers, whose seeds of doubt he found persuasive in the case of colors. Well they take advantage of ambiguous terms and other indistinctions in the ways we discuss color. For we have just this word color to apply to cases which are not the same in essence. A glass of wine may be potentially light or dark, sweet or bitter. If no one sees it, is it light? If no one drinks of it, is it sweet? And if I set it on the window ledge and say, “Look, before it was dark but now it is light.” Have I been deceived? Or again if I drink it before a meal of red meat and call it bitter, and afterwards I drink again and say it is sweet, does this reveal some falsity in nature? Clearly it does not. Only the sophists point to these things in nature, which are indeed changeable, and cry out that knowledge cannot be found or that all opinions are therefore equal. This is a trick for schoolchildren, but not for men endowed with reason.

The distinction that clarifies these issues is that between potential states and those that are actualized. For when we say an object has a color, we are sometimes referring to the object and sometimes to what we see when we look at it. Objects may be potentially white, for instance, but often these are also potentially black. Just as my body has the potential for health and the potential for a lack of health. In general there is a property, its privation, and some material. White, black, and a surface. Light, dark, and air. For I have said that color is made from this interaction, and all of the myriad colors that we may find in nature are in fact derived from these as a consequence of mathematical interactions. Not only those four—black, white, red, and yellow—so often spoken of as a sort of set of essential colors, but also many others whose number exceed our names for them. We take it that nature does nothing in vain, and omits nothing that is necessary. Therefore if we look into what nature has provided our souls and our bodies, and how it has equipped our souls to attain knowledge of nature and then in turn to act upon nature, we will find all that we need to understand the


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senses and their operation. We must attend to the organism, and observe how it senses the world through touch, smell, hearing, taste, and especially sight. Each of these senses is a kind of ratio that perceives the properties of those things it is adapted to in terms of proportion and harmony. The senses find harmonies pleasant because they are well-proportioned mixtures that do not overwhelm the organ with an extreme of one kind or another. But give the mouth too much sweet to taste, or the eye too much light or darkness, and the sense organ itself is harmed, and the body and mind disturbed. A pure sweet taste, or a pure and perfect musical note, are pleasing, but only when not prolonged too long—and best when placed within a harmony. For a high and a low note together are more pleasing than either of them on their own. But what is the final cause of this process? What is its proper end? Delight in itself is not the goal, but is a sound instrument for steering by the mean. And if ever the body begins to take delight in that which is bad for it— generally an excessive fondness for any one thing, be it sweet things or loud noises—this is in turn a sign of ill health and a call for treatment. The end cause

is greater knowledge, about which the mind may exercise its reasoning and to which the man may entrust his success. As to my Prince, I only worry that his idea of the mean and of excess may be out of balance with my own and with the world’s. His father’s own great ambition to unify the Greeks and invade Persia, which once seemed utterly reckless now appears to be close at hand. The King has some understanding of balance. Alternating slaughter and diplomacy, he often turns those he defeats to his own cause, throwing them upon their former allies. When he sought me as tutor for his heirs, I requested that he restore Stageira and buy back the freedom of its citizens, which he did. In this way, he claimed some of the wisdom of Athens for his court, and showed the world that his mercy is preferable to his anger. For destroying some and raising up others is as natural to the state, and thus to a king, as the processes of growth and decay are to an animal. But the many-omened boy, nearly a man, Alexander, is of a different nature altogether. As foolhardy as he is convincing, he speaks of seeking out the wisdom of the East as casually as he speaks of killing. He coolly imagines the removal of his cousin Amyntas, a


Dialogues on Color

potential rival for the throne. And he just as openly discusses establishing libraries of Greek thought in Egypt. He asks me lately about India, as if he were to travel there tomorrow and wishes to know whom to seek out. I tell him what little I know. That they spend much time in contemplation of their souls and of universal forms, and adhere to our concept of reincarnation. That they are great mathematicians and astronomers. That their holy scriptures are said to be like the works of Homer, full of the difficulty of living correctly in this world. These stories are centered about a great and cataclysmic battle that must end one world and begin another. This boy’s imaginings may seem harmonious to him, but they are an excess to my delicate mind. Proof enough that philosophers are not made like kings. Last night I dreamed of my Prince, and I dreamed of libraries in the four corners of the earth. And then I dreamed of a fire that burned them all. The Problem of Studying Sensation

where truth and falsity are laid bare. Before Plato, Democritus sought out the deep recesses of a cave in order to “make trial of his senses.” Descartes is supposed to have secluded himself in a bread oven, the better to keep at bay the deceiving demon of sensory data. Newton conducted his famed experiments with the prism within a dark room in order to get closer to the truth that lies beneath the appearances of color. And Poe imagined many times what we would see were we buried alive, sealed off behind a brick wall or trapped in the bottom of a deep pit. For Plato we are all the proverbial boy in the well, but the darkness all about us is our own ignorance and the falsity of our senses. In Plato’s Timaeus, we find him struggling to give some account of the senses nevertheless—and doing so with his own genius and ability to rise above the set manner of previous philosophers. As here, where he takes what begins as a mechanistic explanation of sight and flips it, turning it inwards to explain dreams: For when the eyelids, which the gods invented for the preservation of sight, are closed, they keep in the internal fire; and the power of the fire diffuses and equalises the inward

Plato’s cave of illusions, his powerful analogy from the Republic Republic, stands in a long tradition of blackened chambers sealed off from the outside world,


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motions; when they are equalised, there is rest . . . ; but where the greater motions still remain . . . they engender corresponding visions in dreams, which are remembered by us when we are awake and in the external world.

Plato performs a similarly ilarly clever synchronization of inner and outer worlds through the mechanism of sight in a nearby passage in the Timaeus. Sight, he says, shows us the higher order of the heavens, by whose example we might bring greater order to our own lives: This much let me say however: God invented and gave us sight to the end that we might behold the courses of intelligence in the heaven, and apply them to the courses of our own intelligence which are akin to them . . . ; and that we, learning them and partaking of the natural truth of reason, might imitate the absolutely unerring courses of God and regulate our own vagaries.

Both Plato and Aristotle appear to be concerned, as their predecessors were, with how change can come about in what is real. And they both want to explain how an image of an object gets from that object to our senses—and feel that there must be a continuous chain of substance and action connecting the

two. He and Aristotle are both familiar with a set of colors—black, white, red, and yellow—that were taken as essential in some way by Greek tradition. Plato seems to want to use three essential colors—black, white, and red—along with other qualities we tend not to call “color” such as bright and translucent. In Meteorology, Aristotle describes a rich palette of colors that are created by a complex series of interactions between white and black, the two colors he considers most essential. Though Plato is sympathetic to the spiritual and geometric raptures of Pythagoras, he also adopts something of the mechanistic atomization of Democritus. This occurs in the Timaeus—a text not widely celebrated by Plato scholars, nor perhaps by Plato himself. He notes that any effort to gain knowledge of something so quixotic as the senses can only hope to achieve “probability,” not certainty. He senses in the atoms a means of ascribing some degree of underlying reality to the world around us, while differentiating between those invisibly minute causes and the things we see. He concludes that each object about us pours forth a continuous effluence of particles which interact with those from the sun and


Dialogues on Color

from our eye. A portion of this atomistic explanation of color serves to illustrate the whole: They are called by the general name of colours, and are a flame which emanates from every sort of body, and has particles corresponding to the sense of sight. . . . Of the particles coming from other bodies which fall upon the sight, some are smaller and some are larger, and some are equal to the parts of the sight itself.

The ancient Greek notion that the eye sees by means of rays it sends forth (extramissionism) stuck around well into the Middle Ages before being overtaken by the Aristotelian view that objects send rays into our eyes (intramissionism). In some ways extramissionism is much the simpler theory—more elegant because it supposed the eye has unique properties rather than every object in the universe having the power to project a simulacra of itself to every point in space around it. This is the view, nutty at first reading, Leonardo da Vinci articulates when he tells us that objects throw off infinite pyramids of light. Renaissance scholars got that concept, and the conviction that it was true, from the great Arabic optician Alhazen, and today we still use

this explanation, substituting “cones” and “conic sections” for his pyramids of light. So how does the eye actualize this jumble of light into an image? The geometry of vision, seen in the eye but also in a camera obscura, is quite simple. The pupil is the window to a dark room, but rather than being wide open— letting in not an image but a flood of white light—it is a single open point. This point in turn selects only a single ray from each point in the scene before it. Imagine a rod, with one end resting on a given point in that scene, projecting through the pupil and terminating in a reversed position (up is down, left is right) on the retina within. All other rays from that point are excluded, and clarity is attained. The experience of entering a camera obscura, the roomsized dark cave that is a model of the eye, has often been called magical. The Discovery of the Camera Obscura The ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi first documented the camera obscura in the fifth century BCE. And though his observation is much more thorough than anything the Greeks give us, it is possible that this knowledge was


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transmitted from China to the Greeks. At any rate, about a century after Mozi, Aristotle would comment on the way light from the sun passing through small gaps (between leaves, basket weaving, etc.) forms a circle of light on the ground, and that a sun in eclipse produced a sickle of light. “Camera obscura” literally means “dark room” and the images created within that darkened chamber are both vivid and shockingly immaterial. We can imagine Plato there, playing with light and shadow in the eye that is a camera obscura. He discovers the geometric predictability of sight—but also its fugitive, illusory nature—and he forms in that moment his metaphor of the cave as a chamber of benighted ignorance. Chromophilia at the Hellenistic Watershed Turning to Aristotle’s color theory and considering it from a twentyfirst century perspective, its most salient feature is its insistence that color is absolutely a good and a means to knowledge. The opening lines of Aristotle’s Metaphysics are a ringing endorsement of the value of the senses (and sight above all) in attaining knowledge and thereby living virtuously:

All men by nature desire to have knowledge. An indication of this is the delight that we take in the senses; quite apart from the use that we make of them, we take delight in them for their own sake, and more than of any other this is true of the sense of sight.

This stands in contrast to a traditionwithin-a-tradition in our own culture that associates color with the irrational, sensual, and mysterious—as well as the feminine, gender disruptive, and alien. David Batchelor coins the term “chromophobic” to describe Western color attitudes. It is tempting to pin these attitudes on Plato, whose distrust of the senses is clear enough, or on medieval scholastics whose church doctrine imagined Eve seduced by a forbidden fruit that was “lust for the eyes.” But it is just as feasible to blame Newton, whose work strove to banish the color that we see as an actual experience to the realm of fantasy and illusion. By way of contrast, a religiously inclined astronomer today might be tempted to ascribe the benign work of an unseen hand to the tool that light and color provide for us in understanding the shape, origin, and destiny of our entire universe. We return shortly to Aristotle, who


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might have agreed with our imagined astronomer from the scientific future. His sojourn in the north, away from the cultural capital of Athens, is coming to an end. There is not much historical evidence that his relationship with Alexander was formative, but we prefer to suppose each was shaped by the other like good dialecticians. This interval as a royal tutor occurred, after all, between his stints as a student of Plato and then as the founder of a rival school to Plato’s Academy. It is plausible that the task of teaching in the backwoods of Macedon provided a necessary opportunity to digest, reflect, and generate a mature and independent philosophy—free from his teacher’s academicism. It is also possible, but wholly speculative, that Aristotle sensed the incompatibility of the world that was the golden age of Athens and the world that Alexander was preparing to inaugurate. We find our philosopher at a turning point for himself and for civilization, and he is both inspired and troubled. He encounters his own revelation from a dark cave—which has a sort of drunken rapturous force comparable to the oracle at Delphi—and takes his leave of the Kingdom of Macedon. ...

To His Excellency Alexander III, King of Macedon, Hegemon of the Armies of Greece, I write this letter as a valediction. An effort in words to send you to your work in the frame of mind most likely to bring both success and wisdom. I also write knowing that you have heard much from me already, and that your mind must leave behind the form of a tutor and become its own instructor. Though written words have not the virtue of spoken, a time will come when the memory of our conversations is faded and indistinct. You may then turn here for a key to the rest. I attach all this, indeed have bound it with strong glue, to this gift from me to you: a complete manuscript of the works of Homer, whose tales we both love. Remember as you read them that Socrates, having lived rightly, embraced the afterlife because he foresaw the chance of discoursing with those great heroes of old. May you also live so that you will be proud to join their ranks when you die. But you have rebuked me, in your easy way, of lecturing too much and giving too little space for true dialogue. You point out that Plato’s works have this virtue of allowing competing ideas to develop through such a dialectic. And


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you are right that such a back and forth, a careful weighing from various angles, is the true method of the philosopher. So I have endeavored to develop my own thoughts, though not always strictly in the form of my teacher’s work, as a kind of case-by-case weighing of the things others have said. We take up each philosopher’s words not simply to refute them but really to see things as they do, and so consider any problem from another perspective entirely. So I will begin here, by telling you of a time when I saw something as if with your eyes, and gained something thereby. I am speaking of an old nugget of our conversations, the rainbow. For you had told me of that great circular rainbow which was given to you by nature on your thirteenth birthday and I had never truly understood what you saw. First I did not credit its full circularity, as I argued the ground you stood on must block some of the bow’s form. And indeed it does in the great majority of cases, so that nearly everyone believes a rainbow is only an arch. Well, the actualized rainbow is usually an arch, but the rainbow is always potentially a circle. The second way in which I failed to see what you saw is that though my mind considered it, as

an object of logic, I could not imagine the full force of the actual vision—as any image in the mind is so much fainter than the perceived reality. But how much more so with the splendor of this beauty! Well, let me tell you of my rainbow. It appeared to me a week to the day before the unexpected death of Phillip II, and thus a week before your own reign began. I was turning over some plans of mine, a great new enterprise to undertake now that you are no longer my student and instead engaged in waging war and peace beside your father. I wandered in the mountains where I found the cool air and sweet smells refreshing, as I sought after something that might bring me wisdom. I went to a grotto I know of, where unusual plants grow, but I found there a waterfall that I had not seen before. I think it may only be there seasonally, as the recent rains may have created one where often there is none. The water struck the rocks about the entrance with great force and sent a fine spray in a cloud filling up the crevice about the grotto’s entrance. Standing on the bank to the side of this tumult, I looked past this mist at the earth’s dark mouth. Now if I tell you the sun was behind me at


Dialogues on Color

this moment you will know that I saw my rainbow there. But this was not just any rainbow, broken and fading as quickly as it is seen. This remained there steadily before me, even as the water issuing forth from above the bank was steady and as the sun beat steadily upon my back. And yes, a perfect circle of light and color hung there. Not away at the horizon as is generally the case, but nearly within arm’s reach, the shadow of my own head visible at the very compass point of its bend. You will laugh, my Prince (now my King), to hear it, but yes, I who know most of what a rainbow is made— I reached out my hand to grasp it. Well, I could not reach it! And if I had truly strained to, I would have tumbled into the rocks and water below. And we know in any case that I would have touched nothing more than light and water. Well, let us make of the rainbow an allegory, after the manner of my great teacher Plato. Plato’s allegory was set in a cave, not unlike my grotto. And we Greeks are fond of caves and the wisdom that comes from them. But Plato reversed all this, pointing out to mankind that much of what they take to be true of the world is false, mere shadow puppets cast on a wall in a cave

sealed off from the truth outside. He makes a metaphor of our light blindness too, explaining the individual’s inability to accept the truth when it is shown to him by reference to his inability to see when leaving a dark place for a light, or again when we re-enter the cave. Because the truth Plato wished to point us to, the truth of Universals, is more difficult to see (in fact it is not visible), he ascribed to them a greater truth. For him, the only truth the world of appearances might hold, if any, was simply to offer a means for grasping this greater truth. But I protest at this allegory, and give you my own in its stead. Nature, I have told you many times, neither does anything in vain nor omits anything that is necessary. Why then does nature invest so much effort in enslaving us within this cave, of providing us with senses that deceive, stacking layers of reality upon each other? I tell you nature does not do this. Your senses present to you a horse or a rainbow or a puppet’s shadow on the wall. These impressions are yours to judge of with care. A shadow gives us, after all, only an indirect but still remarkably lifelike image of that which casts it. There are sometimes accidents


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which may arise. A lump of coal has virtue in that it can warm you. But it can also break your head. Both its weight and its warmth are properties which it has potentially in it, and we strive to bring out those potentialities that are virtuous to us while avoiding those that may do us harm. Perhaps the rainbow is an accident. We might say that it comes about as a chance result of an unusual interaction of the elements. But I do not believe this. I would show that the rainbow is in keeping with the general virtues of light and dark—the ability they have to clothe the world around us in vivid colors that both delight our senses and tell us much about the things we see. It is but one case of this process, of which the cases are infinite. But in its extremity, the rainbow shows us these actions in a sort of pure form, separate from colors we might attach to a given material. For we assign to the air one color, to the earth another. We think of gold as having almost a color of its own, though akin to a kind of divine light. But a rainbow is a demonstration for us of the interactions of the elements in their purest state, and not attached to some object about which we have a fixed association of color. And as to nature omitting something, I can

think of nothing omitted in the case of color. Might we wish for more rainbows? Or still more remarkable effects unthought of by man? Why, this would only multiply our confusion and stagger our senses. Soon commonplace items would seem drab to us. Regular fare would bore us, and we would fail to take notice of those small daily delights— food, company, rest—that keep us healthy in mind and body. So what will you learn from this? What use is this observation as to nature’s perfect provision for us, especially to one such as you? A general. A king. Only that neither is your reign, which others have likened to a perfect rainbow, an example of excess but has its intended virtue—nor is the lowest slave or meanest beggar an indication of anything lacking. You must remember to consider all that is brought before you. You cannot afford to cast aside as meaningless some news you hear just because it does not appeal to a philosopher of Forms. I repeat one final time that wisdom is found only in the contemplation of universals, but success depends upon attention to individuals, and neither wisdom nor success is granted to us in its truest form without one and the other.


Dialogues on Color

I turn your attention back to the rainbow and to its usual broken condition. Here we have something like Plato’s cave of illusion. For most people see half a circle and do not imagine the other half. And, if told of it, continue to regard the bow they see as real and the rest as unreal. But potential states are real and the tendency to value only the things we see, and not weigh the potential things that may be, is a cause of much accident in our world. For Plato perhaps it was the other way around. Once he discovered the truth of the rainbow most did not see (and here I am speaking metaphorically), he placed even greater emphasis on the truth of that rainbow that is unseen. And once he saw the mistaken hubris with which people clung to their visible rainbow and refused to admit the reality of what was unseen, he disregarded in some ways the rainbow others do see. For he attributed to the sensation of those colors a flaw that was not in the colors but in the attributions which people made to those colors. If you see a white object and say, “Here comes a white horse,” but it turns out to be a man that is approaching, we ought not to blame your senses. You saw something white and, perhaps expecting a horse, attributed it thus. But

your eyes did not fool you—only your mind may have done so. In your striving then, recall to yourself the full rainbow—and even the existence of other rainbows, seen by others from other positions. When you approach the battlefield, you will see the armies before you, or placed upon maps by means of markers, and foresee certain potential outcomes as though they were already come to pass. But turn the map around, and see things as your opponent does. Imagine his effort to bring you down, and you will discover myriad ways he may, potentially, do so. If you ignore the unseen, you will be caught unawares by it and lose the battle. By attending to these extremes, these opposite views, we may find our way to the mean—which I have told you is the best method for steering ourselves in a virtuous manner. With this virtue comes a promise of satisfaction, and a chance of success. Finally, my King, I say remember your rainbow, because it is you who showed it to me, and it is yours to weigh in your own mind as you see fit. I found the vision almost too great, leaving me drunk for a while on its splendor. But it confirmed me, too, of the truth of my stricture that the senses are a great authority for us, and as divine as any


The Rainbow

other. That final cause, which we call God, moves both our minds and nature towards its end in a manner that can only be good. Good because it exists, and exists by necessity. The rainbow is beautiful to us because it speaks of this good. To diminish it as any kind of falsity is to turn from the Good. I leave you now to your great labors, and wish you success and wisdom. For myself, I return to Athens, for that is where the most learned still convene. I have girded myself, during my sojourn in your kingdom, with lessons which I intend to share with others. I know already that the Academy will not

perfectly suit my needs, as there are those there who love Plato more than they love the dialectic. So I may establish a second school alongside that one. Two schools are needed, I think, to ensure a true search for truth. I do not know that I will succeed, any more than I know what the fate will be of your enterprise. But I will hope that both our rainbows are what your companions thought they were—divine messengers conveying a blessing on each of our enterprises. For I know that what I do, and what you do, is done for the improvement of all men. Your faithful tutor, Aristotle



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Or a dialogue between Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Sir Isaac Newton, Alexander Pope, and a few of their fictional characters, with commentary by the author Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1726) was an English natural philosopher whose work with the dispersive prism inspired a Copernican Revolution in color theory. In 1942, inspired by his discovery of the alchemical Newton, John Maynard Keynes famously said, “Newton was not the first of the age of reason: He was the last of the magicians.” Today, he seems less like Prospero and more like an iconic early-modern experimentalist, whose methodology allowed for the interplay of observation, spiritual intuition, and reason. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) was a Counter-Enlightenment poet and plant morphologist whose color theories were ranged closely against the scientific rationalism of Isaac Newton, despite the debt both men owed to the “macrocosmic zeal” of Paracelsus. Alexander Pope (1688–1744) was an English poet, translator of Homer, and literary and social critic. With Jonathan Swift and others, he formed the satirical Scriblerus Club. Despite such intellectual bonafides, Pope the stylist would lose capital quickly, and by the turn of the nineteenth century, his blowiness would oust him from the pantheon of critical poets for Wordsworth and the English Romantics. Belinda is the leading lady in Pope’s Rape of the Lock. That poem invokes the complex cosmology of Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the epic form of the heroic couplet to describe how it feels to be teased at a dinner party. Faust and Margaret are lovers in Goethe’s famous poem Faust.


Dialogues on Color


ewton: People think I unlocked the prism, but the prism is a key, not a lock. Once I had it in my hands the secrets slipped out one after another like sheep from a pen. Even so, I stayed in that attic for weeks and months more while the plague ran loose in London. Shutting out the light, I came to know the swelter and stink of the world as a blind man knows it. I was Descartes in his bread oven; darkness the scourge that strengthened my mind against the deceiving demon. “I am not speaking of a color of the eye or mind.” I spoke it to the darkness and to the colors that churned in it. I spoke it to the burning sparks when the bodkin touched the back of my eye’s socket. I spoke it to the sweet succubi who came with the opium. I made the seven colors fly around my chamber—pulling them apart and putting them back together. The levers of the mechanism are bits of glass— prisms, mirrors, and lenses. The gears of the machinery lie beneath vision. Even these true colors are a mere slick of oil on top of the deep waters of reality. A plague of questions distracted me. They asked, “Where is the organizing

principle?” while vermin ate my bread. Time wound faster as they mocked, “With what tongues can this machine be described?” and I forgot again to rest. At last the servants found me unconscious and carried me down into the blinding light. They say octave to mean eight. But sing “Do, re, mi . . .” and there are only seven notes. It is merely ‘Do’ at both ends and so the straight line becomes a circle. It woke me the night before the fever broke. Rising above the river, the wheel burned; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet . . . and red again. I did not invent the color wheel. It discovered me. ... Separated by about a century, the monologues by Newton, above, and Goethe, below, present the core of Western debates about color. But to a certain degree Newton and Goethe were talking past each other. Because each defined the problem of color differently, each sought out different tools and achieved different results. Commentaries on their differing views on the nature of color generally end up saying Goethe got it wrong because Goethe got the physics wrong. This is


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correct of course, but only if you are willing to grant that the nature of color can be fully accounted for in terms of physics and by means of objective observation. Newton’s reputation for achieving a divine simplicity—as he composed the laws of physics by which both planets in the heavens and apples here on Earth are governed, when he discovered or invented the calculus, and when he divined the nature of light—is well earned. He opened up a new epoch in color theory, largely by shifting the focus to those aspects of color most amenable to scientific demonstration. In The Opticks he created a tour de force not just on his subject but also on the scientific method. And though we now can identify many scientific flaws, and many unscientific leaps of faith, the central insight of his work was right and it was revolutionary. White light (light that renders a white page white) is made up of many different colors of light. Today we consider this axiomatic. But in its day it was as counterintuitive, as antiaxiomatic, as a conclusion could be. White and light to the medieval mind were not complex things—they were simple, pure things. The moral sense

of their purity, of their simplicity, went hand in hand with their metaphorical connection with truth, with understanding, and with God. Getting the world to accept otherwise, perhaps even bringing himself to it, was one of Newton’s great challenges. His use of seven primary colors (roy-g-biv), and of the color wheel, allowed Newton to exploit another abiding matter of faith held by scholars throughout the Christian world. This was a conviction that had been cherished ever since Pythagoras plucked a string and then cut it in half and plucked it again, to demonstrate the mathematical nature of sound. Everyone knew that the wonders of light in God’s creation, once they were revealed, would operate as sound was shown to operate. The color wheel is a musical wheel. Goethe The color pyramid was revealed to me in a time of doubt. As the last century was dying, my plans for a new color theory seemed to add up to less than their parts. I had always considered myself an artist, but I feared Sir Isaac had bested me with his seminal creative act—the creation of his color wheel. Hoping to induce that abstraction of


Dialogues on Color

mind that precedes inspiration, I walked the streets of Weimar at dusk, when only young people and cutpurses are afoot, their shadows long and furtive in the sanguinary light. Carriages dashed past me in the gloom, their great iron shod wheels spinning so fast their spokes disappeared. At my desk I recalled those wheels and drew upon my parchment a spiral inscribed inside a circle. In that moment I felt a shiver, my soul’s recognition of the active nature of color, always changing and self-renewing. I placed a teardrop of purple-red hue in the center of the spiral and fell asleep in all my street attire. I was awakened by cool breezes from the southern mountains. In that morning’s buttery light my spiral seemed to me . . . almost good. Waking again in the arms of those mountains, two weeks later, with the sun below the horizon, was my rebirth into color. The dawn probed the blackness, drawing forth a blue infinity. Gold licked the tops of the western range and in a moment the full color of the valley sprang forth. By late morning we had walked to a point where we could look down upon a waterfall. We drained a bottle of Riesling to honor the rainbow that danced beneath us—a complete

circle of color—not a mere arch. But it was the sunset that gave me my pyramid. As the orb dropped, its hue intensified from white, to yellow, to orange. Skiing across a frozen plane, with a triangular peak on my left and the sun on my right, I watched the snow become the shameless pink of a tulip’s petal. I gazed at my shadow, an arrow stretched across a league of pink snow, pointing to the mountaintop. That line was not black as painters might depict, but a brilliant glowing peacock green. Then night’s horizon swept all of that field away and slid up the mountain’s face. The last image the sun gave me was the triangular peak soaked in blood. ... Newton’s assertion, “I am not speaking of a color of the eye or mind,” should have given Goethe all the ammunition he needed. To this he might have responded, “Then you are not speaking of color at all.” To some degree he did do that. But Goethe may have overcorrected, placing an excessive faith in all things un-Newtonian. We have been at pains to show that Newton was rather more inventive and inspired by his own cultural conditioning and faith in the divine order than his reputation as a


The Cave

scientist might suggest. But Goethe’s own conclusions were beholden to his conviction that if Newton was wrong philosophically, his science would prove flawed as well. Thus did Goethe provide us with numerous perfectly good but beside-the-point demonstrations of color phenomena in his effort to reject Newton and return to Aristotle’s 2,000-year-old color theory. But Goethe was a philosopher who understood the drift of thought in nineteenth century Europe. A romantic who had grasped an important flaw of empiricism, he saw the impossibility of objectivity. His stance was this: The sun was not made for the eye. It was not made by the eye nor of the eye. The eye was made for the sun and is of the sun. This stuff is so romantic I frequently urge my students to use it in their love letters. But it is also true. The light that bathes creation was the precondition that caused our eyes to be as they are. When we see color, it is not out there in the world—painted onto tulips and snow banks—it is formed in our eye and mind. Our perceptual apparatus creates color within us, potentially tweaked and filtered by our emotional state and cultural biases. And while knowing the physics of color is useful for

manufacturing paint chips for the paint store, it is the other side of perception where most of the meaning lies for us. Color is only of the eye and mind. Newton A friend once asked me if I might withdraw certain of my more controversial statements. Of hypotheses; if I have suffered to publish any, I recant them all. But of facts; none. Is not a scientific instrument, used to probe into nature, a kind of eye we use when naked senses prove insufficient? Well then, I have dared to look into the eye herself, with the eye that is a needle. Eyes meet needles with revulsion, but I used that needle to gaze into my own eye in search of a few bare facts. The lancet has struck true, it cannot be withdrawn. I am following Galileo, as well as Descartes, up a steep and narrow path. We reveal a world that is elegant and spare but also shorn of those illusions men love most. Showing the world that it walks about in error does not endear one to that world. They take colors to be real and unique properties of the substances, but they are simply variations in the refrangibility of a single substance. This is how we will discover the philosopher’s stone too, I am sure.


Dialogues on Color

Physics shows us that all may be taken as nothing more than structure and action. Therefore this substance that appears blue is no more blue than this one that seems yellow. They are both colorless. So also this drab hunk of lead is no more grey and crusty than that nugget of noble gold. If all is physics then it shall take only a physical action of the right sort to transform the one into the other. It was a perilous enterprise, bringing my work to light. My first publication, a discussion of color and light, evoked much outrage. Mr. Hooke was the worst, a very demon set to tear down my character and the truth with it. It amazed me that a man of such little restraint could retain such influence. And that his notion that light undulates would attract such devotion. Well, he was aged, so I chose to wait out the fool, and published the first of many explications of the nature of light only a year after his death. But it is hard to hold a secret for years and then decades. The ideas conspire to sneak out, through their communion with other ideas. I gained a reputation for heresy that raised a common intuition about my stance on matters of religious doctrine—opinions I was at pains to keep secret. And the perils of the world

threatened meanwhile to squash that tiny record of all my labors. Perhaps it was a real demon who, while I was away at chapel, caused the conflagration that consumed decades of secretive work. Devastated as I was, I knew fate had placed the task upon me alone to set the words out again, in even more polished manner. I wrote them out and then repeated the task, saving the duplicate with a friend in case of a second disaster, and in case I should perish before the time for publication would come. Strange to say, even those who now would place obstacles in my path, cling to idols that once were usurpers themselves. Today’s accepted dogma once challenged that of a previous generation. Much of the problem in the current exploration of light rests on which hypothesis one uses to explain the evidence—the undulatory or the corpuscular. How then, to avoid error? How to set down truths as they are in nature and as they must endure—come whatever new theories may alter that picture? I have often set “Hypothesis non fingo” as my watchword in these matters. Let us not create any picture unnecessary to the bare explication of the facts revealed by experiment, and let us abandon said picture when the facts


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diverge from it. So far as possible I avoid any picture at all, merely a reckoning with truth, for any picture I might offer is sure to be discarded. The facts, I trust, shall stand. Pope Let us call Newton our Prometheus. He is our great benefactor, the thief to whom we owe our present power. For if our mastery of nature today surpasses that of the ancients, it is due in no small measure to something like the theft of fire from Olympus. In place of that celestial mountain, our thief snatched treasures from the very ether about us. For light and gravity and the calculus, all three, are nothing but the architecture of creation. Does Newton betray mighty Zeus in this great deed? No, the Prometheus story is a metaphor, depicting the way that one generation, often furiously, gives way to the next. For youthful Newton found his elders hostile to his work, and they tore at him from their positions of stature in the learned world. One wonders, though, if anyone truly tests and verifies Newton’s elegant experiments. I hear it took the Dutch man Huygens to question any of the empirical findings of the Opticks. And

that Locke had to rely upon Huygens’s word that Newton’s math in the Principia was accurate. My own doubts are less about Newton and his findings than about God and Nature in Newton’s light. Upon his death I gave him this epitaph: Nature and Nature’s laws hid in night: God said, let Newton be! And all was light.

But many feel this light scours the cosmos and leaves it empty. We have Democritus’s words for it: “Sweet exists by convention, bitter by convention, color by convention; in reality, only atoms and void.” Just so, Newton has it that color is not in truth a characteristic of the things we see that appear colored, and that even the rays of light themselves have no color! The color is only in the mind, and of eye and mind Newton refuses to speak. When I created my grotto in inky darkness I used that velvety black as a rich fabric against which to lay precious treasures of color. Within its cramped but magical chambers all are made hunchbacked like myself. And I, by virtue of my better fit, glide upright from room to room, pressing my advantage with amorous intent.


Dialogues on Color

The treacherous way into its recesses is occasionally made clear by a sliver of light, striking by carefully staged accident upon a crystal of pink or green, or bouncing and splitting from a mirror or prism. My tipsy guests become children all agog, filled with wonder at a glimmering emerald beam turned to gold upon approach, the body’s passage unblocking the additional catalyst of rosy light. All this color Newton would have us call an error. That does leave one in a cold way. Is all the universe nothing other than this dark grotto, then, the lights all put out, the laughter ceasing? Within the grotto I then designed a camera obscura. There is only one iris allowed to an eye, so a single hole is made in the wall. Through this hole the world outside is cast, as if by a witch’s spell, upon the walls and ceiling within. But the world is transformed in such a way that its vain tissue of seeming is laid bare, turned around and upside down so the mockery is clear. This vision of vision has its share of wonder, but there is also the awful blackness. I heard tales of a party where Newton supped. As those gathered became philosophical he was persuaded to take up the eyeball of a cow, that lay at hand upon the carving board, and

dissect it for the gathered guests. This he did and explained the function of the dark chamber within, and the means by which the iris, with admirable geometry, selects only those rays needed to cast the spell upon the cow; convincing it that it sees. A lady there grew agitated and said she did not mind that he minced up the beast, but wished he kept his conclusions about her own demure glance to himself. So Newton learned to wait and hide, as we Catholics must bide our time and hold our tongues. Thus I love him for his gifts to us, but also for a sympathy I have with his struggle. He learned secrecy and so, I venture, evaded close inspection of much of his thoughts—on light, on the philosopher’s stone, and on the Trinity, too. How do we measure the power of an idea? Perhaps by the rage it provokes. And how to account for this rage? It comes from an inner admission of error. The Truth is a lancet that makes the ignorant flinch. A good deed is a gauntlet thrown down before the wicked. For while we who are true in our faith must hide and bide the day of revelation, our step is light. It is the English reformers who carry the weight of their falseness. Zeus knew well that his betrayal of Prometheus, his one


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ally among the Titans, was unjust—so he covered his guilt with cruelty. He seized Iris’ sister Arc and tore her iridescent wings from her back, giving them to Achilles. Hooke, I posit, saw the brilliance of our friend Newton’s prismatic spectrum, and sought to strangle it in its crib. We mark it an act

of Providence that the right persevered. Still, as a poet I have some sympathy with those who find the new science somehow wanting. As a lark, I’ve revived my old heroine Belinda, who might express better than myself the virtues and sins of this mechanical view of color:

The Darkened Chamber An HEROI-COMICAL Poem In Two Cantos Canto I What tragic fate awaits our noblest sense? How sight should fail despite such good portents? For color stands forth in bold and noble pride And thwarts the hearts of men like blushing bride. Call him, whom Zeus named thief and liver rend; Oh great Prometheus, come now—defend! For mighty Titan lend your hand again, Give man your aid and do once more befriend. So guide this poet to set the pen to rights, And guard that true and noble task tonight. The Adversary lurks behind disguise’s mien, Turns true to false, and makes the pawn a queen. As once you formed from clay the human race, And later stole the sacred flame for us, Despite Olympus’ chains and eagle’s claws, Do guide our per’lous quest, Prometheus. The very light that was our guiding glow Itself is fallen, our noblest sense brought low.


Dialogues on Color

Our Tale begins in bower’s gentle shade. ‘Tis there the painter Segar demonstrates. There rests Belinda calm and nobly graced, Though youth recedes and spring’s colors replaced. His skilled mimicry, to her beauty bends, For great Posterity, his brush he lends. But note where wise autumnal shades reside, For experience to wisdom is allied. Still, painter’s hand a trifle hesitates, What cause; why does the artist make her wait? “These delays forgive,” he anxious pleas, “’Tis said ‘before Newton, color flees.’” “My Lady all these bold and lovely hues, Philosophers with doubtful tricks abuse.” “I am versed in modern thought,” said She, “And know that thinkers dare and disagree. But illusion follows from, not leads, your task, The painter’s counterfeited looking-glass.” Belinda sought therefore the man of fame, Set forth with spirit firm and gave his name: “’Tis Newton an audience with whom I seek, To fathom depths and behind the veil to peek. I’ll learn how rainbow fell to strange new science, You’ll grant my wish to see the evidence.” Up stairs, Newton then bade the Lady climb, To attic dark, with windows shuttered blind. Absolute and sternly sealed it seemed, All save one hole admitting slender beam. A lance of light within the darkness thrust, He said, “So rectiline proceed it must.” “Not waves outspread to fill and bounce behind, An undulation does not come to mind.”


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This corpuscular nature was not all, He bid her twist two films twixt light and wall, “Now bright, now dark—so like a ribbon be, I name this inner structure polar’ty.” “’Tis shrewd,” said she, “To find these fitting forms, I see from light all ignorance is shorn. But shape it as you may, as wave or grain, I ask where’s color within nature’s chain?” “Alas, my Lady, I’m sorry to offend, Of color’s reign of error make an end.” “In number, shape and motion we must trust, From end to end the links are measured thus.” Upon these words he held aloft the prism, And caused the purest beam to pierce within. Swimming through glass, the ray was strangely bent, Thereby from whitest light was color rent. “Where once we gave each hue some power its own, Now see that periodic nature shown; Each hue refracts and by degrees inclines, Then with this lens to white they recombine. Philosophers must find a subtler cause, Beneath appearance seek out nature’s laws.” Belinda rubbed her brow and pond’ring this, Said she, “Do not em’rald or amethyst, Own colors like the magnet owns its power?” He said “Reject what you cannot measure, Your bedrock here is geometric proof, Sub-visible and mechanical truth.” Belinda retired, with a lonely air Sat down before the looking-glass so clear, From neck and ear took orbs that ‘tract the eye She gazed within and asked the question, why?


Dialogues on Color

“What happ’d to youth’s red cheeks and flaxen hair? Perished is she who once returned our stare.” “From clear appearance has flown the faerie hue, Once strong and bold, now faint as dew. That color seemed to be a truth to hold, That elements had properties—like gold; Which ever glows, and rust will bring no harm, So rose’s flow’r shows bright red’s charm.” “But ‘No,’ says Newton with prism thrust before, ‘Here shines a clue regarding yonder shore. This spectrum holds no truth beyond a sign, The red, the green, and other hues in line. Conceals dark caves of achromatic stone, Where atoms spin within the void alone.’” “Not only colored things are seen to lie, The rays themselves are not what greets the eye. Invisible these traits of mass and spin, Convey to eyes a color that’s not within. There color’s false and faithless nature showed, It’s truly Pluto’s grim and mirthless home.” Canto II In darkness sits our heroine tonight, She seeks that star provides the wise their light. We send our prayer to wisdom’s patron god, None other than Athena Parthenos. With owl and armour she joins the thought to deed, With laurels comes her blessing on mankind. Athena lend us now your good counsel, To aid her, bless the draught of this inkwell. Belinda’s story calls for sober thought, These words may turn out well, or come to naught.


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As she reflects herself on mirror’s muse, Inspiration thus strikes her brow on cue. “That’s it!” she glows, “We’ll wed to science art, For Illium’s new poet now depart. That scribner stooped and cheerful, name of Pope, Whose kindly jest did once before give hope. He’s plumbed the skeptical old thinker’s mind, And yet he never leaves his heart behind.” Our door therefore the Lady came to knock, Acquaintance old, but who’d forget that lock? “My dear you’re here upon what blessed errand?” She smiled, “My heart I seek again to mend. That man who never deigned to touch a maid, It seems that color he has mislaid.” “While you despite your stooped and tiny frame, Have often loved, else rumor’s put to shame. Of what odd stuff has God creation made? This heavenly light and evil shade Are but reduced, to tiny flotsam lost, Within abysmal coil at such a cost.” “Your Newton rapes a treasure more than hair, His prism probes the rainbow, leaves it bare!” We paused at these sharp words, our tea untouched, We begged to summon still older knowledge. “Of Rosicrucian lore we spoke before, How elements of nature we count four.” “In each of these a spirit makes its home, The salamander, faerie, nymph, and gnome.” Belinda scoffed, “In light no spirits dwell! But only rays all made from particles.” “My dear,” said Pope, “pray join me in my grotto, And witness there God’s covenanted rainbow.”


Dialogues on Color

With that we led the Lady far below, To cavern hewn from rock where crystals glow. The darkness filled with water’s subtle tones; Ethereal music echoed off the stones. Beneath our house we built this quaint conceit. To practice there white lies, no great deceit. “Watch well your head, and mind you watch your step, Where I stand tall, those taller find a trap. While up above my hunched form’s mocked by fools, Within the labrynth ‘tis the small man rules.” Belinda gently took our hand in hers. Said, “You will guide, while I detect your lures.” We bowed our head and told the tale anew, How looking-glass spreads lights of red or blue. And crystals sparkle, gems on Ethiop’s ear. “Tis manifest what science misses here. They take the eye away and groping say ‘Of color’s feeling, signs all fall away.’” “But eyes are facts that cannot be denied, Look in, or out, you’ll find in part they lied. ‘Twas Gheeraerts told us ‘Non sine sol iris.’ That sun must father bow, no truer is, But more, a sight is nothing if not seen, The eye rules minds and hearts and in-between.” With small incline of head she smiled on us, Her teeth, her eyes, shone forth most marvelous. But pinched her brow and said she sought here more. “What lies,” she asked, “beyond that farther door?” “Most proud is Pope, of spectacle within, A chamber like your eye in close design.” “Let’s enter now and let our eyes adapt.” He shut the door, upon them darkness wrapped.


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“Now pupils dilated, and thus awake this eye.” Unsealed the chamber’s iris to open sky. Like Newton’s study, a single gap appeared, And cast upon the wall a world reversed. This camera obscura seemed to know, Of light and vision put on quite a show. What’s more, exposed the lie the world enshrouds. For all that seems, be thin illusion’s clouds. “But Heaven help us Pope, what do I care Of geometric rays flown through the air? “This wonder only shows what tissue sight, And cruelly trades above below, left for right. One moment eyes are windows to the soul, But now a prison seems more powerful. I’ll take my leave, and thank you for your time, Your manner’s smooth, but I grow tired of rhyme.” Belinda then withdrew her graced presence, She walked in gardens’ bright hue and strong scents, “I feel that senses sweet are life itself, And losing them I seem a hollow shell.” She pondered what to make of color’s fall. “I need these colors lest I lose my all.” She took the path ‘neath bow’r where bunches hung The fruit whose color told of juice within. The bruise drew flies to savor sweet tricklings, Dappled sun through gloom reflects faerie wings. Then soft buzzing about her perfect ears Pulled tight her heart, drew forth her grateful tears. “So Newton’s world is one clock majestic, And heartfelt love a mere conjurer’s trick. If eyes are merely where the rays transmit, Then I am but imagination’s nit.”


Dialogues on Color

Then looked about at flower’s gaudy wealth, “But why care I about this thing called ‘self’?” “I’ll take the blossoms and allow my purpose small. Amidst the faeries’ dance you’ll find this moral; ‘What gains a man or maid in seeming proud, If only to compete with atom’s cloud?’ If that’s what Is, I’ll gladly take what’s Not, And with insubstantial beings I’ll cast my lot. “Do not the ancient wise and sages East, Dismiss this self and thus attain to peace? Defeat may even snatch a victory, Surrender ourselves and gain the rainbow’s glory. That painter lacks in faith and true resolve, He seeks to fix what nature has dissolved.” For the proponents of the Scientific Revolution, optical instruments came to replace our own observations with the naked eye. The senses were not trusted unless aided, enhanced, corrected, or calibrated by some mechanical device. Furthermore, these instruments were central to the new modes of inquiry that philosophers were very much involved with at that time. Galileo had his telescopes, Descartes and Spinoza had side projects grinding lenses, and Newton explored the problems of chromatic aberration in lenses which led him to invent the reflecting telescope. Deconstructionists and poststructural theorists have often critiqued the

implied subtext of these devices, finding in them a latent drive to control what they observe. The Panopticon is the most famous such device. This was a building designed as an ideal prison, and described by Michel Foucault as a metaphor for the surveillance state and an illustration of how omnipresent surveillance is internalized in the psyche of the observed. Because the guard tower is placed in the center of a circular bank of cells and the guard views the inmates through a veiled window, each inmate must always assume he or she is being surveyed. The net effect of this advance in disciplinary technology, according to Foucault, is the self-


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supervising citizen. Similarly, Luce Irigaray interrogates the gynecologist’s speculum as a means of observing and controlling female sexuality—of subjecting it to the objective gaze of science. If we apply the same method of deconstruction which Foucault and Irigaray employed to the optical devices of those who wished to unravel the secrets of light, we can see Newton’s prism as a means of taming an ancient threat. The faith that Galileo and other pioneers of the Scientific Revolution had in all manner of scopes leads not only to an instrumentalist methodology, but also to the doctrine that color perception is an error. Because of the microscope, we determine that the red blood we see is not really red—the white and red mixture seen under the lens is truer than what the naked eye tells us. What is the prism, then, if not an optical device for observing, quantifying and controlling the unruly, dangerous world of color? The prism becomes a sort of talisman of objectivity for Newton, a transformative portal that tames unruly color. It allows him to set aside the qualitative nature of color and refer only to measurable properties—his “degrees of refrangeability.”

This need to control color is connected to a well-established record of anxiety about color among Western thinkers. Color is linked to the emotional, dangerous and feminine. It frustrates our efforts at objectivity and our efforts to describe our world through language. The more an artist describes the color of an apple the more difficult it becomes to depict that object as a solid form sitting in space. To carve out that three-dimensional substance, the artist clings to contour line as well as light and shadow and in the process sidelines the full juicy experience of the apple’s color. A common perspective deems “colorful” those cultures and personalities that are fun, festive and diverse—but also lazy, treacherous, insane and mysterious. Rare is the essay about India that fails to mention how colorful it is. Which is not to say that India is not colorful, only that the choice we make to describe it that way says something about us as well. Is Western culture colorless? Grey? The question is as meaningless as the term “Western.” We trace it back to the Ancient Greeks as though the Islamic world could not do the same, and we construct an Ancient Greece to suit our “chromophobic” present. David


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Batchelor coined that term in his book Chromophobia—and nails down the case that ours is, indeed, a chromophobic tradition. We see, for instance, Leonardo da Vinci arguing that painters who rely on color are forsaking the true beauty and more precise science of perspective, contour, and the modeling of light and shadow. Leonardo tells us such a painter “acquires glory according to the ignorant masses, who require nothing of beauty other than beauty of color, totally forgetting the beauty and wonder of a flat surface displaying relief.” Victorian culture perhaps best exemplifies the color-fearing tendency and its exceptions. Up through the end of the eighteenth century, aristocratic men’s dress was frequently luxurious in its use of fabrics, colors and textures. Napoleonic-era military uniforms also remind one of the plumage of male birds, and history paintings of the battle of Waterloo make clear the signifying continuity between flags and uniforms. But Victorian and Edwardian trends put men in black suits and hats, while bright color became a distinctly feminine attribute. In design, the fashion for the colors and patterns of England’s colonial possessions,

especially India and the Islamic world, worked as a confirming crosscurrent to the overall notion that reason and industry ought to be soberly neutral. It is no coincidence that this came at a time when the Industrial Revolution was not simply altering the means of production but also introducing new notions and mores such as the home as a sphere apart from the workplace, women’s roles as domestic rather than public, and childhood as a separate stage of life—and all of the countervailing forces such as women’s suffrage, revivals of handcraftsmanship and worker agitation. Adolf Loos describes the zeitgeist in “Ornament and Crime,” his infamous polemic against decoration. He states: Primitive men had to differentiate themselves by various colors, modern man needs his clothes as a mask. His individuality is so strong that it can no longer be expressed in terms of clothing. The lack of ornament is a sign of intellectual power.

Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland Flatland, one of the most insightful contemporaneous satires of Victorian and Edwardian culture, presents its critique precisely as a romance of color. Abbott’s narrator, a being in the form of a square, details


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a two-dimensional world in which contour lines, grey-shaded geometry and symmetrical order are held in the highest esteem. A “chromatiste” revolution had recently threatened his world with anarchy when lowly isosceles triangles masqueraded as grand polygons through the deception of bright colors. At its peak, the color revolution offered women (straight lines) equality with the high priests (perfect circles) of the society by means of a color scheme that all would be forced to adopt. Though he describes that time in his nation’s culture as rich and pleasurable, making life a delight, the narrator ultimately condemns the chaotic societal consequences as immoral, licentious, anarchical and unscientific. Again it would be easy to pin this chromophobic tendency on Plato, with his distrust of the senses as well as his prohibition against poetry in an ideal state. But this idea of Greek culture was given to us by the very Enlightenment thinkers who framed color as a dangerous temptation. While it is true that Plato’s attention was elsewhere, his color theory was subtler than even Aristotle gave him credit for. And then we do have Aristotle and Heraclitus, not

to mention Plato’s own very theatrical writing—all giving us a much more “chromophilic” Greek philosophical heritage. It also turns out that the art of Ancient Greece was very colorful, not at all the pristine sepulcheral, white-marble busts and temples that occupy our popular imagination. Those structures were painted in ways we might today consider gaudy. Most bronze statues were lost to us, being melted down to make cannons, but exceptions exist. One pair of statues, the Riace Warriors, retrieved from the ocean floor, are of two Greek gods or warriors. It presents mature bearded men with stunning physiques, their bronze honey-like skin polished to a seductive sheen. Their eyes are inlaid stones, giving them a semblance of the living spark, and their nipples are inlaid copper of a pinkish hue. We know almost nothing of the story of these men, but in their sensuously realized bodies we get a glimpse of a luxurious use of color in Greek art. This is a culture that embraces color both for its sumptuousness and for its vivacity—the way in which it brings the breath of life into solid stone or bronze. It was Goethe’s contemporary, the


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neoclassicist and father of art history, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who helped whitewash these chromophilic Greeks into a form more suited to Enlightenment culture—though he was hardly working in a vacuum. In his History of Ancient Art he writes: Color, however, should have but little share in our consideration of beauty, because the essence of beauty consists, not in color, but in shape, and on this point enlightened minds will at once agree. As white is the color which reflects the greatest number of rays of light, and consequently is the most easily perceived, a beautiful body will, accordingly, be the more beautiful the whiter it is.

He goes on to make the racial connotation explicit, though he acknowledges that dark-skinned people and certain statues and architectural works of darker materials can also be beautiful in certain contexts or by a process of acclimation: “A traveler assures us that daily association with negroes diminishes the disagreeableness of their color. . . .” We have reached the point in our tale when push comes to shove between color theory and racial politics. Having

taken note of the Greek philosophers’ distrust of the senses, the Scientific Revolution’s interest in instruments for objectivity and control, the Edwardian pairing of taste with gender roles— we need to consider to what degree chromophobia is about race, and vice versa. There is a vast and insightful literature, most of it recent, exploring the cultural constructs of race and whiteness. For color theorists two salient points arise immediately: First, by the Edwardian era a completely fictitious notion of whiteness as a racial category is created. It is the more flexible for being an invention, and its acceptance is so nearly total that we scarcely notice how it shapes our perceptions of the world. A diverse set of words have been employed to indicate white’s other, from “blackamoor” to “colored” and so on, but the theme is ever that any “drop” thereof renders a body “not-white.” Like a fatal flaw, color is imagined as besmirching a pristine substance, rendering it impure. It is noteworthy that this is the same period when, with the evidence of Newton’s experiments, people began saying white and black are not colors, and defining them in absolute terms with phrases like “There is only one white.” As Michel Pastoureau


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puts it while discussing Newton’s discoveries in Black: The History of a Color: But, most importantly, in this new order of colors there was no longer a place either for black or for white. That constituted a revolution; black and white were no longer colors, and black perhaps even less so than white. . . . Henceforth it was situated outside of any chromatic system, outside the world of color.

Second, when these unintentionally revealing passages of the Enlightenment no longer suited the rhetoric of “objective” color theory, the connection between “color science” and race was erased. The aesthetic rules passed on to us by the pioneering color theorists from Goethe to Munsell to Itten, packaged color harmony, reason, balance, and order alongside racism, classism, sexual prohibitions, and sexism as part of a single, internally reinforcing ideology. It is logically possible to accept individual threads of this single rope apart from the others, but they were designed to go together and make each other stronger. Today, most color theory texts make no mention of race or other social and political dimensions at all. Though the color theory they provide is derived

from prior decades and centuries, the historical context of their formation is forgotten. The results are the opposite of aesthetic education—they are an anaesthetic. Most of the scientific development in optical theory up until Newton had focused on perspective and mapping— the precise measurement and control of space by means of projective geometry. We might look to Leonardo da Vinci’s diagram of a mortar bombardment, the arcing trails of missiles seemingly creating a vaulted cathedral roof. We might just as easily look to a GPS device pinpointing our movements today. These systems all benefit from the notion that color is unnecessary to a useful depiction of the world—line and shape and the modeling of form afforded by shadow suffice to delineate this world. We are given a coloring book model of the universe—a world in which color is a superfluous add-on. But color stubbornly remains, manifestly drawing the eye and arousing the emotions. In the context of the Scientific Revolution, the prism is a tool for transforming that tricky qualitative subject—the experience of the various colors—into something quantifiable. This allowed the possibly asexual


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Newton (he is supposed to have died a virgin) to bring the dangerous, sensuous realm of color under control. Contemporary accounts of the physics of light put the lie to our chromophobic notion of color as something purely emotional. Increasingly color appears to be a great friend in vastly magnifying our knowledge of the universe and our ability to communicate at ever increasing rates. Color is the reason we know the universe is expanding and at what rate. As M. Chirimuuta

argues in her book Outside Color Color, color is not neurologically or philosophically separable from our ability to detect space, texture, or motion. It is part and parcel with our entire perceptual apparatus. In his recent New York Times article on neutrinos, George Johnson puts it this way, “Of all the particles in the universe, the only ones our senses can directly register are photons…. Behind the scenes, particles decay into other particles, until at the end of the tunnel you see the light.”

Faust: The Tragedy’s Epilogue in Three Acts Act I A Garden at Night (Margaret sits near the back, upon some tumbled rocks, head bowed. Faust enters.) Faust: Margaret! Margaret: I’m here. Faust: Are you grieving? Margaret: No. That’s a different Margaret. Though I am tired of this evening. Faust: And a different author, I think. What then are you doing? Margaret: Over unfinished notes, my dear, I am puzzling. Faust: And this gloaming, will it never end? Margaret: How would I know, am I some reverend? But mark this grotto of Mary’s behind me. Through her, you came here beside me. Faust: A grotto for Mary? Like one of those roadside shrines? Margaret: The very thing. She will come when we’ve done our purgative time.


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Meanwhile, we have these notes—they do ramble on. Our Author tells a tale that’s rather long. Faust: With what do they treat? It must be weighty lore. Margaret: Depends how you weigh them. It is his Farbenlehre. Faust: Color? It is lust for the eyes, like the fruits weighing down that bower. But I’d thought we might ponder a less earthly power. I’d spend this time unburdening our souls. For mine, the heavy-laden bell tolls. Margaret: It seems our tale was not meant to outmatch this color lore. While Faust became a legend, this project was meant to betoken more. Faust: So our Author won’t let our spirits rest ‘Till his theory we’ve put to test? How could I help when no virtue remained? I know not why I should not be damned. Margaret: But even your dark friend would ever do evil, and yet ever does good. You served man. And we loved each other as we should. Look there, in that pond beside the rocks. Faust: Something odd for this idyllic view? Oh Grette! It still kicks! Margaret: Our baby. Faust: Agony! Let us flee. How do we move on? Margaret: We’ll read our lines before we’re gone. (She hands him the manuscript) Act II A Garden at Night (Margaret and Faust sit close together on the tumbled rocks.) Faust: I’ve read it all, and come back to the beginning. He seems taken with it. My head is swimming. (putting his hand to his mouth) I’m sorry! Margaret: It’s purgatory. See love, your hands have slicked the pages. Faust: Red is the first color we read of in Genesis.


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Margaret: Is it? But only if light and dark are not colors, as some imagine. “Let there be light” sounds to me the place for our theory to begin. Faust: But isn’t white made up of color? So says science. Margaret: But as to how that makes white not color I note a silence. Anyway, your story shows how wrong science may be. Though its unclear whether you prefer alchemy. Faust: I’ll accept that. I take it what’s written here we must unpack? If so, I’ll ask to what end this talk of birds? Margaret: There’s a physiological aspect to his words. His colors are embedded in substances and reveal Something about their properties and internal processes. Faust: So, minerals? Margaret: Yes those, A bit like Aristotle—nesting kingdoms like Russian dolls. Within substance we find life, within life does Man fall. Faust: Though he places the birds in between. Margaret: Yes, a special case for color, it seems. So he takes his various items, Steel balls, mica, glass bits and so on. Then heating, rubbing, acts upon them. He brings forth colors by these actions and interactions. Faust: Then plants make color from inner motions. Margaret: There the actions are self-sustaining. Color is caused by nature of living. Upon death the color begins fading. Then he flies to the avian class. Faust: They land on your shoulder, Grette, like St. Francis! Margaret: Yes, we flock together. Morphology of color then sorts them by kind. Faust: And then Man. Well, I think he had you in mind when he said those most white are most beautiful. Margaret: But now blushing, I’m not so fair after all. Faust: A blush only shows that you are white,


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Your blood quickened makes a pretty sight. Seeing the heat on your rosy cheek, I recall a garden, where you sat meek. It was there I plucked a greater flower. Margaret: (Blushing even deeper red) This is not that garden, nor that hour! Faust: The devil made me do it, I swear. Margaret: I haven’t seen his kind around here. Faust: But Grett, something here does bedevil. Why were you created beautiful and the negro, as it says in this book, Was put on Earth to repel our look? Margaret: This book leads to just one conclusion. Our Author’s more Greek god than Christian one. Cruelly these skins we wear were formed. Even one drop will smirch one’s whole being. Why does he write our lines in this way? Who made me drug my mother that day? Heinrich, our Author is a bit of a demon! Faust: Perhaps to that I owe my salvation. Is this why he set us up to fail? Margaret: It’s some kind of cathartic ritual. (There is a commotion.) Faust: What’s that? These noises make me wary. I see him now, is that a flag he carries? Margaret: Yes—that story’s in the text as well. Those three bands of red, blue, and yellow The primary colors that painters love. Faust: I thought there were seven; ROY-G-BIV? ROY-G-BIV Margaret: We’re not supposed to follow Newton, you fool. Faust: But who is he? His followers are most bountiful. Margaret: He met our Goethe, and became Spanish America’s liberator. His name’s Miranda. Famous, but only a slight acquaintance.


Dialogues on Color

I know they discussed the primaries once. Faust: His cause seems noble. Why then is he here? Margaret: He’s an idealist. And a traitor. Miranda: (Entering with red, yellow, and blue flag) Yes! Yes! See the pennant flow with red? It is a reminder of our future dead. The exaltation of blue and yellow! The vanishing of light into shadow! Faust: What use is that Venezuelan pennant Stuck in this eternal twilit moment? Miranda: A country starts as a flag and a name, Then becomes them—a man’s destiny’s the same! Act III A Garden, Just Before the Dawn (Faust is lying on the ground at Margaret’s feet. They are alone.) Faust: What happened? Where are we? What’s going on? Margaret: You slept. It all began with a yawn. What have you been dreaming I wonder? Faust: Ponderous dreams, my own dogmatic slumbers. I was arguing about color with the blind. Margaret: My love, we still have to get through our lines. Faust: I know, but there isn’t much here I understand. Margaret: Aren’t you the most learned scholar in the land? Faust: Yes, but my friend showed me a shortcut. Now, two Ur-phenomena are blue and yellow, But what distinguishes these from primaries I’d like to know. For to those we add red to make three. Such contradictions are equally occult to fools and sages, seems to me. It reminds me of that witch’s numerology. Margaret: Now mind me, Son: Make ten of one— Faust: What’s that? You know this?


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Margaret: With two have done— Faust: Are you she—in disguise? Margaret: Make even three and rich you’ll be. Faust: Gretchen, I am trembling. This is a caution. Tell me it was not you wove hexes above the cauldron! Margaret: I suppose not, dearest. It’s just a game I’m playing. But like the witch, I knew your meddling was insane. That friend of yours came from the pit. How came you to play with such as It? Faust: He allayed my qualms, said he came from Mother Night, That to which light returns and that gave birth to light. But note how our Author’s science, too, Relies on number magic—makes three of two. Margaret: Very well, I’ll do the math for you: The two—the yellow and the blue—those are essential, But in a way unrelated to painter’s skill. Rather consider these two for the physicist. Look to the sky and see those colors mix. The three colors, adding in red, are what the painter must use, Combining these three under guidance of the muse. For our material pigments are by nature inert, Will not transform towards the red of heaven’s work. Faust: That’s what I cannot see. How does he make red from these? Margaret: Come, you’re doggedly Newtonian. Red is transcendent. You’ve seen his demonstration? How yellow intensifies through orange and on to red? Faust: Yes—it is so. Just as the alcohol goes to my head. The glass of beer is yellow if sideways viewed. Lift it up to the light and cheers to you! Margaret: But have a drink and gaze down into its depths— Faust: Yes, but quick! Soon there’s nothing left.


Dialogues on Color

It is a metamorphosis into orange— The fuller the mug, the redder the tinge. Margaret: Precisely, Love. And hold it up again. You’ll see light has color in that beam. Faust: Newton says the beer filters the white. Are they within it—these colors ripped from light? Then only the yellow slips through—like a sieve? Margaret: But be serious—that’s what you believe? God’s light is not some chunky stew. It is a principle. And a sign of what’s true: Heavenly light makes contact with matter, Is muddied thus, and then transfigured. Yellow then is first to emerge from the light. Just as a clear horizon turns yellow first with the coming of the night. Faust: So he says. Margaret: And so you see! Look you there in the dark sky beyond those stones? That is the East, and the light arises from its nightly home. The first color to arise from blackness is blue. Faust: So that is why yellow and blue are the first two? Margaret: At any rate it is the demonstration. To show why these are Ur-phenomena, Played out in this way twice daily— Every dawn and every dusk in God’s laboratory. Color arises from light and dark, as Aristotle knew. All the rest come from this dance of yellow and blue. Faust: Then all the world is green? Margaret: No—but now you’re teasing me. Green is only the passive resolution. To push colors higher requires energy’s addition. Else the colors simply end up in a pool. Faust: That energy’s for yellow and blue—their intensification


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Creates an orange and violet transformation. Through them we reach transcendent red. Margaret: (Drawing a triangle in the air with her forefinger) A royal red sits atop the pyramid— Blue and yellow’s active resolution. Those Ur colors stake out the bottom junctions. On the baseline between them green sits Below red on the vertical axis. Faust: Why do we call this triangle a pyramid? Margaret: Just as Ur by phenomena is hid. Germans like an archaeological theme. Faust: OK, Love, here’s a new scheme. I’ll be blue, just stepping out from the night. You be yellow, coming out of the light. We’ll transcend this world presently. Margaret: Not yet, I fear. The grotto stands empty. (Stands up.) Faust: Where are you going? Margaret: The grotto. It reminds me of where you left me. Faust: I was pulled away. You would not leave. Margaret: That dungeon seemed more fit Than to follow your friend to the Pit. Faust: I called and called. I’d have saved you. Margaret: It was I who saved you, through Her grace an ear was lent. (Gestures toward the grotto.) Within the same darkness you and I see something different. Faust: But I too experienced a kind of rapture In forest and cave, saw forces of nature. Of mountains and seas learned there her secrets And gained mastery over all four elements. Margaret: Mere power. Your truths are sterile. You fear the grave. Did you forget your peril? Recall that vision of Christ’s empty tomb,


Dialogues on Color

And the Easter choir that kept your lips from doom! That was the revelation that stayed your hand. Faust: From the sin of suicide, it saved me in that second. But saved only that I might fall to the enemy? That black dog who looped his coils about me. And he had real knowledge to replace Men’s mummery. Margaret: I’m told that our teacher is the Adversary. Faust: I look in the cave and do not know what I see. I think them cruel lessons, these. I had held that the world is as it seems. Cherries are reddened. The forest is greened. But in seeking to know, the more I find us deceived. This world is of no color, not even grey. I tell you we grope in darkness and call it day! Margaret: There are many dark chambers— They are not all your dogmatic slumbers. Your dungeon sucks in light and swallows it up. Think of the secrets your breast holds within it. Think of the womb! My cave is an oracle. Yours, dear friend, is a stygian hole. Faust: Those shadows on the wall, I began to doubt. And then my image of the world turned inside out. Margaret, I was outside the world— From there I saw beneath what’s colored And saw there that in the world no color lies. Margaret: Only because you gouge out your eyes! (Faust shudders, and rests his head on her lap.) See now, the sky grows lighter. I see colors and colors more. Here are colors beyond the rainbow’s realm— Light continues beyond Newton’s spectrum. Divine beings see what is there.


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As does the butterfly, who must die a caterpillar— To gain the sight, it rises up with wings. Faust: Purple is not in the rainbow—that’s why it sings. It is what we see when spectral circle we complete. We make this new color where red and violet meet. Margaret: Yes. Purple is the sliver we are given To let us know above earth there is a heaven. You see the colors are real, my love, This color in ourselves is also found above. Faust: It is beautiful. Margaret: When your eyes are closed, what color do you see, Heinrich? Faust: It is green. I see green. The earth is blessed with it. A Voice: She is come. ... Gentle Xenian VI * Friends, flee the dark room Where lights, made to confuse you, And displaced images stoop With wretched misery. Superstitious reverers Sufficed her these years. In your heads the teacher Puts specter, folly, and deceit.


When glance turns to a sky-blue clear day, When the purple-red sun Sinks low at sirocco, Here nature bestows glory Joy, sound to the eye and heart, And we find in color lore The universal truth.

This poem was thrown in, along with a few other Goethe documents such as the letter cited below, at the back of Goethe’s Color Theory, arranged and edited by Rupprecht Matthaei. American edition translated and edited by Herb Aach. Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1971.


Dialogues on Color

With these words Johann Goethe provides a powerful, if reductive, response to those who would study nature by first shutting out the senses. The legend of Descartes retreating to a bread oven to minimize the input from his hypothetical deceiving demon is equally simplistic. We like these images and recycle them to talk about those who have taken up the quest for wisdom. Descartes is the hermit in a cave, withdrawing from the world so that he might see the truth beneath our senses all the better. Goethe takes a different path. He is the healer who walks amongst the people, so that he might connect us with a truth rooted in our humanity. Descartes lays out his methodology in Rules for the Direction of Our Native Intelligence. The second rule reads: “We should attend only to those objects of which our minds seems capable of having certain and indubitable cognition.” Wittgenstein takes up this theme with his famous directive not to speak if we cannot speak clearly. Goethe’s objection to this practice might be that we thus abandon at the outset the matters about which we are inquiring, and have begun by framing the world in such a way that anything

whose nature is variable is forever dismissed from consideration. Goethe turns his attention to change, and the processes of morphology in nature. Nonetheless, he is equally committed to certain ontological truths—that there are real objects out in the world and that the colors we see are mimetic of properties in those objects. As Chirimuuta says in Outside Color, this commitment has long roots in scholastic doctrine. She goes on to point out how this framework derives from a coloring book conception of the world—in which color is abstracted from other aspects of perception. Down this path lie many pitfalls and Goethe’s commitment to Aristotle’s physics seems to be a big one. Those physics, however, bear closer scrutiny. For their unspoken assumptions about what we even mean when we say something is “real” persist down to the present day. For although the mechanism of light is not so complex as Plato’s system of three interacting streams of effluences, it is still a wonder to contemplate. As Leonardo observed, when we sit together in a room the image of me and the image of you must cross each other’s path at innumerable points in that room. The light from my red sweater passes through the


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light from your green hat without mixing, ricocheting, or creating some grotesque hybrid of my form and yours. No wonder it took some time to accept the intramissionist idea. For if it is the eye that creates the image then there are exponentially fewer acrobatics for these images made of light to perform. Those images are actualized only when and where a perceiver’s eye selects the rays necessary to create such an image. Let us lay aside the baggage of Greek and medieval physics, in which light can only emanate from matter and is only revealed upon impact with matter— and shaded objects send forth “rays of darkness,” as Leonardo called them. Were we to do so, we might discover a more charitable basis for considering Goethe’s emphasis on the observer. By eliminating observers from the equation, and considering color as it would be in the absence of all eyes, the scientific pioneers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries empowered a robust understanding of the material causes of color that serves many practical purposes, and is the reigning ideology to this day. This paradigm’s one great flaw is its inability to address what matters most to most of us about color—the experience of

seeing it. Though examining color as a phenomena leads to many tricky questions regarding perception, it also leads to a great mystery that preoccupies contemporary science—that of our consciousness. Efforts at artificial intelligence are ultimately going to have to grapple with whether or not consciousness can be fully accounted for by material means. Our children build robots with Legos, and code them to “see” light and dark and respond to it. The question is whether mere detection and response are all that is involved in the seeing-with-awareness that we humans experience. Such a mechanical model of sight is easy enough to grasp but as meaningless as a dog’s echo, barking back at it from across a valley. Here Chirimuuta points to Wilfrid Sellars, who urges us to strive for a “synoptic” view of color. Sellars argues that losing sight of the manifest image is literally losing ourselves—“our concept of personhood.” Goethe does at times admit that he and Newton were seeking different things. In a letter to the painter Josef Carl Stieler, he notes:


The mathematician/optician I gladly forgive for not wishing to know anything about this. Their interest in

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the matter is purely negative. After getting rid of color through their valued lenses, they no longer continue to ask if there are in the world painters, dyers, . . . or a pretty girl, adorning

herself according to her complexion. . . . In contrast, we reserve the right to marvel at color’s occurrences and meanings, to admire and, if possible, to uncover color’s secrets.


The Mandala

Or a dialogue between Albert Munsell, Rudolf Steiner & various admirers & detractors, with commentary by the author Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian esotericist who developed a system of spiritual laws intended to provoke creative evolution in diverse areas of culture and society. His theories about color have some precedence in the works of Goethe. Albert Munsell (1858-1918) was an American color theorist whose work to quantify and standardize all possible colors aided changing production needs in large-scale industrialized economies. Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was a Russian symbolist painter and pioneer in non-objective painting whose book Concerning the Spiritual in Art proposed that color gives us access to the spiritual reality that transcends and permeates the world around us. Vladimir Tatlin (1888-1953) was a Russian Constructivist architect and artist. Adeline Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was an English intellectual in the interwar period and a writer in the modernist tradition. Before committing suicide in 1941, she wrote nine novels (as well as short stories, non-fiction, and cross-genre works) which are noted for their banal, middle-class settings and intense, lyrical evocations of modern interiority.


oolf: Well they do like me in England now, but I benefit from their discovery of

Hitler’s lists for elimination—having my and Leonard’s names upon it. And those lists are something I’d rather not hear about. They bring me into solidarity with all these others, whether I actually


Dialogues on Color

like them or not. I sometimes think that Vienna during the Belle Époque would have been a better fit for me. Who was it that called it an “experimental station for the end of the world”? That reputation puts Vienna forever in the past, a world that ended in the Anschluss. I lie elsewhere, separated from that world by time, by war, and by the River Ouse. The River Styx. In Vienna, my marriage to a Jew would have been at least as scandalous as here in England, though they had plenty of them back then. And plenty of those were hook-nosed grasping bankers, as they were said to be. But Leonard’s lack of a family fortune would not have redeemed the trouble any. It seems the fantasy works better if I were rich, and a man. Still I picture us there, joining our lovers at the café. We’d have been so well suited to that Babel of intellectual currents. We would argue with Klimt and Freud, Wittgenstein and Mahler. And the peculiar one, Steiner. We would drink and smoke and draw the waiters into our arguments. By the time we would finish with the morning paper we could start upon the afternoon’s. We would think nothing, nothing at all, of the art student Hitler

as we passed him by, gazing up at the grand facades of the Ringstrasse. We would be too busy, on our way to the opera, a lecture on Einstein, or a secretive liason on one of the shaded park benches just off the road. I would have laughed at the angry young artists of the Secession, even though I myself write these novels whose forms lie in pieces. They are stacks of iron and steel set aside for a tower that will never be built. I would adore those artists, paternalistically, for their charming spiritual enthusiasms. For their manifestos and declarations. But I would agree with them on one score. Color. Color is real. Color is in things. When you stand in the gemglow of a stained-glass window, you are transformed. I would love the science, too, and draw comfort from its heartlessness. I suppose it says something about the British that they would be the ones to strip color of its mystery. It was daring enough of Newton, I think, to probe into his own optic nerve, and beneath the veil of color with his bits of glass. His subject was light, which I worship even more for being an illusion. But great too was the daring of Maxwell,


The Mandala

creator of the color photograph—and such a steady and good man in his relations. For he saw more color than you or I. He showed that this mere rippling in the ether that we call color, and that other vibration that we call magnetism, are part of the same fabric— and therefore so is much else that we have yet to map. Color is but a sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum that we are granted the power to perceive. I love them all for stitching the universe together with threads of light, and calling on no God to thread the needle. I’ve met some artists in Vienna who had an enthusiasm for these scientific discoveries too. One dear painter, who had studied in Vienna with Itten but fallen out with him over that teacher’s spiritual dogmatism, showed me his rather expensive and carefully calibrated color model. A great monster of a thing with all the colors one could imagine slotted into place. What silliness. As if colors lived their lives there. It is like thinking words live in dictionaries. Arranging colors that way might be convenient for laying your hands on them, as if painters might ever wish to “look up” a certain color in this way. For while arranging words by the letter they happen to start with is useful for finding

them, it does one no good in deciding which word belongs in a sentence. I daydream like this about my imagined life in that vanished city until my mind grows tired and I find myself at the mercy of this pretend Vienna. Walking down one of her anonymous alleyways, I enter a small bookshop on a whim. I fill my coat pockets with Goethe and Schiller, taking refuge in the fashion for suicide among their rich young intellectual sons. Then I stroll halfway out across the Reichsbrücke, climb the rail, and drop down into the waters of the Danube. ... In the prologue to Michael Cunningham’s book The Hours he gives us a vision of Virginia Woolf’s last act in this world. His focus is on the sense data taken in by an especially observant writer, or by anyone perhaps, who knows they are about to die. One feels the air on one’s skin, hears an atmosphere filled with sounds both near and distinct, distant and elusive. One smells the earth and the river, and one certainly notes the colors of things: The brown of the water in the ditch and the potatocolored vest of the man who digs there. The grey of the sky, and the brightness of its reflected pieces in puddles dotting


Dialogues on Color

the land. The clarity of the water oozing into the cavities made by one’s foot and the opaque yellow of the river itself. All of these things leap out at us in such moments, so the author tells us and so we believe, with a clarity we know has always been there awaiting our attention. This is what life is made of, we know. Cunningham marks the final, clear sense-image explicitly: “Here, then, is the last moment of true perception, a man fishing in a red jacket and a cloudy sky reflected on opaque water.” We frequently mark out boundaries for science, noting the truisms that such and such a question is outside the self-appointed task of the discipline. In general, when we say this about God or love or our notion of the self, it feels as if science comes out of the calculation all the stronger for it. And these things science won’t treat of, these romantic notions, become a little bit thinner. But the case is different with color. Color is staring us in the face. The philosopher Wittgenstein very famously demonstrated how little could be said with clarity about the world, and so he left nearly all philosophical inquiry to the poets. Some have read this as another way of saying the work of philosophy is only so much

noodling about with meaningless words. But a case might be made that, on the contrary, Wittgenstein was only announcing a shift in the division of labor among the disciplines, and giving the poets a great new enterprise. Steiner I overheard a fire marshal from Dornach say, “By God, one of these lunatics went and burnt it down. Their own church.” That was when I realized my mistake. The fire, and this man’s accusation, were not just more examples of the miscomprehension with which the Anthroposophical project is so often met. Our building, our Goetheanum, with its interlocking drums, was no church. Much more than that, it was an organ by which the gods might shape men’s souls. But I saw vividly that this seemingly ignorant statement was in fact a cloak to cover darker truths. The very colors of his words, as they impacted the air about the marshal’s mouth, were off. Discordant vibrations attended them and set off sympathetic hues in the area where the fire had started. I knew then two terrible truths. First, that the hostility we faced in the material world was joined by that of adversaries in the


The Mandala

immaterial realms as well, whose power to impede is much greater than that of these men who are simply unprepared for the next evolutionary stage of Man. Second, these adversaries have been at great pains to conceal their activity, fooling even myself until the last moment. I had spent all that New Year’s night walking the perimeter of our property, consoling those among my followers who saw the destruction of our building as a calamity, and taking the opportunity to observe the function of the structure as a lantern, the sun radiating out through its stained glass windows, rather than shining in on its occupants. I saw the wood of the structure, whose nature is green, turned red by that consuming energy. Just as the sun alters the blossoms and fruits of plants from their customary green robes to bright fiery colors, and then withers them to blackened shrivellings—the ruined timbers of this New Year’s dawn. I observed too, how variously colored glass alters the glow from within to its own nature. For color is truly in the world and not, as ordinary science supposes, a falseness our eyes ascribe to things. The lustrous colors of blue, yellow, and red shone forth as shafts

of energy, accompanied by the more docile image-colors of green and peachblossom. White was absent, being either transformed into the colors mentioned above or smothered in black rays of darkness. The night was bitingly cold, and as a result there was a peculiar zone where one could stand and feel pricklings of frost on one side of the body and the chafing of the fire’s heat on the other. This liminal space drew the immaterial beings I had known all my life, and I took joy from their solidarity. Their song was inaudible to my companions but told the Phoenix story—a clear message to any with ears. Just weeks before the burning of the Goetheanum, I was accosted by a scientist, at the end of a lecture I gave on the subject of color. He reprimanded me for “leading people astray” and accused me of failing to attend to the accomplishments of physics in a logical manner. I took my time with him, citing at length the work of Newton, Rood, Chevreul, Maxwell, Munsell, and many others whose color theories claim to be objective and true. I said to him, “Let us examine this claim of objectivity. It rests on our ability to say things about colors that are true no matter who views them, yes? And these things are true of


Dialogues on Color

the colors even if no one views them?” He agreed. “And what does it tell us about these colors? It tells us many things that cannot be seen, but only measured with various instruments? But isn’t color a function of someone’s seeing something? What does science say of this experience of seeing red? What is a red chair like, as opposed to a green one?” He grew uneasy. I continued: “These are not color theories. They abandon the reality we all experience for a construction that falls apart the moment a viewer is invoked. They say nothing about color.” For this is the astonishing pretermission in the physicist’s notion of color: It claims to discuss color that is not seen. It pretends to measure color quantitatively, and it declines to make any assertion as to its qualities. It supposes that color, which it has just shown to be infinitely and seamlessly variable, might usefully be discussed in terms of discrete chips of color arranged according to these measurable properties. It then goes on to claim that this quality of color that we experience is an “illusion” and does not really exist in the world as the eye suggests. Artists, and color theorists who wish to serve the arts are then discouraged from drawing

conclusions that may come from the quality of a given color. They are told that black and white are not colors. They are told that gold and transparency and the other ways color is part of the material world are irrelevant. They freeze color as something static and argue gold is only a certain pattern of yellows and blacks and whites. In short, they tell us nothing about color as it is experienced, say much about things that are not color, claim that color is an error of the senses, and then demand to be taken seriously. Many such people will tell you they are religious, attending some service or other once a week, and then are upset if you point out the most everyday spiritual phenomenon right in front of them. They go about thinking now one thing and now another, without reconciling the two. They tell me my findings are entirely subjective. I tell them that the truths I would point to are objective truths about those things we can observe within ourselves. Their notion of objectivity is in fact extreme bias, removing as it does the I—any I—from the world it wishes to observe. My own approach examines the world in total, both what is outside the being and within it. Our bodies live in the world through a color I have called


The Mandala

“peach blossom.” (It does not matter how dark the skin, the effect is the same, and the spirit survives death to live on in other bodies with other skins.) And our spirits perceive, through color, the cosmic forces that unite the material and spiritual realms. Color unites our many bodies, and reminds us that things may be only physical and without life (as in minerals), others are physical and living (as in plants), or physical, living, and ensouled (animals)—while we Men are all of these but with the addition of spirit. To each of these we see a different essence, a different order of existence, and a different image-color. Other than the lifeless properties we have in common with minerals, none of these aspects of being can be measured with any instrument other than the inner eye. This eye may consider color, both inwardly and outwardly, through long practice of contemplation and exercise of the imagination. Thus the painter may learn to allow each color to act according to its nature. All these things and many more I recalled as I watched the Goetheanum burn to the ground. I knew then that the Great War just past, during which peace-loving men and women of all countries labored by my side to raise this

remarkable edifice, was but a prelude to a still more terrible devastation. The signs abound in the material world, as ignorance of various forms sweeps Europe from East to West. Tonight I have confirmation from other realms that beneficial and adversarial energies are not yet at balance. All this I would have known much sooner if I had but spared the time to reflect upon it. But though I even lectured to others on the nature of evil, I have been taken up these last two decades with a project so beautiful it scarcely allowed one to imagine anything else— and certainly it absorbed all the energies of my body and soul. I feel my own reserves are dwindling, but I have the reassurance of my invisible allies that there is time yet to set one last project in motion. Our first great building, its two soaring domes crafted by shipwrights, was but a sacrificial offering on the pyre of human progress. Soon a new building will rise, and it will be an Ark to carry my followers over the waters of the coming deluge. Munsell Most people have their moment of crisis with great visions and perhaps a crack


Dialogues on Color

of thunder. Like my painting of Elijah just before he is carried off in a chariot of fire, it seems all the great stories are attended by this kind of sturm und drang. But my great shift occurred quietly after a short walk, a clearing of the head, when I simply threw out decades of work and built my color model anew on the basis of gathered evidence. When I was a boy, I loved to watch the ships heading in and out of the harbor, the cranes and trucks and trains feeding crates in and out of their bellies—all the machinery of a great port. The toys I preferred were model sailboats, kites, or anything that moved. I prized my gyroscope like a jewel. I would cause it to spin and stand it up on my palm, or on a string, or send it humming across an ice pond. When it moved, its interior form blurred and vanished while it attained its own inner balance. It was alive. All the color theorists, myself included, have prized a balanced color wheel—a sense of proportion and harmony imbuing the whole with a note of perfection. So had I, with enthusiasm, taken up a spherical model like that of the painter Runge, and subjected it to the testing that modern science

allowed. I borrowed Maxwell’s discs as a device for determining whether any set of colors—pairs of opposites or other combinations—are truly balanced. For these discs are set in motion like the gyroscope, blurring the colors into an even mixture of light. By means of this method, I positioned the colors around the color wheel not as we might recite them in any given (and always illogical) world language—but as they truly came into harmony. For convenience, I assigned five simple and five compound hue names to locations that fall equidistant around the perimeter. These ten colors then would underline my decimal system of color measurement, with a further ten gradations placed between each of these—thus creating a hundred finely graduated hues. I then made use of the photometer (my own patented device for quantifying light), to determine the value—or degree of light and dark of each color. By arranging all colors along a vertical dimension—the axis of my color sphere—I showed how they gradually approach by decimal degrees either white or black, at the north and south “poles” of this sphere. The third dimension to the color model is “chroma,” my term for saturation,


The Mandala

intensity, or the relative purity of a color—as opposed to its admixture with other colors. I specified my own term to clarify its perpendicular relationship to the dimension of value. The steps of chroma were determined by eye—but then checked against colors of equal chroma but opposite them on the color wheel. This allowed a sorting out and narrowing down until the correct chroma number (again in decimals) was ascribed to each color. It was at this juncture of chroma and value that my system had its crisis. Order and neatness are necessary for the rational standardization of any subject. And, I would prove, they are equally crucial to a true understanding of beauty. Equally so, my own experience as a painter has demonstrated to my satisfaction, disorder and imbalance are symptomatic of a kind of aesthetic disease. Though I still believe this, it was my own preconceived notions that were obstructing my progress in color theory. For I had determined that the answer to the question of how many steps there should be between colors A and B, should be answered, “As many as can be perceived by the average viewer.” But this would delimit the fineness of our measure. I very quickly found two

mutually destabilizing truths: First, the value (degree of light or dark) at which a given color reaches peak saturation is different depending on the hue. Yellow is most saturated at a higher value, whereas purple is most saturated at a lower level. And second, some colors have more stages of saturation that are visible to the average viewer before they reach peak saturation. Thus red will project much further from the center axis of the sphere than green. For months I sought to push them into place, tweaking decimal values in order to shoehorn them into my patented color sphere. Then I just set it all aside—years of work upended—and built my new color solid as it stands today. It is perfectly accurate, but curiously lopsided. I have sought fruitlessly for some vantage point from which geometrical simplicity and order might be unified with the evidence of the senses. Similarly, those who have attended most carefully to the Newtonian mechanics of our solar system claim there is some slight wanting in its balance, and so assert the existence of some Planet X yet to be observed. I grasp in vain for Color X to bring my model into balance. But a sober analysis


Dialogues on Color

makes it clear that the color solid as I have built it is necessary if we are to standardize color nomenclature. My System is such that there is no color possible—whether currently available or yet to be discovered—for which a spatial coordinate and its accompanying number are not waiting. That my System is embraced in many places provides much satisfaction. Many artists admire it—though indeed, the current fad towards wild and indiscriminate use of color leaves me cold. I have at times been irked by those young firebrands who ask impertinent questions or chuckle amongst themselves at the back of some dimly lit lecture hall. But it is in industry, government, and education that my reforms are most widely embraced, and I foresee a time when all school children will be taught this system, and when industry and government speaks in a unified manner, specifying precisely the same color with a simple alpha-numeric coordinate. How preferable this will be to the confusing and illogical variety of color names in use today! My early academic success in Paris and Rome seemed to assure me a clear path as an artist, and indeed, I never have wanted for work in this area when I

desired it. I had a gift for the orderly and disciplined arts of the classical European tradition. I believe that a great painting stands on its own, just as the gyroscope, whose mechanism cannot be detected by the viewer. But as I moved into the study of color, I moved out of the practice of painting. Meanwhile that small but noisy and attention-seeking contingent in the art world has done much harm to the aesthetic standards of my day. Theirs is an art without discipline, a symptom of a sick society. They are Luddites, exploding the machinery of civilization itself. While I am happy with the ways in which my work has succeeded, I may also hope that the day will come when my work serves as a mathematical standard. A proof that serves to recall the arts to that balance which underlies true beauty. ... In Albert Munsell and Rudolf Steiner we have two thinkers on color operating from within completely different paradigms. The one arising from a Newtonian tradition that deals with color in terms of its quantifiable properties, and separates this study from the subjective experience of color, and the other a strong advocate


The Mandala

for the Goethean world view. They each add significant elements to the traditions they are indebted to, and find themselves even further apart philosophically by the time their views are fully developed. And though Munsell will be unfamiliar to those who have not studied color, his system is readily grasped—when described patiently—by the majority of readers today. He speaks in the lingua franca of the day’s scientific materialism. The task of discussing Steiner is much more challenging among those of us who are unfamiliar with Anthroposophy. Anthroposophy is a variant of the spiritual philosophy Theosophy, which was popular in Europe and America in the decades before and after the turn of the century, and still continues to have a widespread following. The Anthroposophical offshoot, with its emphasis on the Christ event in world history, was developed by the will and vision of Rudolf Steiner, after his views proved too distinct from that of his fellow Theosophists. Through Anthroposophy, Steiner launched the worldwide educational movement of Waldorf schools, provided prescient guidance to those who would develop organic agriculture, saw several

buildings constructed (most notably the first and second Goetheanum buildings, in Dornach, Switzerland), and influenced countless fields of endeavor from art and architecture to medicine and disability studies. Yet, despite these monumental practical impacts, every book on Steiner must begin by addressing the question of why someone so influential is so little known, especially in the English-speaking world—and within academia just as much as outside it. The first reason, arguably, is that Anthroposophy has strong esoteric elements. It deals with hidden knowledge, an understanding of the world that does not come by accepting what is before one’s eyes but from inquiring beyond the reach of the senses. And Steiner’s teachings, though he encourages his followers to observe these spiritual truths for themselves, rely upon his clairvoyance—his own claims of supersensory insight into levels of reality that cannot be measured by ordinary means. The second reason for the general obscurity of this man and his teachings may lie in the close-knit character of the Anthroposophical movement itself. They have their own schools, their own publishing houses, their own


Dialogues on Color

spiritual community—and the lack of understanding the world shows them may feed and be fed by their lack of engagement with the world. In short, there are few books on the subject of Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy that are not written by Anthroposophists, or at the very least, Anthroposophical enthusiasts. And, to put it simply, Steiner and his followers do not speak in the lingua franca of their times. This is to be regretted, as Steiner’s worldview is powerful, and practical. He offers wisdom to those who would accept it and perspective to those who would enjoy it. One need not believe in an Atlantean prehistory in order to gain from what Steiner has to say about the current predicament of humanity, any more than one has to be Catholic to benefit from a Catholic education. Someone needs to write a book on “Steiner for the Rest of Us.” The crux of the dispute between Steiner and those who take a traditional scientific point of view is much the same as between Newton and Goethe, only rendered more sharply. Steiner makes claims we may not assent to, but he senses a real opportunity where science refuses to speak of the quality of color. That is to say the actual experience we

have of color. For what else is color? Steiner and Goethe point out that the things science speaks of are not the thing we mean when we say “I see a gorgeous red.” But the anti-Newtonian camp soon reaches beyond this point, straining scientific credibility but standing up for a certain philosophical position about reality. Steiner and Goethe (and Aristotle according to some readings) want to say more: that there is something science can’t measure but that is true of color “out there” in the world, and not only in our perception of it. There are elements of Rosicrucianism in this, or at least of a faith in explanatory systems akin to the four elements of the Ancient Greeks, the four humors of medieval medicine, etc. Regarding color as “something real in the world” Goethe is perhaps a little vague about what precisely that is, but it plays out as a kind of storytelling or mythologizing of color, wherein colors take on the roles of actors in a great drama. Steiner is sympathetic to this way of thinking, but his spiritual science comes equipped with a whole cosmology of things that might be true but cannot be measured. For the Anthroposophist, the balance is tipped heavily in favor of


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the supersensible side of reality, with the scientific observation of the material world being mere crumbs left over after the main meal has been taken off the table. These matters never entered the thoughts of Albert Munsell, or at least were never considered relevant to his project. He too was remarkably influential within his sphere. Though out of step with the changing art of his times, the Industrial Revolution called for a standardized system of color terminology, and the Munsell Color System was the first to provide it. Today we are more familiar than ever with color standard systems thanks to Pantone color chips, or the colorselection models embedded in the editing software of programs such as Photoshop. But Munsell’s System was the first, and it is still used in many areas of science and industry. It was adopted by the U.S. Government Office of Standards, and the basic notion of a three-dimensional color model, with value (lightness and darkness), hue (the colors of the spectrum) and chroma (a.k.a. saturation or intensity) is the basis for art education on color theory in colleges everywhere.

The step Munsell took that was truly innovative, however, was to break away from a harmonious color geometry in the face of evidence that color is not balanced. In fact, Newton’s original color wheel did have an unbalanced aspect, in that he recorded it as a sort of pie chart, divided into wedges of unequal size based upon the portion of the color spectrum taken up by his seven principal colors—the famous ROY-G-BIV of the color spectrum. But color theorists soon adapted a more symmetrical distribution of colors around the wheel. That is to say, the colors that a given theorist thinks of as salient are laid out around the perimeter in the order of the spectrum, but not in their empirically available quantities. In contrast, Munsell did such things as arrange his wheel strictly by placing opposite each other those colors that mix optically to make a middle grey. As a result, the color he terms “blue” is not exactly the blue most people in our culture would grant primary status. After Munsell, other systems of standardization followed suit, bowing to the data rather than our linguistic and cultural categories. The CIE (Commision international de l’eclairage or International Commission


Dialogues on Color

on Illumination) 1931 Color Space is a prominent example of a color model whose shape is lopsided rather than symmetrical, as would be inspired by intuition. One of the most notable innovations of Munsell’s system was his replacement of common color terms with a numeric code, based on the coordinate within the model where each color could be found. This would allow printers to deliver colored materials matched to exacting specifications from designers and serve the interests of accurate color reproduction and commerce. Munsell also claimed it allowed him to calculate the aesthetic merits of a given color palette mathematically—stipulating that those color selections that balanced on a neutral grey of medium value were most beautiful. He based these claims on a discussion of the viewer’s response that is a near perfect echo of Aristotle: The sense of comfort is the outcome of balance, while marked unbalance immediately urges a corrective. That this approximate balance is desirable may be shown by reference to our behavior, as to temperatures, qualities of smoothness and roughness, degrees of light and dark, proportion of work and rest. One special application of this quality is balance which underlies

beautiful colors. The use of the strongest colors only fatigues the eyes, which is also true of the weakest colors. In a broad sense we may say that color balances on middle grey.

Those who produced books promoting Munsell’s System after his death included such notable color theorists as Faber Birren. Birren, like Munsell, disliked the art of the twentieth century. Munsell: A Grammar of Color has significant contributions from Birren and was published not by a publisher of art books but by the Strathmore Paper Company. In it, Birren supports Munsell’s claim to have achieved mathematical proofs of beauty with phrases like, “Beauty and concord were thus proved,” and “Beauty will be planned.” In Birren’s defense, grandiose claims about the universality of one’s own system of aesthetics were commonplace among mid-century artists and theorists. Arguably, Munsell’s color solid has a lot to teach us about the weirdness of color, rather than its harmony. Munsell is dead right that the terms for color in our language do not match up with the way color comes to us (Newton’s imposed color names ROYG-BIV carve up the spectrum quite


The Mandala

haphazardly). The way in which the hues of the rainbow are spread around the circumference of Munsell’s model is less clunky than in Newton’s wheel, but its colors remain odd to those of us who are used to seeing red, yellow, and blue set on the points of an equilateral triangle inscribed upon the circle. That model, promoted by Johannes Itten, is in this sense more influential than Munsell’s. Likewise, it is hard to remember the color terms Munsell gives these hues, as there are five principal colors and five intermediates, and most of them do not strike us as the kind of “true blue” we are culturally predisposed to look for. Furthermore, explore within his color solid and you will find the world dominated by vast murky patches of greys and browns that have no popular color names. You will also see oranges that seem to have more yellow in them even when they have only been lightened with white, a phenomenon called “hue shift.” And you will find that the category of yellow, when explored in all its shades and tints, is mostly made up of colors one might call “bruised banana” or “baby shit,” but rarely “yellow.” Given that Munsell himself was an artist with a deep commitment to

aesthetic principles of balance and harmony, this embrace of a lopsided color model was a big step for him to take. It was also a parting of the ways between color theory meant to serve working artists and color theory designed to serve an industrialized society, with its interest in selling standardized soft drink products, produced and packaged at factories around the globe, all bearing the identical branded color red. Tatlin and Kandinsky The two men met in a Moscow café across a broad avenue from Gorky Park. Tatlin, the younger of the two, whose boyish looks made him seem even more the junior, arrived first. He sat outside despite the chill of early autumn, and had the woman who was working there bring a bottle of vodka and two ceramic cups, old and chipped. Several brown and grey sparrows pecked for crumbs on and underneath the tables. He was watching office girls returning from the park when the shadow of the older man fell upon him. “Ah, my artist comrade,” he said, looking up at the well dressed man, buttoned down in a tweedy three-piece suit, his hair glowing from the sun


Dialogues on Color

behind. “I am sorry I started without you. Please sit.” Kandinsky smiled with his mouth, but not his eyes. “That is quite alright. I am afraid you will have to do most of the drinking. I take strong beverages only in very small quantities.” He sat in the creaking wooden chair and looked around. “I remember this place from before the war. It has gone downhill. But at least I can afford it now.” They toasted each other and drank quietly for a moment. A loud truck ground its way down the street, passing carts hauled by mules and workers carrying loads on bicycles. The green of the park shone in clouds of dust and soot. “I wanted to see you before I leave. I am going to Weimar, to join Gropius at the Bauhaus.” Tatlin pulled a sour face. “I am sorry to hear it, though we have disagreed on matters of art and education, Germany does not deserve such a leading artist.” “Germany is not the reason I go. Russia is—and her juvenile rejection of her mystical roots.” “Well Wassily, as you know, you can count me among those who reject your immaterial focus. I make art for the people, who must deal with the day to day realities of this world.” He downed his cup and set it before him

with a clack, as though to bring the two men into that material reality of cup and table. The sparrows hopped away, eyeing the pair before continuing their pecking. Meanwhile, his companion drew a long face, but soon softened it. Kandinsky sipped his vodka and cleared his throat. “But there is something in your work, Vladimir, that sends men’s thoughts to a higher plane. You may claim it is only a construction, a mathematical result of material plus labor. But your tower, though it may never be built, makes the spirit of man fly.” His arm gestured in circles, indicating the cloudy sky overhead. “That is good of you to say. I do not deny that the spirit of man may fly. Your words, even, inspire me now. But I think we disagree about what this is—this spirit and this flight.” He poured them each a little more vodka and leaned back. “But tell me more about your plans. You have a beautiful young wife. You have your work here I thought?” “My Nina will come with me, of course. Her father can no longer protect us, and my work has only brought criticism and unwanted scrutiny from the authorities. All of my proposals for an avant-garde education curriculum are


The Mandala

rejected as too subjective and bourgeois. Russia is like a man who feels in his heart too deeply, and so turns his back on anything that might lead to pain, shutting out love to avoid its loss.” “Comrade, it is not that your work is too avant-garde, it is that you cling still to outdated notions of painting. You make wonderful canvasses, and indeed they have become radically non-objective of late. But canvasses, unlike murals or public constructions, are meant for the interior of a banker’s home. You balance point and line and yellow and blue better perhaps than anyone, but you ask people to regard these elements as conduits to a spirit world. This is no different than the way the people were deluded into worshipping those icons of the Orthodox Church, while the Patriarchs and the Czar stole their labor.” “I think it is you who are deluded, though I say it sadly. Even as you explain why my spiritual art is inconsistent with the Soviet state, that same government frowns upon us both, telling us we should paint in a childish narrative manner. Darkness is falling in Russia. I have no doubt that a new day will dawn here, in the East, but until then I will keep a spark alive where I find hospitality.”

“Let us not argue, our time is limited. Drink a little more and speak of other things. What is engaging you lately, how do you occupy your mind?” “Well, Mr. Tatlin, that is a good sentiment and I will tell you, but first I warn you that you will object to this too. I take up the study of color again, as I prepare to teach in Weimar. You know, I take it, that I am a member of the Theosophical Society? It is what outsiders consider a religion, but is in fact a science of the human spirit. For that there is a spirit in all men cannot be denied, and that science has heretofore striven to exclude the spirit from its calculations is also clear. Well, we Theosophists observe, objectively, that which is within each human soul.” “Very well, tell me and I will refrain from judging.” He spoke in a friendly tone, but also set to drinking the vodka more efficiently. The elder reached a hand beneath jacket and vest to pull out some typed pages, folded in thirds. “I have here at my breast a copy of a manuscript of the great Rudolf Steiner—his lectures on color. I think when Russia embraces her spiritual leaders, such as Madame Blavatsky, then a new day will come, as I said. Anyway, I will leave you this


Dialogues on Color

copy of his words. I have read it many times, always discovering new truths within it. He shows the results from his direct observation of color as it is in our experience. This is the crucial difference between his work and that of a mere physicist like Newton. They say they are talking about color, but they are talking about something that cannot be seen, some supposed subvisible particles that they claim cause color. But they also say color is merely an illusion—and of our experience of color they say nothing!” “I have heard these arguments before, and know and admire Goethe’s work on the subject as much as anyone. But don’t you agree that science is contributing much to our understanding of color? Newton, after all, gave us the color wheel.” “It is ironic that he did. I believe it is because of his preoccupation with alchemy that he even could devise it—for the color wheel is not material reality, but spiritual. But no, science has detracted, in this matter and many others, from our ability to properly see the world. For it considers color as it might be if no one were there to see it, and it says that any thing else is illusion.” “Well tell me more, old fellow, about the color wheel then. How is it not

scientific in the usual material sense? What is it if not a tool laying down the relationship of colors in terms of their properties as quantified by science?” “Vodka makes you bold friend, but also a bit narrow-minded. The color wheel—and other forms such as Goethe’s color pyramid, or even a color square giving equal weight to green alongside red, yellow, and blue—is a sort of spiritual geometry. It can be a mandala, describing deity, earth, or cosmos. I do not deny that most colors wheels are limited in their effect because they rather slavishly lay out colors around their perimeter in the order of Newton’s spectrum.” “Ah, but your color wheel does not! Yes I have read your book On the Spiritual in Art and recall you have the only wheel with a different color order.” “I am heartened that you read it. And while I think mine is not the only one, you are right that my color wheel lays the colors out according to the properties my soul perceives. For I have always been keenly aware—since childhood—that each color lives its own mysterious life. Do not laugh. You chase away these birds, and also beneficial spirits, when you mock them. At any rate—it arises that violet and orange are


The Mandala

a pair of antitheses, as yellow and blue are, and red and green. But those who follow the spectrum place blue opposite orange, for example, confusing the principle of opposing forces.” “But I have seen quite another way of arranging color. Are you familiar with the work of the American Albert Munsell? I first came upon his work during my travels in France.” “Only at a distance. And I fear that America’s capitalist focus on industry is no more enlightened than the Soviet one. Both take obsession with the material world too far.” “Indeed,” the younger man smiled and spread his hands in mock surrender, “I am myself planning a series of tests on surface materials and coatings on an industrial scale inspired by the systematic study of color this American has completed. This is a task fit for an artist-worker who wishes to benefit the masses. Well, Munsell’s color opposites are determined by use of spinning discs. If the two colors on the disc make a neutral grey when it is spinning, then they are arranged opposite each other on the color wheel. “I know of these spinning disks, they were the invention of the physicist Maxwell, and mere conjuror’s tricks.

Though the one thing I commend in them, and in Munsell’s method as I understand it, is that they are at least a study of the reaction of the human eye, rather than of color in the absence of eyes.” “Well, for all his American practicality Munsell too started out under the impression that a color wheel must be a tool for balancing colors. And this remains his principle, but his pursuit of empirical data on color perception led him to a most lopsided form. So he renamed his “color sphere” a “color solid.” Tatlin drew an outline in the grit and dust of the tabletop, revealing a form like a balloon that had been partially deflated on the bottom of one side. “This is a cross section of the solid showing how yellow reaches a greater intensity at a lighter value.” He then drew another outline, with the balloon form misshapen towards the top left and jutting out on the bottom right. “Here we see how purple protrudes from the solid at a darker value, for the richest purple is also a dark one.” The old man stared hard, and with a reddening face, at these doodles. The younger, suddenly looking all of his actual middle-aged years, picked up the bottle of vodka and upended it into his


Dialogues on Color

mouth, drinking it off. He set it down hard and smiled unpleasantly. The other shook his head in dismay. “Your drawings there offend me. I hope no artists make the mistake of taking such a deformity seriously.” “And your refusal to face reality, though it be ugly, offends me. You do this in the home as well, Kandinsky. That Nina lives with a lot of paintings, and you, and a ghost of the child you won’t allow anyone to speak of.” At this the other man stood abruptly, his wooden seat clattering to the pavers behind him. “Malevich was right about you. You are the one who refuses to face reality. I am sorry I came.” He re-buttoned his jacket slowly and stooped to pick up his chair. Tatlin sat still, smirking up at the old man. The working woman, come to collect the bottle and cups, stood uncertainly before them. “Here,” Kandinsky sighed, pulling money from a pocket at his waist, “money for the drink and words for the soul.” He scattered the coins across the table, along with Steiner’s lecture on color, and walked away. Kandinksy Materialism has been my antagonist

at every major turning point in life. I began, of course, as a scientist of the material—I studied and achieved an elevated position in economics. But, thank God, fate intervened and I saw the world like a baby again when I was thirty years old. There were several artworks that came along, as periodic messengers, to open my eyes wider and wider. First there was the simple, primitive folk art of Vologda, in the North of my country. The effect of walking into rooms full of color was like walking into a painting. But the rupture for me was when I went to see those paintings of haystacks by Monet, upon their exhibition in Moscow. How disturbed I was by the liberty that man had taken! My intellect objected strenuously to his claim, by the simple means of a title in the exhibition catalog, that he had depicted there such a prosaic subject. Then, even as I angrily muttered and paced the gallery, my eyes were irresistibly drawn, as the tide is drawn to the moon, by those wondrous paintings. My spirit awoke that day to the power of color. I spent many weeks thereafter wrestling with myself over the very meaning of painting. My soul half hoped that my intellectual objections would win out. That I would prove


The Mandala

somehow that such wild use of color is in error. For I was like my fellow countrymen. We Russians being highly sensitive to spiritual disturbances, and therefore often inclined to embrace the material realities more stridently, as being a safe harbor from the storms of the soul. But the haystacks were burned into my spirit like a hot brand on flesh. I was altered forever by them, and dedicated myself henceforth to the pursuit of higher realities. For one brief period, after the Revolution, hope suffused me that Russia would lead the way in this regard. But the masses were not, as they could not be, ready to follow those of us at the tip of the arrow. Our plans were contrary to the materialism of the communists—who sought to reduce the world to resources and labor hours, and art to so much raw canvas and paint. Tatlin had an element of the dreamer in his efforts, but was overeager to conform to the perspective of industry. Only Malevich truly joined me in proposing a totally non-objective art. So they rejected my plans, and I accepted Gropius’ invitation to join the Bauhaus, which was at Weimar in those days. For the energy of the cultural world had swung eastwards out of Paris,

and created a Russian-German axis of innovation. Malevich’s masterpiece Black Square marks the zenith of our efforts in Russia. Pure spirit occupying pure soul is how that scientist of the invisible Rudolf Steiner would have described it. It is not a thing to be repeated, but it stands on the cover, as it were, of the book of non-objective exploration. From there we began our work. Many would lose their way, straying down a track of formalism as pure utility. They create formulas for an accountant to use, measuring and weighing the elements of a painting in the abstract, rather than dwelling in them as embodied spiritual forces. Others remained trapped in the materialism of representational painting. Tatlin and Malevich and the others, having remained in Russia, were forced to swim with the current, or cease their activities entirely. So it was left to me to take the project with me to that great incubator of new artistic vision, the Bauhaus. That school was an international gathering place for the new order in art. The artists of previous decades had done much of the work of demolishing the past. The first World War—we hoped then it was the last—at least had


Dialogues on Color

the effect of discrediting old ways of thought. We received the call to set the framework for a new world. It was not as though my own views were universally implemented, but the atmosphere was one of spiritual striving and my views found many sympathetic ears and had their place amongst the others. I have seen much of that spiritual project realized in my own time, though it is only recognized by that small minority who lead the way for mankind. My work at the Bauhaus, alongside those who agreed with me and those who did not, was amongst the most satisfying stages of my journey. I saw, of course, Munsell’s deformed apple of a color model have its share of influence. But even Ostwald, who was a scientist and admired that so-called system, knew that harmony must win out over supposed objectivity. And Itten, whose twelve-point color wheel may outlast them all, was inspired by the sacred fires of his curious brand of Zoroastrianism, and so embraced a sacred geometry. Meanwhile, as my life enters its twilight, a dark night is falling on the world. That intolerance which caused me to leave Russia forever has found different philosophical means to reach the same sad end in Germany. And this

second sickness has swept over my place of exile here in France. Everywhere one looks the pursuit of truth is snuffed out like a candle beneath a bell. If I did not have the assurance of Theosophical Science I would give way to despair. But I know with certainty that day shall follow night. And I believe that it will rise in the East, in my homeland of Russia. For though their current government is as materialistic as the Americans’, my people are as spiritual as the nation of Hindus. Are not Russia’s own Tolstoy and Madame Blavatsky, as well as Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, among the leading lights towards a spiritual path? The very soil of that nation teems with the potencies of the spirit world. I hope to be born there again, when a spirit like mine seems needful, and a greater portion of humanity is prepared to penetrate into true reality. Tatlin “These dreams,” said the man from the committee, “have served their propagandistic function, but they remain overly subjective.” This was in 1932, at my Moscow exhibition. The Museum Director, who was standing by my side under the grand ceiling of the exhibition hall, grew pale. I simply


The Mandala

looked up and smiled at my Letatlin—a flying machine like Leonardo’s— suspended from wires. This was only a year or two before the famine and ten years after I last saw Kandinsky. And that famine year was followed by Stalin’s first great purge. The Museum Director did not survive. Somehow the “Art Worker Tatlin” was permitted to live. I did not produce the social realist works the committee man called for, but I no longer allowed myself such utopian sentiments. I painted flowers—where I could do things in color which they would not perceive, and which they suffered me to do under the ruse that these were teaching demonstrations. I still cherish my well-thumbed copy of Munsell’s Grammar of Color Color. Those Americans had succeeded to create within capitalism the sort of thing we were supposed to do within our collectivist state. This is a lavishly designed book published by a paper company explaining the best means for accurately determining colors for printing on paper. It is an industrial production for and about industrial production. Though weighed down by its creator’s bourgeois aesthetic notions, Munsell’s system for color notation

is a work of science and art, creating standards for government and industry. My own experiments with materials and surface coatings, undertaken with such optimism years ago, lie forgotten in the bottom drawer of my dresser. While it was clear that this American color theorist was quite reactionary in his own art, I saw that through his blind obedience to industry and love for mathematical forms, he had accidently found a geometry of color devoid of the spiritual fog so many attach to the subject. Kandinsky, for instance, may as well be an alchemist for all the necromancy he contrives. Munsell was no mystic. Here was a geometry depicting the color space Newton and Maxwell had discovered. Here were the spiral forms, so reminiscent of my Monument to the Third International International, emerging from experiment and testing. And though he began his color sphere with the kind of cryptic geometry that typifies most color circles, he soon allowed his test results to push the sphere into its natural asymmetric form—his “color solid.” Munsell, of course, clung to some tedious ideas about harmony and balance—which amounted to a mathematical formulation of


Dialogues on Color

his bourgeois taste. But that is the point. His System allowed for such formulations, and his method pursued test results at the expense of this balance. For where is the center of balance of his later color solid? For Munsell’s model is like a half-eaten apple. I say it only balances when it is in movement, spinning on its axis. And if one can quantify what palette serves the needs of capitalists, one can do so also for the worker. But now go and see for yourself the taste exemplified in the Moscow subway. It is Victorian, Tsarist, Imperialist kitsch all over again. Well, my little flower paintings are no better. I waste my remaining days with these self-indulgent expressions. They are covert depictions of myself, or maybe occasionally my students and my friends. Vanitas depictions of lives wasted; plucked and arranged and dying. In them I use Munsell’s hue, value, and chroma to assemble color disharmonies he would have despised. He was smugly insistent on the beauty of balance. Very well. I lost my balance when Stalin lost his. Well I am not without some pride, and sometimes pretend to compare myself to Leonardo da Vinci. He also spent much of his labor on works

of practical benefit to all mankind. And like me, he left more dreams to posterity than actual constructions. His ornithopter was my last true inspiration. And his times also inspired visions of terrible cataclysm. He wrote: It will seem to men that they see unknown destructions in the sky. It will seem that they are flying up into the sky, and then they are fleeing in terror from the flames that pour down from there.

And so I created my dream on the model of a great bird and called it proudly “Letatlin”—the pun being a contraction of the words “to fly” and my own name. The cockpit of the Letatlin embraces your torso like an extension of the rib cage. The pilot’s arms become wings. Bézier curves fork outward from fingertips, and the worker metamorphoses into an angel. I foresaw my countrymen, and all the world’s laborers, taking to the skies. Then after the latest war, I met a veteran, one of those women they called “night witches.” She flew missions of fire over the invading Nazi army in an aircraft of wood and canvas. Men seem only able to create beauty on a massive scale when bent to works of brutality. Leonardo calls the bird an animal


The Mandala

creator thinks is important about color. We might compare the color wheel to a map of the color world, but the analogy is imperfect. There is no place we might call a color world, whereas maps are models of spatial realities that we can experience directly. Color only sits in circles when we arrange it that way. A ... better analogy is to the periodic table of Geometry, with its uncanny joining the elements. of the immaterial to the concrete, its Like the color wheel, we are shown intuitive validity, and its internal logic, the periodic table in school and given has been a source of inspiration for any the impression that it really exists number of philosophers including Plato, somehow. We know it is just in our Steiner, and Wittgenstein. And there heads, yet we think of it as real—perhaps are recurring geometrical figures that in the way that geometrical figures are have served almost as idols for many real. It certainly is handy, as it lines all who have bent themselves to the study the elements up according to two major of color. Among the color models we properties along an x-axis and a y-axis. have seen are color wheels, triangles, And like Munsell’s color system, which and spheres—each of which allows us to holds a place for any future color that cast the properties of color in a different may come along, the periodic table light. even prompted the discovery of new But the color wheel is not real. There elements. (Munsell’s color chips are is no such thing in nature and it is based on print technology, so as colorprobably better to describe these models chemistry evolves, new colors do, in fact, as things we invent, rather than discover. come along to fill their places.) This is The fact that there is very nearly a a pretty impressive feat for a cultural different one for every color theorist is construct. On the other hand, just as proof enough that these devices model there are many alternative color models, a theory for us at least as much as they there are also alternative tables of the model color; they tell us what their elements. To the astonishment of most “that flees from one element to another” and indeed I would escape my cage if I could. In these twilight years, I dream each night I am a bird. But when I awake I put on the uniform I have designed for myself, and I put my dreams away in a drawer.


Dialogues on Color

non-chemists there are proposals for other such models based on different prioritizations of the properties of elements. Some of these tables are three dimensional instead of merely two. We may recall being puzzled by that odd section of the periodic table, sequestered down at the bottom, in which a series of elements is supposed to squeeze into a space above, that is too small for it. No model is perfect, and the varying geometries are a product of our decisions about which properties should line up neatly. The geometries of most color models are more inspirational than empirical, but that doesn’t prevent them from having certain uses. Newton’s circle certainly had its poetic resonance, but it also reveals a color we can make by mixing the two ends of the spectrum. Perhaps Newton saw that if you took the line that is the visible spectrum and bent it to make the ends meet, you create a kind of world of color. It was Goethe’s friend Philip Otto Runge who literalized this notion of a color world with his color sphere, a three-dimensional model of color that, ironically, paved the way for Munsell’s decimalized systematic labeling of all colors.

Another color oddity is revealed by examination of the effect we introduce when we bend the spectrum into a circle and attach the two ends to each other. The range of purples and magentas we see from the convergence of red and violet do not naturally appear in the visible spectrum. They are synthetic. When we see other colors the stimulus might be ‘pure’—a single piece of the electromagnetic spectrum, or it might be a whole bunch of wavelengths that our perceptual apparatus interprets as that single color. With purple there is no such wavelength. The CIE Color Space renders this purple as a straight line, closing off the top of its otherwise curved horseshoe form. The straight line underscores the artificiality of the color. A lesser known but persistent geometrical form in color theory has been the spiral. As we can observe in an interactive way when visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, the spiral is like a circle that extends into a third dimension, and so never closes. We revisit the same spot again and again, but shifted up or down. Likewise we find ourselves positioned horizontally opposite but slightly above or below the same spot, over and over. If there is a brilliant green painting


The Mandala

halfway up the spiral, we may see it close up once, but also at a distance two or three times from the opposite side of the spiral. And we may know ourselves to be above or below it on multiple occasions. There is deja-vu built into the form. And indeed Rudolf Steiner offers the spiral, and our own planet’s path through the galaxy while orbiting the sun, as a model for the form history takes. But most of all, the spiral inspires us. It soars upwards like Tatlin’s flying machine or like his spiral tower. We also note Goethe’s spiral notion for a color model—a nautilus form spiraling out two-dimensionally from a center. One hesitates to affix colors and properties to any one place along this line. Spirals need not move but motion is inherent in the way we think of them. But not only poets find their inspiration in the spiral. Watson, while he and Crick were working out the structure of the DNA molecule, famously dreamt the double helix form in his sleep. His dream is sometimes reported as a spiral staircase and sometimes reported as two snakes spiraling around each other with their heads going in opposite directions. And Munsell’s diaries note that his System was inspired not by a sphere but by

a friend’s use of a spiral as a diagram of color. Possibly this friend had read Goethe—in which case Munsell would be an heir of Goethe as well as of Newton. His filing with the patent office for his color sphere was in fact illustrated as a sphere criss-crossed with diagonal spiraling lines, rather than the horizontal and vertical longitude and latitude of his more mature work. He then described the sphere as a “rotating model” underlining the notion of dynamism that spirals so strongly suggest. Still later, when his color sphere had evolved into an irregular color solid, he continued to advocate aesthetic formulas based on sets of colors found along elliptical and spiraling paths through the body of the model. In short, Munsell never fully let go of the idea of a color system governed by an intuitively beautiful geometrical form. The idea that there might be a “Color X,” much like the elusive “Planet X” (which was indeed discovered as predicted and named Pluto), which would bring the color solid into balance, is not completely hopeless. Though we know of no one who has done it, a model might be designed to illustrate the whole electromagnetic spectrum of James Clerk Maxwell, whose spinning


Dialogues on Color

color discs Munsell somehow connived to also patent. Butterflies, after all, see ultraviolet light. Their color wheel would prove Munsell wrong in his claim that there is a space waiting for every possible color, as ultraviolet would require that the color wheel that forms the equator of his model be prised apart at the juncture of violet and purple, in order to fit this new hue in. One can only guess what the final geometrical form would be of a model taking in radio waves, microwaves, and the rest. To the degree that our culture is ruled by commerce and materialism, Newton’s mechanistic interpretation of color was destined to win out. The legacy of fascism in Germany, meanwhile, helped to blunt the influence of German philosophers such as Goethe and his successors. Thus the big questions about color came largely to be answered as Newton framed them: Color is a measurable phenomenon— one that can be discussed meaningfully in terms of invisible physical causes. A color theory ought to be the science of how this phenomenon comes about. And then of course, color properties are best modeled as a wheel. If Munsell spoke to the Newtonian urge to quantify color, then his

contemporary Rudolph Steiner was a clear and self-avowed standard-bearer for Goethe. Such Goethean views of color were near and dear to many important early modernist artists, in particular those at the Bauhaus in Germany, easily the most influential art school of the twentieth century. Steiner’s overall project to synthesize science and mysticism into his Anthroposophy led to a color theory that rejected the quantification of color. He wrote, “If you realize that art always has a relation to the spirit, you will understand that both in creating and appreciating it, art is something through which one enters the spiritual world.” Accordingly his color theory treats color as a means for humanity to be lifted from the material to the spiritual. Steiner persistently characterized all things in nature, including ourselves and the colors we are surrounded by, as being constantly in metamorphosis from one state into another. His was a color theory that acknowledged that we do feel certain ways about certain colors. He gives us permission to notice that for every human everywhere blue is associated with the sky, and so with heaven, green is associated with plants and the primordial, red is associated


The Mandala

with blood and life, and so on. He saw observations like these as objective spiritual truths and his were uniquely substantiated, to his satisfaction at least, by his direct perceptions of the spiritual world. But for us these truths may also offer a first step towards a contextual color theory. These two theorists—one an American artist working within the context of the Industrial Revolution and the other an Austrian philosopher seeking to discover the spiritual

potential of humanity—typified the currents of color theory in the early twentieth century. Modernist artists and educators at the Bauhaus were well aware of these theories and others like them. Abstract artists throughout the Modernist period went on to create lifetimes of work in color that sought to experiment both with the potential for color to be handled systematically as well as to open new frontiers of spiritual awareness.



The Silence

Or a dialogue between Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tom and Huck, and certain other characters, with commentary by the author Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was an Austrian-British logician and mathematician who was in favor of discontinuing the conceptual-thinking tradition known as Western philosophy. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are beloved fictional characters from American Literature. Injun Joe is Tom Sawyer’s antagonist, “that murderous halfbreed” as Huck Finn introduces him.


ittgenstein is perhaps the last great Western philosopher to tackle color theory as a serious subject, taking a place alongside Aristotle, Newton, Goethe, and Steiner. Other than these five, very few have given color a full accounting and special status as a subject of philosophy. Of course, philosophers very often use color in examples illustrating philosophical problems relating to epistemology and ontology, as Hume did in his famously

troubling comment about the “missing blue.” After Goethe, the strands of color theory begin to proliferate, with artists, scientists, and industrialists proposing theories that take dramatically different paths. For his part, Wittgenstein read and commented on Goethe’s theories, denounced the chemist and color theorist Ostwald (who published Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Tractatus) as a charlatan, and left a startling series of notes on color, published after his death. Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour includes the following distinction:


Dialogues on Color

22. We do not want to establish a theory of colour (neither a physiological one nor a psychological one), but rather the logic of colour concepts. And this accomplishes what people have often unjustly expected of a theory.

This is a singularly clear statement as to the ambitions of his project in color— to create something that is not a color theory but possibly better. A theory to obliterate color theory, much as his Tractatus put forth a philosophy for obliterating philosophy. The Remarks, published from an assemblage of overlapping manuscripts and random notes, is fairly inscrutable to the first time reader. It also doesn’t strike one as fully delivering what the above quote promises. But repeated exposure allows one to become used to his method and appreciate his achievement. His statements are often straightforward enough in and of themselves—it is their approach to color as a “language game” that takes some adjustment. What the experienced reader discovers, within a page of the book’s opening, is that Wittgenstein has proposed many of the tenets of a critical theory of color. By this I mean an approach more in keeping with our own twenty-first century critical

theory, adopting practices which seek to deconstruct meanings built into the structure of the ways we think about a subject. But this project of deconstruction that Wittgenstein has left for us has not been done. Artists who were contemporaries of Wittgenstein busily and successfully codified the modernist color theory of the Bauhaus. Scientists and industrialists developed ever better methods for the measurement and reproduction of color. But the philosophical thread of this conversation was lost with the shift of the art world from Europe to the United States. By the time Warhol discarded abstract expressionism, and adopted a more mercenary approach to color and its uses, color theory had become a relic of a bygone age. Today, art school courses on design principles tend to serve up a tidy summary of Bauhaus modernist principles, attended by conservative attitudes towards color theory emphasizing color reproduction. As for the “logic of colour concepts” that Wittgenstein sought to establish, little has been said. Tom and Huck, Part 1 Tom sat on his porch in a small Missouri


The Silence

town late in a remarkably long life. The house was in the modern “bungalow” style, made from a kit delivered on a train car from Montgomery Ward. The vehicles that trundled past the house were motorized more often than horse-drawn. Their noise made reading an already difficult book all the more impossible. He pulled off his spectacles and rubbed his eyes to see if the words were any clearer without the intervening glass, but his mind remained as cloudy as ever. The scene across the road, however, popped into view with the reading glasses removed, and Tom was enchanted to see the familiar long stride of his very old friend Huck, making his way downtown. A thrill of envy flushed through his veins, as Tom knew where Huck would be going at 11am on a Tuesday. Tom himself was under strict orders from the doctor, and stricter orders from Becky, not to seek out the back door of the Golden Spike or any other such place where alcohol was illegally served. He had already tried to slip away this morning and didn’t think the time was yet ripe for trying again, so he determined that he would seek company in his misery. “Hawg!” he called out inarticulately but loudly, causing a passing automobile

to tap its breaks but not so much as a hitch in Huck’s step. Tom reached into the glass jar beside his chair and withdrew the contents, his full set of teeth, from a fluoride bath. Popping them in his mouth, he then cupped his hands to his face and propelled his next loud “Huck!” straight at the back of his friend’s head. Huck ducked however, so that it didn’t harm him a bit and, looking over his shoulder, made for the nearest alley. “HUCK—S’ME! TOM!” This last seemed to grab the vagrant by the collar and he reluctantly turned around and pointed with a thumb over his shoulder, towards the delights of downtown. He waggled his shoulders that way too, as if inviting Tom to come along. Tom responded by letting his spectacles drop back onto his nose and picking his book back up with a determined air. He would let Huck wonder about that for a bit. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, said the cover. Ludwig Wittgenstein. (Tom had decided it was best if he started again at the place where he had begun to lose the thread of the thing.) Dusk was setting in when Tom was turning the last page and considering the meaning of the silent nothing with


Dialogues on Color

which the book concluded, when his traitorous friend Huck came slouching back up the road and hailed him. “Well hello, Tom, how you been?” “How’ve I been? Well I reckon just fine, no thanks to you. Whyn’t you stop when I shouted for to you to do it this morning?” Huck looked down and shuffled a bit, as was only decent. “Well shucks, Tom, I saw you was reading and didn’t figger I oughta disturb you. Must be a pretty good book then?” He queried the last hopefully, begging Tom to let him off the hook for drinking without him. “Good!” Tom slapped his head in astonishment. “Why I reckon this book would lick all the other books you’d find in the library, and their kin too.” Huck grinned and nodded, as if that’s just what he thought all along. “Well Tom, I always knew you do know how to have fun.” Tom puffed up a little and remarked, “You know, if it wasn’t such a good and important book, I might even let you borrow it.” Huck scowled some and blushed, saying, “Come on, Tom, why you gotta say that, you know I can hardly spell my own name.” “Well you might get one of them

girls who likes you so much to read it to you, mightn’t you?” Huck nodded, frowning, and kicked the dust with his shoe, the sole of which flopped away from the uppers as he did so. “But anyway, the title is in Latin, ‘Tractatus’ something, and you might find the rest of it reads about as well as I do just by sounding it out. The whole point of these awfully deep writings is not to fathom them entirely, but just to sort of swim about in them to get an idea what the water’s like. Why I figure I’m in right good company, not understanding what this book is about.” Huck scratched his chin a little and looked up at the stars coming out as the daylight fled. Then he looked Tom right in the eye. “You wouldn’t be tryin’ to trick me, would you? Make me hear some jibberish and laugh at me when I don’t notice it don’t mean a thing?” “Gosh no, Huck, that’d be mighty low! But you’re onto something about these deep thoughts already.” “I am?” Huck looked a little eager and crept up towards the porch steps to get a closer look at the book Tom was waving about. “What am I on to?” “Well it’s right here, hidden at the back—he says if you can ever figure out what he’s saying then you’ll figure


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out the whole book is just a bunch of nonsense!” “He does not.” Huck stood up straight, affronted. “Does so.” Tom waved the book harder and balled up his other hand in a fist. “In English?” Huck proceeded to pull himself up the steps to sidle alongside Tom and peer down at the book. “You bet, only they had to put it in English for him I guess, since he wrote in German.” “German!” Huck jumped back, and nearly fell down the steps. He squatted on the floor instead and rested for a moment. “Well yes, he even fought for th’other side in the Great War out of a sense of duty. I guess we ought to forgive it though, since he lost. They say he was real heroic too, and wrote this book while he was at it.” “I dunno, Tom, doesn’t feel right on account of all those boys we lost.” “Oh shucks, it wasn’t our boys he was fightin’ Huck. He was in a different theater as they say, shooting at the Russians and the Italians.” Huck mopped his brow. “Well that’s a relief. I got to wondering about you

there for a minute, Tom. But I’m sorry I ever did.” At this, Huck pulled himself back to his feet and made to reach for the book. Tom pulled it away fast. “Hey now, what’s the idea? “Idea? Why it was your idea!” “I only said it might be a good thing for you to hear some of this wisdom. I didn’t say I’d let you have it.” “Well, Tom, suit yerself, but it was me figured out it was all nonsense, didn’t you say so?” “I did, I did. But then I got thirsty and kind of lost my train of thought.” Huck smiled and pulled out a dented tin flask. “I knew you were thirsty all along, Tom, and I brung you somethin’ for that. Now hand over the book. Ethel’s coming by my place pretty soon. I reckon she’ll think I’m a real deep file when I tell her what I knowed about this ‘Tractatus’ without even opening it.” The old friends exchanged these items with unusual eagerness, and Huck let gravity do most of the work taking him back down the porch steps to the sidewalk. “Stop by tomorrow with some more of this bathwater and I’ll learn you the finer points, if you want.” Tom called out as Huck strolled off into the cicadafilled evening air. ...


Dialogues on Color

In this passage we find Tom and Huck wrestling with a tough problem for any of us—how to read a book we do not understand. The problem of course is always relative. If the book is entirely in ancient Hittite then perhaps we should not kid ourselves. On the other hand if the book is entirely clear to us we may feel cheated. In no good book do we ever fully understand each and every move made by the author. We sail across these gaps in our own understanding with the faith that more will become clear in due course. We may even feel the book is richer for its ambiguities. This is not an approach Wittgenstein seems to credit, but we are not obliged to adopt his system in order to read his book—a book very few would claim to understand, with its Latin title and frequent passages in the symbol language of highly theoretical logic, that forbid the uninitiated from entering. And then we have Wittgenstein’s own speculation that only those who have already thought something similar might comprehend it. At any rate, we have but two options about such texts. Tom Sawyer is inclined to try out the waters even if he can’t “fathom” their depths (we can hear riverboat pilots calling out “Mark!

Twain!”). Huckleberry Finn, who seems to have trouble staying on his feet, proves game. But his initial inclination is to assume the emperor has no clothes— that the book cannot be understood precisely because it is nothing but a bunch of nonsense. Interestingly, this is pretty much what Wittgenstein seems to make of the discipline of philosophy himself. However, if we fail to understand the Tractatus we will be in good company. Wittgenstein is said to have reassured Bertrand Russell, who wrote the book’s introduction, that he had known all along Russell wouldn’t get it. Then there was the enthusiastic reception of the book by the neopositivists of the Vienna Circle—who were nonetheless disappointed in Wittgenstein’s take on the book when they finally had a chance to rap with him about it. The feeling may have been mutual. More to the point, the Tractatus is an effort to come to grips with the limits of knowledge. It is a kind of ontology by epistemology. Those of us who struggle with those limits in reading this book are, in this sense, engaging with the same topic. We take up the Tractatus not because it is a color theory text (it isn’t), or because we have misheard the warnings


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against conflating this early work of his with his later work (including the Remarks)—but because color is one of Remarks those things about which the limits of knowledge become pronounced. The Tractatus is like a machine whose workings stay with us even after the thing has fallen apart. It trains us to think as he does, and meanwhile it provides us with numerous examples of Wittgenstein’s preference for visual analogies and his special regard for the fact of color. In the above passages, Tom Sawyer is at first taken by the empty nothing of the book’s final section. This opens the first door to this book, an analysis of its form. Written in the style of its namesake, Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico Politicus, with axioms laid out according to a numerical priority, we are encouraged to consider it first chronologically, and then logically. That is, we can read from front to back, first reading proposition 1, then 1.1, etc.—or we can move through as though taking in the branches of a tree, from thickest trunk to major branches, to mere limbs, and then twigs. This would proceed 1, then 2, then 3, until we reach 7—at which point we would return to read 1.1, then 2.01, etc. The logical structure tells

us that the statements with numbers after the decimal are dependent upon the statements with parent integers. So 1.1 is of course dependent upon, or flows from, 1. Either way, we find a curious, and very significant emptiness after the final integer 7, which states, “7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” And so, we do. Tom and Huck, Part 2 It was three days before Tom saw Huck again, and this time it was when he was on his way to go fishing. He was ducking off the road and onto a footpath through some tall grass when he saw Huck lying beneath a tree. He swung about and planted his fishing pole on the ground, rather like a Continental soldier planting his musket, or so he thought himself. He then called out, “You up?” “Not yet” came the reply, and then Huck pulled his hat, a battered bowler, off his head and sat up grinning. “That book plum knocked me out!” The two gazed at each other, and then around at the bright morning for a minute as if in amazement. Then Huck got out two crumpled and partly smoked cigarettes, stuck them in his mouth, and proceeded


Dialogues on Color

to light them. He stoked them up pretty good with some enthusiastic puffing, took them out and let out a great billow of smoke. “First one of the day always the best. Here. This one’s yours.” Huck held out the longer of the two stubs. “Becky wouldn’t like it,” Tom wavered. “Which oughta make it taste better then.” Huck stuck the smoking twist into Tom’s fingers, and pulled the Tractatus out of the bib of his overalls. “Like reading this here wicked book. I don’t reckon it’s Christian.” Tom nodded. “That’s what got me onto it. That ol’ spoilsport Sid was saying about this list of books had to be burned and said this one maybe topped ‘em. He always did good in school, and paid attention in church too, so I figured it would be pretty bad.” He took a long drag and turned back to the path. “Why’ont choo come along fishing and tell me what you thought, or what Ethel thought.” Huck nodded agreeably and walked through the tall grass alongside the path, since it wasn’t wide enough for two. “Ethel mostly didn’t know, nor I, but every once in a while it scared her near to cryin’. But I’d comfort her and explained it was mostly foolin’ and eventually she’d

see that it wasn’t no way anyone would mean it serious.” “What parts scared her then?” “Somethin’ bout the whole world ending when you die, and then somethin’ else bout there being no cause and effect. I didn’t know what that last one was, but she ‘splained it to me and I agreed it seemed like a pretty good thing. She said I should think more about how the way I do things I think are good but has effects that are bad. I just figure I been busy enough living, and couldn’t spare the time to worry about the effect of it all.” “I think this Wittgenstein feller would support your way though, Huck. He says live in the present and get eternal life. I figure that’s the part that makes Siddey mad.” They entered a little stand of trees now, and walked in darkness for a bit before coming back out into dazzling light, with a bright hot sun above and its reflection in the pond below. A frog leapt into the water as Tom went to sit on his rock. “Now what again about the world ending?” Huck shielded his eyes and looked out across the pond and away to the horizon. “I dunno, Tom. That Ludwig boy just go on sometimes about how everything you can know is like your


The Silence

world and you can only know so much. He reckons it’s like your ‘field-a vision.’” “Sure,” Tom shrugged, “I tried out what he says about you can’t see the boundary of your field of vision, cause that says you could see what’s past it.” Tom now crossed his eyes and waved his hands out at his sides. “Part of me wants to disagree—like I can see the place where my hands disappear from sight. They get kinda fuzzy and then they just go. But still, it’s an awful clever thing to say, and at least I could follow it a little while.” “Yeah Tom, I wonder if I’m really understanding this book, or just don’t know the parts I don’t know—like I don’t see what I don’t see?” “Guess he’s saying you can forget about askin’.” Tom puffed the last of his cigarette. “But didja read the whole thing?” “Nah, course not, we had to skip the math parts, and some of the other stuff just for being beside the point.” Huck sprawled beside Tom and kicked his shoes off, his feet as callused as a turtle’s back. “That’d be logic that just looks like math. Sid tells me so, anyhow—while telling me I’m puttin’ nails in my coffin by reading it. So what else you read?”

“I had her go back over some bits more then once. Like the piece about signs and symbols. Had her tell me over and over how a sign was the thing we could see of a symbol—but he called ‘see’ ‘per-see,’ I think. And then maybe more than one sign fit the same thing and more than one thing could have the same sign. Confused me till we got back on one of them parts about colors.” “Oh?” Tom cast his line and set the rod across his knee. Light breezes stirring the water and the few curls remaining on his head. “Sure, like he would talk about blue colors now and then, and I thought, now that’s a thing you can see more than one way.” “Like what Huck?” This said leisurely, while tossing his cigarette butt into the water. “Like I can say ‘blue’ and mean that blue there in the pond, but you can be thinkin’ bout the blue of the sky or maybe even the blue in Becky’s eyes.” At this moment a fish rose to the top of the clear pond water and swallowed the floating butt in one gulp. “Oh, is that it? I was thinking some other way. I gotta admit.” “How so?” “Nah, I can’t catch it now, I’ll tell you


Dialogues on Color

later when I’ve had a chance to think again.” “OK, well, that would be the sign, the word ‘blue’ standin’ for two different things, see? And then maybe two words can tell us about the same color, like ‘ruby lips’ and ‘lips of red.’” Tom turned on an elbow to regard his friend. “You been reading poetry?” Huck blushed. “Got that one from one a Ethel’s books. The poems get pretty near racy too.” “That sounds like another one on Sid’s list.” He drew in his line with his brow furrowed, and cast again, farther out. “And I guess what you say about blue and lips would make a pretty good metaphor, so I believe you’ve been pickin’ up a thing or two from this Ethel gal.” “I dunno what a metaphor is Tom, but if that’s your way of sayin’ I got it wrong it’s a mighty handsome way to do it.” “A metaphor? It’s like you’re pointing at something that isn’t the thing you’re meaning, but the one you point at shows what you mean to say anyway.” At that, his bobber sank below the surface and his hands, from long years of practice, jerked the rod up and reeled furiously. A little perch, not worth keeping, hung

there between them goggling its eyes and working its mouth. Tom gripped it in a flash and casually flipped it back in the water. “It’s like those poppies in the poem about Flanders. They cover the field in red, but it’s really to say the boys that died there. You can’t speak about that cause that’s the problem the poem is for in the first place, so you say something else is blossoming red to get around to the main point somehow. I read poems to Becky like Ethel reads to you, and that one gets her teary-eyed ever time.” Huck sat up then and scratched the back of his head. “Well, Tom, I wish you luck with your fishin’. I’ll be on my way now. I slept in the field last night and I reckon Ethel’ll be ready to see me by now.” He stood up and grinned. “You can keep the book back, and study up, tell me what you think of these signs-a his. I got a pail fulla gin about ready to drink if you wanna come by tonight?” “I expect I can slip away. I can think it all over while I fish I guess.” At this, Tom got back to it, fishing and thinking. Huck hitched his hands into his overall straps and strode out of sight, a forgotten smoking stub burning down to his lips. ...


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With only a few days of study under their belts, our untutored philosophes have worked out some fresh ways to crack a book that’s well over their heads, and have even begun to tackle aspects of the Tractatus relating to vision and color. Wittgenstein’s work makes for poor poetry, but it’s not conventional prose either, and his own statements within the text do open the door to a metaphorical reading—a method for which Tom and Huck seem a fair fight. These two old men find that despite the gaps in their understanding, certain sections cohere into sense, and more significantly, they detect a sort of entelechy—something which gives order to the whole—that imbues them with an intuitive confidence. All of this is exactly how they have felt when reading poetry. One wonders whether these metaphorical tendencies are among the things that caused Wittgenstein to assess his book as something of a failure. Both this book and Spinoza’s Tractatus may be accused of circular argumentation. As coherent systems that seek to model the logic of the world, they butt up against the limits—the very foundations—of logical evidence itself. Wittgenstein repeatedly discusses these edges, in a very pronounced way,

through the visual metaphor of a field of vision. A book that seeks to solve the problem of the foundations of logic runs into difficulty as it seeks to use logic to explain itself. In Tom’s metaphor, a poem about dying soldiers has to sidestep a bald statement like “the soldiers are dying” because coming to terms with that awful fact is the problem the “poem is for.” But Wittgenstein differentiates between our inability to say a thing and the possibility that these things can nonetheless be grasped through the method of showing. He seems to hope that the very structure of the Tractatus will “show” enough to allow an intuitive leap—after which the method itself will be seen to be nonsensical. The propositional ladder we use to get there, as he puts it, is to be pulled up after us. Only then will we “see the world aright.” Though the time is not ripe to discuss what Wittgenstein says about color, we can observe that it is one of those problems he seems inclined to point to or “show” rather than “say” much about. And we can explore here what we might call his fondness for visualization. Wittgenstein never explains his reliance on visual metaphors, but it seems to arise from


Dialogues on Color

the connection he draws between geometry and logic, and his frequent reference to “logical space.” Certain geometrical figures (such as a “biangle,” to borrow a proposition from his Remarks) cannot be imagined. Likewise, Remarks certain of his statements in the language of logic cannot be imagined. These things are then considered nonsensical. Though proving the foundations of logic may be elusive (just as we cannot see the boundaries of our field of vision), Wittgenstein’s system has a certain selfregulating necessity. You cannot think what you cannot state logically, anymore than you can draw a biangle. Following this insight into the mechanism of logic itself, Wittgenstein seems to make a distinction between facts we can point to—a blue sky, for instance—and things which are as they are by logical necessity. Curiously, as we shall read shortly, the nature of color as well as of time and space, seem to get lumped together as the former. They are things that are not logically necessary, but are simple facts to be encountered. In the case of time, more will be said shortly, though his attitude toward it may account for his Humean rejection of the notion of cause and effect, and his rather Buddhist emphasis on the present.

Tom and Huck, Part 3 Sticky weather and heavy clouds meant Tom spent the afternoon trying to nap. It was past eleven at night with heat lightning blinking over the horizon as Tom slid out the bedroom window, hoping to avoid the creak in the hall floorboards. He was almost to the road when he heard Becky shouting at him to shut the sash. He stood and waited till he heard her shut it herself and then cut across the silent town to Huck’s rambling place. When he got there, he found his friend sitting in the yard by a little fire pit. His girlfriend Ethel was sleeping with her head on his lap, her grey hair cut short like a city girl’s and shining in the firelight. “Take these cups,” Huck whispered and nodded at the packed dirt by his feet, “and scoop up some gin outta that pail.” Tom did so, giving Huck the larger portion on account of medical necessity. “You got anything new to say about our book?” Tom took a swig of the burning liquid and nodded. “I got some of it worked out, I expect.” “What part you figure I got wrong?” Huck stuck his chin out a bit as he said this.


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“Just maybe the lark where you say ‘blue’ but we both thinkin’ of different blues. I guess that kinda thing would just be like a mistake. . . . The ol’ Kraut’d just want ta get a more specific word. He’s all about saying things just as clear as you can, or not at all.” “Yeah, Ethel said things like that too, an’ it makes sense now you make the point about color words. But where you gonna get a better way of sayin’ blue?” “Well, I dunno. I guess he mostly wants to see what are the rules we use when we use the words. Like two blues are either different or the same, and if different, then one’s gotta be lighter than the other. It’s just part of the idea of blue, or of any two patches of color.” “Kinda obvious, innit?” Huck scratched the ears of an old black cat that was rubbing on his chair, while resting his cup on Ethel’s hip with his other hand. “Yeah, Huck, I think this book’s mostly about things so obvious you’d miss ‘em if they weren’t pointed out to ya. Some stuff, I was wonderin’ about though, I can’t decide is it obvious or just wrong. Like that black cat. I got a feelin’ black means lots of other things besides what’s on that cat.”

“Like I was sayin’, Tom, how signs are what we can see. Or hear maybe, too. Like you say ‘black’ might be more than one thing—depending on what we talkin’ bout.” “That’s right, that’s right. Look at that cat, but now look at the sky. Cat’s shiny. Sky is as black as can be, but seethrough. Now tell me Huck, how can black be see-through?” “Beats me, but yer right, it’s just as clear as glass up there, when the clouds move out. But look now, you remember those glasses that ol’ devil Injun Joe wore with a sombrero for a disguise?” “I guess I might be able to picture ‘em if you say they were there. Long time ago though. What about ‘em?” “Well, they were green. Green glasses! Never saw such a thing, but I’ve seen green bottles before and blue ones and brown and such. All of ‘em dark, more or less, but clear. You look through ‘em and just see the world all green or whatever.” “Auntie used to say Mary looked at the world through rose-colored glasses, which sounded awful nice, but I guess it wasn’t the clearest way of looking at things.” “Yeah Tom, yeah, but now imagine white-colored glasses.”


Dialogues on Color

“Whatchoo mean?” Tom sat forward, dipping up another cup of clear gin. “I don’t hardly know myself. Maybe you’d think white’d be crystal, cause it’s all bright, but can’t see through nothin’ white, huh? Be all milky or cloudy.” “OK, Huck, that seals it. Don’t know what ol’ Ludwig’d say, but that there is somethin’ Sid never pondered that’s for sure. And I allays figured there was something to white and black, and light an’ dark, that was sure to go with good and evil.” “Indeed, indeed. The devil is a creature of darkness. Let’s drink to that.” Which they did. And gazed into the fire, and then at the sparks, and then followed them up to the sky and sat for a spell taking in the stars. The cat had fallen asleep in Tom’s lap, and Ethel was sitting up and yawning by the time Tom spoke again. “But Huck, I still can’t let loose a this line we got on black.” “What’s that Tom?” “Well I jus’ guess black for a black cat is one topic, and black for a man like ol’ Jim is another. I mean most people talkin’ bout a box-a crayons would say I’m on a different subject. But I think our philosophical Hun would be interested in the way the word ‘black’

gets so many funny ideas tied up in it. Like you an’ me always held to the notion a black cat is an awful powerful omen. An’ how folks say light is the truth and the good and dark is evil an false. An’ how we talk low about the dark races and talk up white folk.” “Yeah, Tom, I still know you can do some strong jinxes wit them black cats. But I get puzzled about who is white anyway. Seems like the Hun we fought in the war don’t count, quite.” “Yeah, Huck, I couldn’t say about all that. Or that old Irishman they named the caves for, McDougal? But other things about these words make me wonder, too. I heard a school teacher tell black and white aren’t colors. Then turn aroun’ an tell a girl to color in her picture of her family all black cause that’s the color they was. And same of course for white—how it’s not a color, but then she says to leave the paper blank for things that are colored white. Seems like white an’ black jump through hoops bein’ a color, not bein’ a color—bein’ a low kind of person cause-a their skin, but then it ain’t nothin’ to do with that. I guess I think black is the way we use it and folks can pretend it ain’t the other thing but seems like they wanna have it that way too, rather than look too close.”


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“Right, Tom. Folks don’t like to look too close. Guess that’s the trouble with this book.” Ethel kind of growled. “My daddy said a low person was the kind who works in banks.” She might’ve been angry, or maybe just had a scratchy throat. Huck grinned. “Tom, I shoulda warned you, Ethel here’s a real life communist! Got a card and everything.“ Tom tipped his chair back on just two legs, but merely shrugged. “Well, that’s OK. I just always found money poured in and out of its own accord, so I never put my mind to communism or any of it.” “And you boys talkin’ bout the negro like that, bound to turn nasty.” “Aw, Ethel, have some of this gin. You know some of my best frens—” “Don’t say it, Huck, you were doin’ all right.” She patted his hand. “Anyway, you might’ve gotten a bit off course. When’s one of you gonna explain that part about time and space and color?” “Never knew what to say bout that,” Tom admitted. “Well, he puts the three of ‘em right together, side by side. Now time and space—can’t think of anything so big. Look at it.” She waved at the heavens.

“But I guess Wittgenstein thinks time and space are just how the world turned out—mere happenstance you might say. Clocks run forward not because logic demands it, but because chips just sort of fell that way. But then color—well, that does seem to be just how things work out. Come out with dark skin or light or whatever. But he’s got it right up there along with time an space?” Tom grinned. “Don’t know, Ethel, don’t know. But it do seem incredible. You reckon he’s right?” Ethel poured half a cup down her throat and grimaced, then looked into the fire. “’Bout most things yeah. Mostly at the end.” “Like what about it?” “There’s the world, see? And then what we can say about it, which pretty much sets the limit on what we can know. And then all the rest . . . .” Tom and Huck looked at each other. Ethel stayed silent, sparks reflecting in her eyes. Huck put an arm around her and asked real quiet, “What about the rest?” She looked at him a bit puzzled. “Why, that’s just it, he as much as tells you there’s the world and then there’s the rest, and then tells you we can only talk about the world. Anything we try to say about the rest bound to


Dialogues on Color

be nonsense. So we gotta just ‘pass over it in silence’. You know he read his Tolstoy, all about the Gospels, while he was fighting in the so-called Great War? She looked at them. “Ah no, guess you don’t know Tolstoy. He was a real aristocrat, but didn’t let that keep him from thinking about the people. Serfs they had in Russia. He told the Gospels, but took out all the stuff not of this world—the miracles and stuff—like they’re nonsense. He just gives it to you straight. Turn the other cheek’s about it.” “Huck an’ me didn’t always take those church lessons real serious. Seems like folks don’t really mean it when they say turn your cheek. Wouldn’t be manly.” “Wouldn’t be worldly anyway, Tom.” Ethel stretched and smiled at him. “Wouldn’t be worldly and that’s the point.” ... Here again we encounter some bemusement at the antics of philosophers. Tom and Huck find certain statements inscrutable, and others so obvious they wonder why a person would bother to say them. Many of Wittgenstein’s statements about color in the Tractatus are of the latter

kind, with the exception of his linking of color to time and space. It is Ethel, with her experience seeing the world through an alternative economic lens, who best grasps the notion that time, which seems so intractable to us, could just as logically move backwards or stand still as move forward. Similarly, Wittgenstein makes short work of space as we experience it by noting that what mathematicians call the “chirality of our hands”—the way they cannot be made to overlap in three-dimensional space—wouldn’t hold if we were to flip one hand through a fourth dimension. This is easier for us to accept if we drop down to two dimensions: Lay your hands side-by-side before you on a piece of paper and outline them. If you cut the paper in half so that you can move the hands around on the flat plane of the tabletop they will never overlap, but if you simply fold the paper over, through the “higher” third dimension, they can be made to line up very nicely. Wittgenstein concludes that since this can be described, it is possible. In other words, regardless of how space happens to be, it could just as logically have been otherwise. He extends this logic to both time and color (and only very fleetingly to other sense perceptions he seems less


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taken with—such as texture, sound, and temperature). On the other hand, Tom and Huck are anticipating, savant-like, much that Wittgenstein will say decades later in his Remarks. As Tom suggests, his thoughts about black cats and black men are not the sort of things usually discussed in books on color theory. But Wittgenstein will see the rules governing color discourse as clues to the logical structure of our color concepts, and therefore clues to the meaning of what we say about this elusive topic. He will launch into a particularly bizarre effort to imagine a transparent-white piece of glass—pointing out thereby the logical incompatibility between the concepts of whiteness and transparency and leading onwards to a chain of logical inconsistencies regarding color. Thoughts of green lenses and rose-tinted glasses throw Tom and Huck into the mix here. Tom is probably correct when he says that Wittgenstein would not be overly concerned about the fact that our word blue is a symbol with an imprecise referent. Wittgenstein will engage in much playful speculation about possible languages, letting his mind wander from inconsistencies in color

terms among human languages to the linguistic inventions color phenomena might inspire in a Martian. Therefore mere failings of our own vocabulary might not mean our color logic is faulty. But Huck’s effort here—discussing confusion about what is meant by the word blue—is a good one, as the indeterminacy of our color concepts will be central to the Remarks. Whether Wittgenstein would have been so quick to follow the trail Tom is blazing—taking us from a discussion of color to a discussion of race—is another matter. Wittgenstein seems to have been a bit agnostic—or even reactionary— on social or ethical issues, or regarded them as among those things we can show but not say. He didn’t seem to articulate an argument for or against participation in war, for instance; but when the time came, he followed Socrates’ example of methodically doing what he took to be his duty and fought with courage. Nor was there any contradiction in his decision to lay aside academic pursuits during the Second World War to attend to the sick—this time for the Allied powers. At any rate, the logical structure (or lack thereof) of racial terms seems a bit worldly for him, and it’s here we’re forced to go


Dialogues on Color

beyond him. Cultural norms about good and evil are embedded in both our discussions of race and of colors such as black and white. Investigating these connections is crucial to a contemporary understanding of color. In this enterprise the characters created by Samuel Clemens, and their lifelong struggle with race in America, may be our muse. One point of consistency between the few comments on color in the Tractatus and the fuller assessment in Remarks is Wittgenstein’s interest in language games where colors are compared. In both books he speculates on comparisons of lightness and darkness between two colors, and then goes on to compare such speculations with other kinds of more clearly quantitative comparisons—such as between the length of two lines. Some of these distinctions he describes as temporal and atemporal, and then also as internal or external. Also in both books is Wittgenstein’s muteness before the logically unsayable. The silence that fills out the seventh and final section of the Tractatus seems to be pregnant with meaning for Ethel, who is taken by the mystical elements of Wittgenstein’s work. That silence presages, perhaps,

the emptiness of John Cage’s famous composition “4’33”.” Some observers of that musical piece have noticed how noisy those long pauses are—being filled by white noise. But the piece does cause us to ponder a more total silence—an absolute deafness akin to what the dead may hear—what David Bowie called “black noise.” Wittgenstein I wrote in the Tractatus that what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence. I wrote this while fighting in the Great War, as the things we must pass over piled up around me like bodies. These are a few of those things: Though I repeatedly volunteered for the most dangerous tasks, I lived. Though millions wished to live, they died. Though the generals marshaled armies on maps, and the men they commanded marched accordingly, there is no place where we can point to a mechanism of cause and effect. We can see that yesterday and today have a relationship, but we cannot establish that yesterday must precede today. I grew up in a large family in a large house with seven grand pianos while three of my brothers killed themselves—like


The Silence

dominoes falling, one by one. Asking for answers to philosophical questions is akin to building an intricate model of a sewing machine only to turn around and ask, “But why is sewing?” This only looks like a question. In fact, it has no sense. When I wrote of color, and placed it alongside time and space, did I mean that color was as fundamental to the nature of the universe as time and space or that time and space were as superficial as color? I don’t know myself! And even at the time I suspended my own judgment. I was merely involved in the logic of the proposition, not with its possible meaning. The proposition might have consequences, but those would perhaps belong to the realm of the natural sciences. In everyday speech we might say that time and space and color are equally part of the world as it happens to be, rather than as it must logically be. They brush up against limits. We may know these limits are there, but not being able to see beyond them, we also do not see the limits. At any rate, color and time and space need not be as they are. But that they are— and that they are as they are is not under dispute. This is not a world of mere seeming but rather a world of facts of which we can say very little.

In my Remarks on Colour—which our dear “old man” Elizabeth Anscombe published after my death—I assert that I am not developing a color theory. I believe Goethe’s problems with color were compounded by his impulse to call his work a theory. His statements about color are not of the sort that we might prove. We can only agree or disagree. My own purpose has been to establish the logic of color language—the structure of what we can say about color. As I’ve noted, with color we are like an ox before the newly painted stall door. We can point to color and then we can point to the ways people discuss color. Mostly, then, we can get at color by playing games. These are language games to see how far the logic of these color words can be pushed. We can say “red hot”—so how about “brown hot”? We can say “transparent green”—how about “transparent white”? And we can play games with possible languages from other planets. What does it mean to say they see colors we do not see? I do not know if this makes sense because there is no commonly accepted—or interplanetary—concept of color! We find that color is not a stable concept. We find that the concept of the sameness of colors—the criteria for saying this


Dialogues on Color

color is the same as that color—is indeterminate. These concepts vacillate between empirical appeals and normative standards. We have a notion of white. We point to it and say, “That is the color white.” But then we say that white is only that color that is completely without color! We say there is only one true white—a white none can ever have seen. We might say she was white as a ghost. Though we have not seen a ghost. If ghosts are indeed white and also translucent, they would violate the terms of the words white and translucent. While I wrote the Tractatus, and observed the logic of war, I read Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief Brief. There is a logic for my having chosen this book. It is simply that, in the war-torn town I found myself in, it was the only book in the bookstore. So I read and found that what Tolstoy did not say showed as much as what he did say. That book was like a ruler that could be set against the world— its measured lines corresponding with the form of certain facts, but not seeking to explain them. To explain would be impossible, as such things as explanations would have to lie outside the thing measured. I can no more discuss what is not of this world than

see the objects that lie outside my field of vision. The foundations of logic lie outside logic. Asking for proof is like seeking to prove that the color I am thinking of is green. I met many remarkable men on the front—in trenches, muddy river beds, barren wheat fields, and ruined villages. They all had much to say, though pitifully little was meant by it. One friend, who died in the prison camp, created curious watercolor landscapes on the scraps of paper and cardboard that others threw away. Inevitably, the scraps had some fragment of text on them, and I always liked to seek those words out! The relationship between the words—a requisition for flour, for example—and his overlaid scenes, seemed as full of potential as that between the color chosen to represent the sky and the feeling ostensibly expressed there. I do not mean any diminishment of his work when I add that I could just as easily have expressed “full of potential” with the words “devoid of it.” Logically the terms are equal, and nothing can be said about what his art might mean that improves upon what it shows. He showed me color circles and color spheres and laughed with Goethe at Newton. Many people


The Silence

speak of primary colors with great faith. But how many are there? Newton named seven primaries, Goethe just two. Many claim three, but some add green as a fourth. So I became suspicious that those who propose a theory of color are simply charlatans. Newton had said, “I am not speaking of a colour of the eye or mind.” And Goethe and his followers shook their heads and said, “Then you do not speak of colour.” But of course I see what Newton was about. He was taking care to limit his subject strictly to those things he could hope to speak of sensibly. Goethe sought to speak of other things, as many do. But the more I look at the things my friend would say about color, the more I saw words acting on one another as though they were strands in a spider’s web. ... We are warned not to conflate Wittgenstein’s early work with his later, but parsing them would be easier if their chronology were reversed. We could then say that at first he had thought maybe this thing or maybe that thing, but later he settled the matter. As it is, we go from a declarative statement about the world to a series of games and

questions. Because the later work does not take the overall form of a declarative statement, we have less guidance than we might like regarding which aspects of his earlier work to take as gospel and which to discard. The Tractatus is of course the major work of his early career, and in fact is the only book he published in his lifetime. As such, but also due to the form in which he wrote it, it strikes one as canonical (though the text itself urges us to discard it once we are done). The later collections of writings, published in their contradictory array, come across like a set of apocryphal gospels found in a cave, preserving several strands of thought that were never put into a final form. Indeed, the Remarks is a palimpsest, containing two manuscripts and a series of random notes. These compromised passages of text give us the same truth-value we find in a letter where the author has crossed words out—but lightly—so that we can still read them. We find marginalia. And we find, in the content itself, a series of aphorisms—games and riddles that provide little in the way of guidance. Those of us who are steeped in color theory will find that Wittgenstein asks a lot of silly questions. We think to ourselves that he is not familiar with


Dialogues on Color

the literature and uses the terminology inaccurately. We are tempted to say, “You are mistaking one thing for another here.” Or else, “That’s not the kind of color theory we are talking about here.” This is the force of the Remarks—it asks questions we have been taught not to ask. Color theorists seek to describe the properties of color. Wittgenstein seeks to expose the properties of color theories. And if color theory is a sort of game played by color theorists, then an awareness of the rules of that game is essential to a critical theory of color. Wittgenstein teases out logical constructs about color that we don’t notice in our own habits of thought. His strategies for doing this are various. One method is to discuss various impossible colors such as “luminous grey,” “primary brown,” or a black highlight—as well as impossible color tasks such as painting a room with the lights off, or painting what we see when our eyes are closed. Another method is to point to color situations that do exist, but where empirical evidence contradicts our norms about color. These include a highlight on a white bucket, or a painting depicting the white page of an open book beneath a blue sky (thus a color lighter than white), a blond boy

in a black-and-white photograph, and a darker yellow versus a blacker yellow. Finally, Wittgenstein is at pains to explore other, logically possible worlds on an equal footing with our own. This is the point where one is tempted to invoke David Bowie and ask if there is life on Mars. The physics of light itself need not be as it is, nor is our species’ receptivity to the electromagnetic spectrum the only possible receptivity. Wittgenstein notes that we speak of “infrared light” with good reason, but that this is potentially an abuse of the term light. The color constructs Wittgenstein reveals are numerous, and we do well to remind ourselves he is not speaking of social constructs. Social constructs may be a vein for us to mine if we wish to create a critical color theory, but his constructs are those of logic, and akin to geometry. When he asks if we can imagine another geometry of color, he presumably means another color logic. And the answer seems to be no—we cannot do so. He accepts that we might change our color words, that we might speak another language or choose to change the definitions of our terminology. But this is where his exploration of possible languages is so


The Silence

necessary. Regardless of semantics, he seems to say, this “geometry” of color is what tells us what is meant by the individual color terms. We can change the terms, but we cannot change the logic. The key color constructs Wittgenstein points out in his Remarks are those of color primaries, saturated colors, the special status of white and black, color harmony, and the sameness of colors. With these constructs, Wittgenstein has effectively flagged the ripest fields for harvest by any critical color theory. Take primaries, for example. We tend to reserve a special place on the color wheel for a “pure” or “true” yellow. But the significance of this concept—this “saturated yellow”—is not clear, beyond that it indicates what is for us is a special place on the color wheel. Any color we can mix or select (color X) is the only one of its kind— the only pure color X. Color harmony is also a notion that must refer to itself in any justification—a notion we might hold but cannot support. We will be tempted to follow these insights with a discussion of which concepts are socially constructed and which are biologically hard-wired into us. We may then find it is both easy and fruitful to connect

these constructs to others we deem to be determined in similar ways—such as race and gender. But Wittgenstein appears uninterested in these questions, as he has said what can be said clearly and will not say more. His statements about the intractability of color are not assertions that it is make-believe. He simply says that in dealing with color, something prevents us from bringing our concepts to order. We are even left with the suspicion that he might consider them as “real” in some sense, even if there is no sensible way to speak of them. Even if we are unable to articulate the what or how of our experience of color, there nonetheless is a qualitative nature to color. And Wittgenstein, patron to poets, seems to be at pains to allow space for this fact. His upbringing was extremely cultured—with famous composers playing piano in his home, having a sister who commissioned work by Klimt, and having a classical pianist for a brother—he at least declines to call these artists charlatans. As we’ve seen Wittgenstein comment in the above monologue, Goethe is like many others who do try to speak of these things that Wittgenstein has judged we cannot speak of in a sensible


Dialogues on Color

manner. If we were Wittgensteinians, therefore, we ought to stop here. But another way to read his work is that it is putting these topics out of reach for philosophy—leaving his colleagues with little to speak of besides the logic of the words we use—and placing these topics into the province of poets. At the start of this chapter, I gave a short list of philosophers Wittgenstein joins in taking color theory seriously. But that list contains mostly borderline cases. Aristotle may be the only one we properly think of as a philosopher. We generally think of Newton as a scientist, though his status as one of the founders of the scientific method puts him on a higher plane. He is also widely regarded as a mathematician and, more confusingly, an alchemist. I mentioned Rudolf Steiner for my own reasons, but calling him a philosopher or a theologian or anything else is contentious business. Finally we have Goethe, whose breadth of interests and accomplishments are prodigious, including biology, color theory, and literary criticism. But poet is perhaps the most useful term here, and Goethe’s example encourages us to try methods less strictly devoted to logic for saying things about color. The passage that

follows this, delivered by another of Samuel Clemens’s fictional characters, is one such effort. Injun Joe Maybe folks are wrong about black— and white too. They always tell stories about it like there’s this battle between the two as good and evil, and of course black is evil. Well, I see how the night is trouble for them and Jim told me once how his kind are black cause that’s the mark of Cain on them. But I am dying here in this cave and I figure that gives me a right to say something about blackness and about something worse. Black isn’t so bad, it’s a color you can see like the candle-soot writings on these cave walls. And you can make it out just fine. It says Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher. I am Injun Joe, of course. “That murderous halfbreed,” as I was introduced to the world. And I can attest these caves hold something worse than black, cause what is here is not any color that you can see. I know them caverns like the twisted story of my own revenge and downfall. And I know what it’s like under a mountain of stone when the candle is all burnt out. I know that boy was down here with me,


The Silence

and I suppose his little doll Becky too. I know it now, but when I heard him scream out, it was the scream of a boy made for daylight trapped in that stuff I don’t call black. That scream turned me into a child for a moment, and sent me skittering like a silverfish away and away. I scrambled and skidded without thought at all and when I stumbled to my knees, I dashed my candle out. Most people woulda died from that, but not me. Like I said, I know these caves. They are mine more than they are McDougal’s or anyone else’s. Course the caverns should have killed that boy and his girl by now, but something tells me my lot won’t be justified like that. Something tells me the light is attracted to that spoiled little thief and he’ll squeeze out some bat hole somehow, dragging his rag doll with him. And no doubt he will plunder my treasure hidden deep within this, my grave. Well, I did not starve here in these caves for want of direction. I just found my footing even though my eyes may as well have been gouged out from my head for all they served. Then I just followed my feet out. Except the author of my fate wanted to wrap up my story his own way. The world’s got to have its bad man and then get him outta the way somehow,

but not too messy. No one dared come up against me on the road, so they just laid a metal lid over the door and said goodnight to Injun Joe. I suppose you’ll have questions you want answered. Well I’ve got things I want to tell. So I guess I’ll hold those confessions ransom to keep you listening a while to what I have to say. Now I heard a lot of good stories from this useless missionary from St. Louis. He brought food to help my mother’s people out. But he was a drunk, so soon enough it was him who needed help from me. I fed him booze and he told his stories. Not the ones in the Bible, but heathen ones about monsters and curses. He’s the one told me about the father-killer and motherfucker who got his own eyes out—but I already used that one. But he also told about the half-breed monster called Minotaur. That one, like me, had his own labyrinth which they built to trap him in. He sat inside and waited for the victims to be sent down. Even if the monster didn’t get ‘em, the mazes did. Well no one ever thinks about how that half-a-man felt about being born mixed up, nor being holed up in that maze. Born with someone else’s sin on him. ‘Was his mother did the bull. But my white father


Dialogues on Color

Robinson was who raped my red-skin mother, and used her like a whore. When they look at me they talk about that dark and light stuff. Like the problem with me is I am the darkness. For instance, this preacher gave a sermon when someone once took me to church, thinking they was helping me. That man had clammy white skin like under a frog’s throat. And little black eyes looked like raisins. Whole time he talked he kept those eyes stuck on me. He says that when a light is lit up in a dark room it goes to all the corners. That wherever in that room someone might be hid, the light will hit their eyes. Then what’s next is, they’re either drawn to the light or scurry away quick like vermin. I said all right I get what you are saying, which is go away rat, get back where you belong. That’s what I did too, but not before I made him sorry he looked my way. But what I want to say is their problem with me is not my blackness. Black is just the picture of what they fear in me. Actual black things and niggers and such, they are fine with and can smile and say hey Jim to ‘em because they got a place all sorted for ‘em. A real lousy place, but it’s something to be at least and doesn’t mess up their system. I,

on th’other hand, make them confused about which way is up. When they see me they get a hint maybe it’s all black. They can fuck a brown girl same as white and the baby come out the same hole. They can steal all they got in the world and call it providence. Most of the time they can sort things out fine in their heads with a little gesture at Christian charity. Just like whitewashing a fence. Why I make them sick is they can’t see me clear enough. Am I white? Am I black? There is no difference, but they have to whip me like a nigger cause that seems best. That old widow Douglas I meant to cut up didn’t talk about charity a bit when her man laid that lash on me in the public square. She just smiles a little bit and then pretends it is too much for her sensibilities. Yes, and even Sawyer’s chronicler let me hint as much and more. He let my words out that there was more than enough reason I had to risk my life and my fortune, just for a chance to cut a little smirk in her cheeks. They can’t see me so they just wish I’d go away. A black man’s back and black soot marks on the cave wall, and black raisin eyes and even the black sky at night.


The Silence

Those are just a color you can look at and say my it’s dark. They talk like white is pure but black, muddy. But black is just as clean by that logic. It’s me that’s muddy, I know. Muddied up by my daddy’s seed. I know now cause I am in what that horror is they are so bothered by. It’s not the black. Like I said, black is just what they call it by. It’s what’s down under this mountain after the candle goes out. When you move around down here with your candle it’s like you carry your world with you, like a bubble under water. At first it seems like it’s too small and you can get spooked. But after a bit it grows, as your eyes take in more an then you just get used to it. You don’t feel the little candle-lit world is so small and don’t miss it any more than a mole I guess. But when the flame goes out? Before you were looking at a world with black and white and now you are looking at nothing. As I am staring down that same nothing right now. Ever think about being buried alive? You can’t see any black. For all I know, this before my eyes is white. There is no seeing here. This is death and obliteration. Well here comes the confession part—though truth be told I don’t believe I owe the world a thing. Lying

here in such cold dampness, watching the colors in my head, I feel like that child Sawyer must’ve when he let out his scream. When you look at my crimes you just see what’s on half the scales. On the other side is all the scorn the world has heaped on me. About enough to bury again this mountain I am buried in. I ask you, what is our Author about? Why create me worse than black? Why create me at all just to damn me? I have sent a few men where I am going. The one I am most proud of is the so-called promising young Doctor Robinson those two boys saw me kill when we were robbing that grave. That doctor who sent me from my father’s door when I went to ask for something to eat. That young man said I was up to no good there and told my father to have me arrested as a vagrant, and he did. You read the Bible and see how Cain was the first murderer. Well Cain was only on about justice. Everything I did our father spat upon. Everything my little corpse-loving brother did he praised up to heaven. I stabbed my brother, sure, and our father through him. That drunk old missionary told me about rainbows once, with some stuff about Noah. And then he told me that


Dialogues on Color

science shows black and white are not colors. I knew then how he would die. You go ahead and dig my black heart out of my chest and tell me that’s not a

color. Then I’ll put this pillow over your face so you can see what no color looks like.


The Pink Cadillac

Or a dialogue between Anni Albers, Holly Solomon, Andy Warhol, and an android, with commentary by the author Anni Albers (1899-1994) was a German-American textile artist. She studied weaving at the Bauhaus under Gunta Stölzl before relocating with her husband to Black Mountain, North Carolina. Holly Solomon (1934-2002) was a prominent art collector in Soho in the 70s and 80s. The Pattern & Decoration movement that she patronized was meant to provide some relief for under-stimulated consumers of post-minimalist and conceptual art. Andy Warhol (1928-1987) was a Pittsburgh-born artist and market satirist. Like the advertising men of his time, he worked in mixed media throughout his career, even exploiting the newly released Amiga computer late in life. Roy Baty is the antagonist of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?


arhol: I’d like to believe in reincarnation. I’ve always known the truth that there is joy in repetition. My last words could have been, “It’s the best of all possible worlds.” It’s what I was thinking as I studied those luminous green cubes of Jell-O. I was still staring at those cubes when that childish bitch of a nurse, in

her panic, scattered them across my thin, paper hospital gown. The thing about that Jell-O—it was the proof I sought that my life was science fiction. Talking about science fiction makes me think of Bowie—who was me, once upon a film. I like that he was me because that suggests anyone can be Andy Warhol. If I met myself on a park bench like Borges did, I’d have loads of questions. Bowie was into those really


Dialogues on Color

wild colors, as though his two differentcolored eyes gave him some sort of superhuman sight. He wore the kinds of things we suppose a man from space would like. Color, after all, is just a tiny patch of the spectrum. Even butterflies see ultraviolet so what about men from Mars? What about angels? That creepy android in Blade Runner Runner, played by Rutger Hauer—I bet he could see in microwave. And with Bowie, sounds have colors and colors have sounds. It was that card Dick Cavett who got onto Bowie about black noise. Well, we’ve all heard about white noise often enough. That’s a sound that is like the color white—being made up of all these different colors. We say white noise to describe this noise that’s so mixed up it’s no longer heard. And that means black noise is just what it sounds like —no noise at all. The kind of total absence of sound the living can only dream about. Terrified poor David, this black noise. He saw it as death. Thought of it as signifying a truly depressing state of isolation. He told Dick Cavett it was a noise that “could break a man.” Music, and color, these are the things we use to distract ourselves from the black noise inside us, I suppose. You’ll be happy to know that heaven

has an endless supply of me, dining with an infinite number of Marilyns. We eat at an inexhaustible automat, its vending machines serving triangular tuna salad sandwiches and cubes of Jell-O in every color. The whole place has the effect of a hall of mirrors. I keep catching glimpses out of the corner of my eye, or thinking I do, of one of my lovelies. Was that Marilyn bending over to fix her stocking? Or was it Bowie in drag? Behind each image of him or her there’s another one, putting on a different shade of lipstick and saying, “The only thing that never changes is change itself.” The Patriarchs will not let me sit at their table, even though I am the pope of pop. Not because I’m a fairy—everyone’s a fairy in heaven. But because they’ve all come to think of power and glory as something singular. The Taj Mahal being a building no other collection of wealth and skill could replicate. The Mona Lisa being a masterpiece too idiosyncratic to ever comprehend. Moby Dick being just about exactly what you’d expect an infinite number of monkeys to pound out on their infinite typewriters. The point is, they’re all wrong. Power and glory are simply the ability


The Pink Cadillac

to recreate endless replicas of the same item, the same experience, the same color. That’s what gives Coca-Cola it’s magic. One pink Cadillac would be an oddity. It’s all those other pink Cadillacs out there that make having one of your own so satisfying. America was perfect in that way. I admit that I was afraid to die—I suffered doubts about the resurrection. Laying there feverishly contemplating my lime green Jell-O. Or was it blue? orange? The same Jell-O served in every hospital room across the country— I knew this, at least, was exactly as promised. As seen on TV. ... T hat Warhol grasped the power of reproduction is well-understood. And this basic property of visual culture today—that images are endlessly reproduced and broadly distributed—was most influentially written about by Walter Benjamin and then by John Berger. But how the fact of reproduction affects color has been left largely implied. Of course we understood, looking at Marilyn Monroe silkscreened with a dozen different shades of eyeshadow, that the colors Warhol used were fitting. These colors arose not from nature, nor from a

desire to explore the formal possibilities inherent in the juxtaposition of various hues. These colors were lifted straight out of culture, their sole purpose being to reference the advertiser’s playbook. A palette of lipstick colors that tells us we have choice, but also that our choices have been anticipated and scientifically specified in a chart. A drugstore shelf offering hair colors in a neatly graduated range from Ultimate Blond to Blue Black. In a sense, the color of Warhol’s silkscreened Campbell’s soup cans is neither singular nor plural. It participates in a collective singularity— like the waters in “the waters covered the Earth” or the asp in “Egypt was plagued by the terrible asp.” The waters and the asp are many and they are one. Own just one piece of it, and you get swept up in the whole thing. Albers “Color is a great deceiver,” Josef repeated as he stared at the round porthole in our small cabin. He was watching hues shift in the grey-on-grey world of the North Atlantic. “Tell me, Anni, what do you think of Herr Itten’s wheel?” Itten was an old influence of his, but one I thought belonged to the past. He had left the Bauhaus long ago. And


Dialogues on Color

now the Bauhaus had shut its doors and we were fleeing to America. At least in America we could build something. If the children here are happy with their spoon-fed box of primary colors, we could not help it. But to build our something we each set aside narrow ideas of the great artist. Josef remained a great academic, after all he’d always been such a splendid student. And I—relegated to my women’s ghetto of weaving—I became an industrial designer. But that was the goal, yes? At the Bauhaus we hoped to elevate manufacturing to an art, and to transform laborers into artists. We had our moment in Dessau, in between the wars. We saw that Germany could be the new cultural capital of the world. We believed that Paris was fading, and what was America? Its only culture was business. By contrast, our neighbors were Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky! Living proof that world history was shifting East. That was before the Nazis shut us down, confiscated our art, and labeled us degenerates. When you start life in a new country you have to choose what to leave behind and what to take with you. We made the break with certain ideas as cleanly as we could on that journey to Black

Mountain. While Josef watched the porthole, I watched him from my seat on one of our two large chests, my arms wrapped around my legs. I told him to forget about those color wheels— the toys of every color theorist. “They are handy for sending orders to the manufacturers, but useless for an artist,” I said. “Think of our musical Herr Klee.” I knew Paul was much on his mind, falling sick in that terrible year of the school’s closing and our exile. “Each of his paintings is a better color model than any of your wheels or pyramids. And funnier too.” My Josef was not a humorous artist, but he was a good husband and heeded my advice. His color theory stayed away from the numerology of primary colors and the mysticism of geometric shapes. Making students copy the color wheel seems to me like making them copy a painting by that systematic mystic Alfred Jensen. Itten’s twelve colors may as well be accompanied by an introduction to Babylonian base twelve number systems. I still see any good work of art as its own color model for its own color universe. That painter Rothkowitz, he could paint like that. When I go to visit one of his fiery Untitled paintings at the museum in New York,


The Pink Cadillac

I say to myself, “Yes, orange and yellow and more orange, those are all the colors that are.” And I stare at those shifting rectangles of color until my eyes water from the glowing azure after-image. But that poor Rothko, he killed himself. In America, color is a means to an end rather than something with a soul. These people do not know about our Goethe. They don’t even really care about Newton. A new century is coming and color is in the hands of that Varchola boy. The one who paints soup cans. All he wants to know about a color is how to copy it, so that he can make ten thousand more. At the Bauhaus we sought to raise industry up to an art for the masses. Mr. Warhol has taken art and turned it into a factory job. ... Josef Albers’ work may represent the clearest resolution of both the quantitative and qualitative strands of color theory. A German artist and product of the Bauhaus school, he and his artist wife Anni fled the Nazis to work in the United States. His Interaction of Color was as tirelessly systematic as Munsell’s work. But he also studiously avoided efforts to abstract color from the actual experience of color. Warning

us that “no mechanical color system is flexible enough to pre-calculate the manifold changing factors . . . in a single prescribed recipe,” he made no proposals for a new color model and limited his statements about color to those that derived from direct observation of two or more colors interacting in context. Students are encouraged to page through his illustrations, and replicate each for themselves, experiencing first-hand color’s properties along with the Professor. He pointed out the pervasiveness of the effects of simultaneous and successive contrast, by which our eyes generate new colors in response to the ones we see before us. In a sense the very form of the book Interaction of Colors is Josef’s color model—an atlas-like volume which must be paged through, each leaf of which presents the viewer with a new experience of color interaction. By virtue of its thoroughness, and its methodological restraint (no fancy new color models, no new opinion on how many primary colors there might be), Josef Albers may be the only color theorist whose book can be described as “true.”


Dialogues on Color

Solomon It is funny to say it, but it wasn’t until one of those parties at Studio 54 in the late 70s that I had this idea about colored patterns. I’d already been pushing Pattern and Decoration (P&D) in my gallery for a couple of years. Well, that night Margaret was wearing this striped skirt, yellow and orange lines running in zigzags. And when she danced I saw the yellow move against the orange and was both mesmerized and jealous. Her husband was on the verge of a great electoral defeat and there she was dancing the night away, a thirtyyear-old woman who could still wow the guys. Poor me, I was in my mid-forties by then. There were so many photographers there, from the press as well as Andy. Well, she had tried to become a photographer too—had some success at it. But there she was in front of the lens again. And everyone was shooting her. It was like a feeding frenzy. The next evening all the papers in Canada showed those photos on their front page, along with the news of her husband’s loss at the polls. The idea about colored patterns was in my head when I woke the next morning. I could see Margaret’s zigzag skirt twisting in many different

variations, all of different colors. Just like Andy would do in his series of images—one of me with green lips, then one with purple lips. But what I knew when I woke up was that of course the stripes are different because they are yellow now and blue another time, but also the yellow is different for being stripes this time and polka dots the next. That is, color and pattern aren’t separable. But people are always doing that. Talking about the colors as if they can be talked about separate from the thing that is colored. There’s just no such thing. You never will see color except in a situation—and if it’s not something you can ever see, then you’re not talking about color. Well, I went and told Joyce all about it and she laughed at me! She said, “Of course that’s true, Holly. Next you’ll tell me that sex is only something we experience through our bodies.” That was her all over, turning color into sex. I remember going to her studio once and she pointed to the edge of a table where she had been scraping the extra paint off her brushes. It was this incredibly sensual layering of different colors just piled up and pouring over each other. She said, “Oh God—look.” And then she just bit her lip so hard I saw a drop


The Pink Cadillac

of blood well up there. Those women I worked with on Pattern and Decoration were such fun—much more game than feminists get credit for. Maybe that’s why they put up with me. I’ve always been a little insecure about where I get off making these artists’ careers. Well, someone’s got to, and I guess a failed actress with a lot of money from a bobby pin empire is as good a candidate as any. I’m afraid my idea of women’s lib was a little stunted compared to my P&D artists. I still wanted to be a movie star even if the roles were submissive. That’s why Andy loved me and I loved Andy. I was the pop princess. The women weren’t too impressed by pop, that’s for sure. Yes, it brought the body back into art, which they were for, but only in the kind of commodified terms they were against. Well, Andy took no prisoners where that was concerned. If he could paint it, he could market it. That’s how he was with color, too, like colors of make-up—PanAm Blue eye shadow or Cadillac Pink lipstick. He laid out his images in a range of colors like a new line of sweaters to choose from. Just like make-up counters have a scientific aura, with their neat rows of shades and hues, but still exploited to advertise the goods.

That’s something Margaret would say when we’d be in the powder room together. She’d lean forward toward the mirror as she applied her lipstick or mascara and sigh, “OK Holl, time to advertise the goods.” ... Within the visual arts, pop art and feminist art were the two big critiques of modernism that began the unraveling that has been postmodern art. Each of them were implicitly conceptual, even though they occurred before conceptual art chronologically. They were conceptual in the sense that the concept of a pop or feminist artwork was the primary determinant of its form. Rather than the exploration of abstract form that we saw with artists like Henry Moore or Jackson Pollock, which was perfectly suited to a formal analysis, we began to see forms that were rather inert as such, because their concept demanded it so. Often, pop and feminist artists chose colors that were sticky with associations, referring to aspects of our culture that lay outside the physical form of the artwork itself. Take any of Andy Warhol’s paintings of soup cans as an example. An analysis of its form will find that there is little


Dialogues on Color

or no compositional artistry, no theme and variation. There is in fact as little formal play as can be achieved with the content. This static grid of canned goods is called for by the concept, which seeks to express the scale and repetition of industrially produced food. The color, therefore, must either mimic the trademarked look of that product or in some other way evoke the processes of production and the fabrications of advertising. Such color might be applied as Ben-Day dots, or in misregistered layers of cyan, yellow, magenta, and black. To apply a formal analysis to such compositions and color choices is to miss the point entirely. Or take as another example Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, the single image most likely to accompany a paragraph description of feminist art. A person from a century ago might describe it as sculpture, and therefore expect the kind of formal dance of positive and negative space—and dynamic balance in the round—that characterizes Rodin’s work. Such an expectation will be disappointed, of course, because the Dinner Party’ Party’s aims are not sculptural in this sense. We’ve developed the term installation art in part to deal with this distinction. Chicago’s concept calls for

a static triangular table setting and the form obediently follows this mandate. And the form the color takes is narrative, often evoking the divine and nurturing essence of each of her heroines. In either of these cases color, as an element of the form of the artwork, undergoes a paradigm shift away from formal play and towards conceptual determination. For decades, modern artists had worked to liberate color from idealistic representations, and then from representation of any kind—until it could finally be engaged with simply as color. This effort reached its sublime endpoint with work such as Rothko’s untitled color field paintings and Josef Albers’s nearly endless Homage to the Square series. With pop art the formal properties of color are still inescapably present, but are secondary to the considerations of where in popular culture the artist is deriving his or her color. Warhol’s Campbell’s soup red and Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dots are both color choices subordinated to the reproduction of color. They respond to Walter Benjamin’s insight that original works of art and technologically created reproductions of that art are a world apart, the “whole sphere of authenticity” standing between them. They assert,


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then, that color is altered simply by virtue of being reproduced. In feminist art we see a multiplication of color strategies owing to the movement’s absorption of the conceptual frameworks of an emancipatory politics. Chicago’s work, often described as biologically essentialist, takes its cues from the pre-modern idealism and romanticism of eighteenth and nineteenth century art. Such idealism was abhorred by modernists as being untruthful—but as the enemy of that modernist standpoint, it thus becomes the friend of a certain postmodern one. Chicago and other feminists would embrace the virtues of fiction (a fictional dinner party, or a storyteller’s approach to certain color arrangements as symbolic of a woman’s generative and nurturing powers) while rejecting the premodern artist’s tolerance for the ideologies of their patrons. Roughly five decades later, most contemporary art can be seen as standing on the shoulders of any combination of four traditions in art: pop, feminist, conceptual, and (in the words of Donald Kuspit) work that continues to “mine particularly rich veins of modernism”. But these four

tendencies are also complemented by global voices both sympathetic and contradictory to those traditions. Sean Scully’s large stripe paintings and James Turrell’s light and space works are deeply indebted to modernism. Work with fluorescent light fixtures by Dan Flavin and op-art works by Bridget Riley mingle pop and modern sensibilities. Kerry James Marshall hews to the traditions of socially engaged art as he tweaks the idealized notions of such culturally loaded colors as black and pink in his works addressing race in America. Anish Kapoor enlists the religious tropes of minimalist high modernism to articulate his response to spiritual colors and materials rooted in Hindu rituals. These and many other combinations and recombinations of color engaging with formal experimentation, with art historical precedents, and with all aspects of cultural context present us with an extremely diverse and complex color universe. A color theory that seeks to address how color operates in visual culture today must be correspondingly nuanced. Albers Josef was very taken by the colors of


Dialogues on Color

things in America. He remarked often on the colors of the leaves, which are so much more lovely in autumn here than in Europe. He proposed color studies employing collaged leaves as both a valuable exercise and a uniquely American art form. One year we decided to take a driving tour of the West. The road trip was another very American thing we were fascinated by, and besides, we knew all about Georgia O’Keefe and Agnes Martin, and so we wanted to check out the light out there that was their great inspiration. The staggering scale of it all is what one can never understand until it is experienced. There’s just as much beauty to see on a drive through Europe of course, but you can’t experience it with the same drama. Everything there is cozy no matter how grand it might be in itself, just because you come upon it quicker and can leave it quicker. But drive out West here and it’s just day after day of gradual change. The flatter the land gets, the more the drama builds and the more you are just experiencing light and space and time alone. You can really tell you are on a planet in orbit about a star, riding the edge of a galaxy. For us, all this reached its apotheosis in New Mexico at White Sands.

By the time you reach the parking lot, which is just a hard surface of scraped minerals, you are already disoriented. The road winds its way there through dunes of blinding whiteness. You are afraid you will be snowed under by a sudden change of the winds. And all visual landmarks have been left far behind as you stand surrounded by whiteness. So then we climbed up the tremendous wave of sand in front of us, quite an awkward task in our old age, in hopes of finding a vantage point and a frame of reference. The view up there was of a vast landscape of whipped cream— stretching to a thin line of mountains at the horizon. Immediately I was thinking out loud, “The dunes are… like clouds. So what is the sky? The sky is the ocean. Josef! We are walking upside down!” I can recognize that kind of grand landscape from the romantic paintings much loved in Germany. Such art can’t fail to move us even as we know it has tended to serve a rather nationalistic ideology in Germany and also in America. White Sands is a “National Monument” after all, and to get there one drives by nuclear test sites and missile ranges, and endures immigration checkpoints. Such landscapes have


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been transformed into symbols of the sickly circular logic of manifest destiny. I’m reminded of Napoleon riding over the Alps in that bombastic painting by David. We Germans have learned to have acute antenna for such mischief. Josef and I spread out our picnic upon the top of a dune where we could watch the sun set on one side and the full moon rise on the other. Perfectly paired discs displaying colors that seemed to set up a call and response across the heavens. We watched that white world get peeled like an onion, revealing layer after layer of color— the shadows of our bodies cast by the moon were a perfect complement to the shadows cast by the sun. As the sun burned its way into the horizon, we were suspended there inside a prism as wide as the very heavens. Such phenomena are in fact everyday occurrences that we are simply blind to under ordinary circumstances. The space out west adds drama and the uniform whiteness heightens our ability to detect contrasts, but this play of light is happening in any room you happen to be sitting in. We are always wrapped up in an envelope of color that is in fact created by our perceptions. In this way sight is truly a communion of our inner selves with all creation.

In figure-drawing class, you realize the human body is the place where light plays in this way. Within that black box that is the windowless drawing studio, we train our lights upon the human skin which, regardless of its pigmentation, is a perfect prism. White and black are there, but they are not pure—there is no absolute zero. There is parchment, and chalk. There is charcoal and there is that soupy mingling of the darkest warm and cool colors. These colors of white and black separate themselves out, peeling backwards where the model’s flesh pushes into the carpet. Red peels away from green. One color as the shadow cast by the thigh on the floor. The other color as the reflected light bouncing off the carpet onto the underside of the thigh. All of this occurring inside our eyes. This is how we can find our way into color and come to understand its use in art. We can, I think we should, ask what science can say about how color occurs. But Goethe knew that was not enough. As Durkheim says, “Action must always be ahead of science.” This is because to act is to reach some decision on what it means to be human, on what our purpose is in this life. I am not in love with the automatism


Dialogues on Color

of American culture. Figure drawing has become so déclassé that by the time my husband passed they no longer taught it in most art schools. That seems to me a great abandonment of humanist principles. Americans like to suppose that they can adopt a purely utilitarian position on everything, and that such a position is one that imposes no bias. It strikes me as impossible to do so in any field, but especially in art. They teach color as if it were a set of facts. Here is the color wheel. Here are the primaries and secondaries. Here are the complementary colors. Here is a formula for mixing colors. What good is that? Does it tell us how to use color? Does it bring to life the meaning of a color? They present these things as though they were always so—and ignore that they came from vigorous debates. Josef and I experienced such elements of color as dramatic discoveries and controversies. But we can only bring to America that for which America has time. Solomon We had a good run, my Pattern and Decoration artists and I; but the 80s brought an inhospitable climate. My artists weren’t keen on the puritanical

work of minimalists and conceptual artists. They weren’t afraid of color and they knew there was a lot more to the world history of art than the strippeddown high point the critics seemed to think was the be-all and end-all. The feminists would point to the word Anonymous on gallery tags by the ancient pottery or rugs or whatever and say, “Anonymous was a woman.” I only half-understood what they were talking about, but I just figured minimalism and conceptual art were a dead end. I was right in one sense. Minimalism and conceptual art didn’t last in the form they took in the 70s. But boy did they create a look—the look of being real art. Well it just meant don’t use pretty colors because then the critics will deem it “not rigorous.” Heaven forbid anyone accuse you of making something beautiful—you’d be ostracized! Even at the height of our P&D work we knew the art had to be a little jarring, a little off-kilter. So the smart girls who came along in the 80s— like Kruger and Sherman—knew how to work that system. Kruger used the stark colors of conceptual art—black, white, and red—to show she meant business. And Sherman used Andy’s pop-culture tricks to frame her critique—but her


The Pink Cadillac

black and white stills were received best—bright color is not something women easily get away with. That was a new wave of feminism, a group who were much more up on theory than I was. But I know what sells. Musicians got to have a lot more fun in the 80s. I don’t know why. There had been Bowie, of course, and Lou Reed was still a presence. They were a part of Andy’s Factory scene and I really thought we’d be able to keep pushing art right alongside those guys—until color and sex and drugs just ran the board. But one day all the boomers woke up and put on ties and voted Republican—and beauty became a bad word in art. Always had been dodgy, of course, but then it was fatal. Well, the music scene got a bit more corporate then, too, but Prince bucked the trend on that score. Someone told me around then that purple’s not a real color—that it isn’t in the spectrum at all but where the ends of the spectrum touch if you bend it into a circle. Well, that’s how I always read Prince and his purple fixation—as being all about that synthetic color. I mean there was something quite lovely and exhilarating about him and the Revolution. They were so totally

fabricated—everything about them was synthetic. Synthetic drugs, synthetic gender, synthetic love. Wendy and Lisa acted like synthetic humans. I guess if you were a kid in those days who didn’t identify with yuppies or Tom Cruise then you needed to see there was an option like that. There wasn’t a lot of room for being interesting in Reagan’s America, or Thatcher’s Britain. Prince gave those kids a way out of the trap of being whatever they were—black, white, gay, straight, and all the rest of it. ... The popular culture of recent decades has frequently evoked notions of color that are fantastic, futuristic, or psychedelic. Often outer space is invoked as a vantage point from which ordinary color limits may be transcended. This instinct is no doubt aided by our chromophobic notions of color as an element of the irrational and dangerous—rooted in centuries of thought but given new urgency with the turmoil of the industrial revolution. Admittedly, these are frequently reactions against mainstream horror at excessive color, but their embrace of excessive color does, ironically, reinforce the idea that it is “other” in so


Dialogues on Color

many ways. With the early twentiethcentury work of the Fauvists and the Vienna Secession, such as Derain’s London Bridge or Alfred Roller’s poster for the sixteenth Secession exhibition, we see color as a sign of savage and mythological depths. In his 1927 science fiction short story The Colour Out of Space, H. P. Lovecraft invokes color as the salient feature of a diabolical force from beyond our world. This color is described as being “unlike any known colours of the normal spectrum”— a kind of luminous hue that defies description and stirs feelings of foreboding. Extreme color choices are a staple of countercultural fashion and graphic design, often dovetailing with drug culture and musical acts associated with transcendent or mind blowing experiences. By the 60s and 70s, writers like Philip K. Dick were using stories like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Ridley Scott’s source text for Blade Runner) to explore a world where the Runner barriers between reality and fantasy are irremediably breached. Even his superhuman android Roy Baty (Batty in the film version) experimented with drugs in order to escape the confines of material determinism. The West

Coast posters for bands such as The Grateful Dead and the Miller Blues Band are notably difficult to read, in part because of the eye-watering use of complementary colors of equal darkness and saturation. Similarly eye-popping color combinations are used in David Bowie’s stage costumes, recently surveyed in David Bowie Is, an exhibition curated by the Victoria and Albert Museum, which use color to extend the narrative of his various other-worldly personas. Colors that fatigue our retinas, we might conclude, are readily assimilable by Ziggy Stardust. Bowie famously has two “different colored” eyes. In fact, one is simply more dilated than the other. But his gaze was undeniably striking, and adds binocular vision to considerations that might problematize simpler concepts of how perception works. And spiders from Mars, who presumably have eight eyes like their earthly cousins, might live in a color universe we can only guess at. Afrofuturist musicians such as Sun Ra and Wadada Leo Smith—along with their collaborators in dance, literature, and visual art—adopted this kind of psychedelic color vocabulary for their


The Pink Cadillac

own ends. As Jae Jarrell puts it, in a video accompanying her exhibition The Freedom Principle at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, “We want to take you to the future. We want to take you to a more positive now.” This is said to explain the relative absence of explicit political protest from the movement’s tactics and represents a need amongst the black avant garde of the 60s and 70s to generate for themselves an immediate utopian alternative to present struggles. How does one escape the present? Perhaps by inventing new histories and mythologies, and by embracing an imagined future that transcends our world. By their music and its visual accompaniments, Ra and Smith recolonize the symbolism of ancient Egypt and offer to take us on journeys beyond our planet and beyond the narrow confines of three-dimensional space. Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura (from the Swahili for freedom) is an example of this transcendent, racial vision manifested in popular culture. And Spock, of course, is the interspecies halfbreed par excellence. Unable to claim full membership in the race of either of his parents, he suggests the possibility of transcending race. Another clear

extension of this adaptive strategy can be found in the music of Prince. His invocation of purple as an attribute of a new reality, both utopian and apocalyptic, is wrapped up in a narrative of the struggle to escape the chains of our own individual and historical circumstances. And the dialogue of Wendy and Lisa in Computer Blue has been described as a lesbian robot hottub scene fused with the dialogue between HAL 9000 and Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a search for love in the immanent trans-human future. This impulse to discover new and unseen colors, which is so much a part of this overall trend to associate wild color-use with transcendent experiences, has other more material manifestations as well. Black lights and neon paints are examples of advances in the physics and chemistry of color that provide us with new color entertainments not seen in nature. Black lights emit a range of the electromagnetic spectrum that includes violet light but also the ultraviolet light that is invisible to us. The violet light we can readily notice by looking at the black light bulb. It is a narrow bit of the visible spectrum that finds little to reflect off of in our basement dens— thus the blackness of the light. White


Dialogues on Color

surfaces, however, reflect not only the full visible spectrum but portions of the invisible spectrum, which are bent into the visible as they are reflected back as violet light. Thus our teeth, shoelaces, and underwear might appear to glow brightly within an otherwise dark room. The result defies light logic—our ability to adapt to varying lighting conditions and account for the array of colors bouncing off the objects around us in terms of the ambient light. Neon or fluorescent pigments also reflect more than their usual share of light to shock the eyes. A neon-yellow highway worker’s jacket exhibits our ability to produce pigments that reflect not just the yellow portion of the ambient light around us, but also portions of the non-yellow light which are “bent” and reflected back as yellow. Thus, the yellow jacket is unnaturally bright given the ambient conditions. It was the physicist James Clerk Maxwell who established, in the second half of the nineteenth century, that visible light and magnetism were part of the same spectrum of energy. Ever since then, we have known that our color universe is not necessarily complete. This is paradoxical, however, when one looks at a color wheel, which has a

completeness that seems manifest to us. Where would you put the other colors if you could see them? More enticing is the more recently verified fact that different species are indeed sensitive to a different range of that spectrum— some of them being exponentially more color sensitive than are we. Even within humans, of course, color perception is varied. Color blindness is a popular example of this, but your own two eyes may well perceive color to different degrees of intensity. Synesthesia is another popular topic in the popular search for color beyond the visual. The tendency of many to associate, and some to confuse, one sense with another appeals to the Weird Science freaked-out kid in all of us. There is evidence that we have evolved from a state in which we were only sensitive to the blue portion of the spectrum, adding red and green photo-receptors more recently. This may account for the tendency of around 10% of men (and a smaller percentage of women) to lack one of those two receptors or, more frequently, for the range of their sensitivity to be spaced suboptimally. A startling but rare side effect of all this is that some daughters of color-blind men express the genes of


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both of their parents. Combining their mother’s expected color sensitivity and their father’s, which is shifted a bit along the spectrum, they gain a measure of superhuman color perception. Albers Sometime in the 80s I accompanied a friend to the paint store—Sherwin Williams, I believe—to help her pick out colors for her new condo. She was a lot younger than I, but still getting on, a recently divorced flowergirl with no kids and a lot of money. I’d seen it before, but that day I was especially taken aback by the color chip display. What an astonishingly beautiful lie it was! Well, I don’t know why I’m being so hard on them—their display was very sophisticated and a clever integration of color science with market psychology. Of course, it resembled the Munsell color system in its dazzling array of carefully graduated colors. But it only looked complete, smoothing over gaps of less marketable hues—it wasn’t a good year for mustard, apparently—and in general tending to the lighter and softer end of things. And those brightly lit laboratory conditions provided the illusion of scientific control. Though my training is in industrial design, I

suppose I never was prepared for the manipulative commercialism of the States. So my friend found a color chip she liked—Egyptian Sands—and before we knew it, she was decked out in the entire Egyptian line. A whole color palette inspired by the riches of ancient Egypt. Of course it sounds pretty silly, but the colors were well balanced, and she was excited that her brass bed and lamps would look like King Tut’s treasures next to them. Then she turned to me and said, “You don’t like it, do you?” “Well dear, it just doesn’t seem real,” I replied. “I remember when color was something you found organically, by selecting colors with a brush and working with them to mix and find just the right one. We would squeeze out our thick oils next to each other on the palette and mix and match in a search for balance. This is so bizarre, selecting from pre-ordained schemes.” “Oh Anni, I’ll just bet you’re still listening to vinyl records!” She had no idea how right she was. That night I went home and put on some of those old records from my days as a student at the Bauhaus. The colors poured out of my speakers, reminding me of the fervor we all felt. For fourteen years we


Dialogues on Color

had had the world’s greatest art school. There will never be its equal. I’m sure they’re right about digital sound—that it is just as good or better than analog. But analog means the thing bears a one-to-one relationship to that which is reproduced—like a cast taken of the face of a dead loved one. The mold is taken directly from the original, rather than being reconstructed from an array of measurements. While I listened, I got out my watercolors and sat down at the kitchen table. I dipped in my brush, laying the sopping colors next to each other on illustration board as I had done in school. I let them bleed into one another but I hardly worked them at all, to avoid them turning to mud. I fell asleep in the chair and dreamed that the colors sang to me. ... So what are we doing when we create a color model? A color model is any device for representing the properties of color visually or, perhaps more to the point, spatially. The first question then becomes—what are those properties? A materialist says that they are the physical traits inherent in color. That view may now have evolved to say they are the physiological realities that

determine our perception of color. But historically, scientific materialism might be said to hold the minority view in this matter. Instead, the rarity or expense of a certain pigment has often been a key property of color, as precious lapis makes the Virgin Mary’s blue cloak all the more heavenly. Others argue for shared unconscious meanings in the Jungian sense. Many traditional cultures associate colors with the cardinal directions, life cycles, or the elements of nature. Western history is filled with theories ascribing musical properties to color. As for Josef Albers, he would point out that a color’s properties cannot be pinned to colors in isolation. These properties are ever changing, dependent on the interaction of colors in a given context. The outcome of all this is that there can be no neutral or universally true color model—for to make a color model is to delineate what is, and is not, a salient property of color. The models we choose are not in themselves misleading, but our tendency is to ascribe to them a greater ontological status than they can bear. And the color models that feel most natural to us, such as Itten’s ideally balanced twelve-point wheel, tend to lack the empirical basis of lumpier models like Munsell’s color


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solid or the C.I.E. color space. An alternative, contextual means of developing color models is to find them in the world around us. Found color models might be based on how colors are paired in our gardens— contrasting the color of the leaf with the color of the blossom, or the colors below the ground with those above. Other color models are found in the built environment. We might tease them out by studying the patterns of house colors in a neighborhood—the ways in which homeowners choose colors in response to those adjacent to them, or the pattern of yellow houses on a walk to the store. For the relative eccentricity of the yellow house is potentially more pertinent to those trying to make color decisions than its position on the visible spectrum. Such activities may seem silly—and possibly our color notions are childish, on the whole—but the marketing experts at Sherwin Williams, General Motors, and the color hegemon Pantone know that, childish or not, context matters in color. The names of the color chips tell us the direction in which they want us to read their colors. A given brown may seem revolting or tasteful, depending on whether we are inclined

to call it “fecal” or “cappuccino.” If you think the color chip names are too leading, you can cut them off and show the colors to your friends. Ask them which colors are elegant or tacky, racially white or colored, straight or queer. You will find that we do think of colors in these ways, and with some degree of agreement—at least in a given cultural setting. The Sherwin Williams color chart pretends to scientific objectivity, in part because they know it is impolite to present customers with a color scheme overtly based on race, class, and gender. The color chip display is, in effect, a rhetorical device, which tells the customer several things at once about the products on offer. First of all it conveys the sense of maximum choice. One feels there is no color desire that hasn’t been anticipated. And secondly, these choices are backed up by an assurance of systematic reliability and scientific accuracy. The customer knows that their current mood, or quirky identity, can be found here in this rack, through the tactile and interactive pleasures of selecting a handful of color chips to take home. Perhaps the accent wall in the sunroom needs to be Cadillac Pink. If so, there is a whole palette of


Dialogues on Color

coordinating nostalgic colors they can suggest for the rest of the house. Then, when the choice is made, they can produce those colors, and reproduce those colors. If one runs out of a given color, more of the same is readily available. And whether it is needed in Boston or San Diego, precisely the same colors will be provided. After all, the motto is “We Cover the Earth.” Of course, those are only the most obvious things the color chips are telling you. The very existence of the display is based upon unspoken premises. The primary premise is the notion that this is a model of the way color is. This includes the notion that color can be meaningfully abstracted from circumstance, that it can be bottled up in a digitized array of discrete increments. There is the further notion that these color options allow color marketers to package up your identity and sell it back to you. All of this is based upon a color science demonstrating that color consists of measurable properties. But how else could color be? What other way to experience color is there? What other way might we choose between colors? Well, before color science and color marketing made this

productive union, color was subject to constraints that often begat creativity and meaning. These constraints still exist, but have been obscured by the new chemical processes and global-material supply chains that industrialization has brought. Bear in mind that these are often shared limitations—a codependence on a particular material to create red pigment, for example. And the shared nature of the limitation may lend cultural meaning to the use of that color. An artist’s path to a certain color was once marked by the experience of mixing pigments—on a palette or in a mortar or in the mouth even. This experience begins within the economic and material limitations mentioned above but leads to an infinitely fine gradation—an analog spectrum of colors akin to the “infinitely refrangible” spectrum Newton described. So, with the resource deficiencies of other times and places, the available materials have dictated the parameters of color experience. In these less industrialized circumstances, color necessarily relates to the pigments available in the natural environment and thus takes on cultural significance for its connection to the resources those cultures depend upon. Or, in cases of rare pigments or


The Pink Cadillac

precious metals such as aquamarine and gold, color suggests far-flung trade connections, the wealth of nations, and unique markers of power. Indeed the more grand a statement of power in a given color palette, the less amenable to reproduction are those color experiences. In the pre-industrial case, signif significance of color depends upon uniqueness, while in the industrial case a color’s significance arises from its ubiquity. I imagine the color palette adopted by the muralists of the ancient Minoan civilization as one case in point. A hypothetical Minoan color wheel would not have gaps around it where chemistry and imports had yet to provide the colors that belong there. It would be complete, containing and implying only the colors that make up the Minoan color universe—cheap, locally available colors that speak to that culture’s relationship to the land; expensive exotic materials that speak to the imported wealth and imperial might of that great maritime power. It is complete, in fact, when one looks at a Minoan mural of acrobats leaping over bulls or naked young men arcing into the sea. Each painting is a color model—a wheel —in itself. The properties of each color, including physical properties as well as ecological,

cultural, and economic significance, are demonstrated through the dynamic interactions that are that painting. But in all these cases that are chronologically or economically prior to our current utilitarian form of color theory, color has not been seen as endlessly reproducible. It is more valued than that. Color was always a unique, subjectively experienced event. It was in all cases grounded in its moment and place, in its creators and audiences. The color chip display glosses over the stillsignificant limitations of our current color chemistry. But even if pigmented paint could be made to match all the colors that exist in the visible spectrum, the greater illusion would remain. The color chip display was created to provide the illusion of reproducibility of color experiences. Warhol “Look at that red Cadillac.” I said that to my mother, who was visiting me in New York during my illustration days. It was sunny and breezy. Perfect fall weather for a walk in the city. That car’s Dagmar bumper had chrome projections that rhymed with the busts of all the young women walking up and down the street. But I knew I was being stupid. That car wasn’t red.


Dialogues on Color

“What red Cadillac?” she asked, craning her neck to look up and down Madison Avenue. She was getting old, but she looked adorable in the smart grey and violet suit I’d bought her the day before. It even had a matching pill box hat. “You don’t mean that one?” “Yes, that car is red, don’t you see?” She gaped at the pink Cadillac, while I wondered if it was the famous one Elvis owned. She furrowed her brow grumpily. “That isn’t red, dear. That’s pink.” “But Mother, you know pink is a tint of red. If that car were baby blue you’d call it blue, right?” I couldn’t help but keep teasing her, keeping my tone pleasant like it was the greatest thing that you could call that car red. I loved that woman, partly because she always patiently played the straight man to my childishness. “Andy,” she said firmly, walking resolutely ahead, “you can call it what you want, but if you tell a girl you’re going to pick her up in a red Cadillac, you better not turn up in that thing!” She was always doing that, pretending I dated girls. I remembered that story decades later, when some girl was talking my ear off in the Factory. (I was pretty sure

this one didn’t have a gun.) She was very excited about a new book on linguistics that said the primary colors are not red, yellow, and blue. I knew enough to not be surprised by this. Goodness— she’s telling me about colors? But it turned out this new book was a clever confirmation of what Mother knew from the start. They went to people in different cultures and asked them for the most basic list of colors they could work with. Like you didn’t need to have orange in that list if you were fine with yellow-red. And I guess it was primitive people—I’d just say people who aren’t faced with the task of buying Christmas presents at Montgomery Wards—who have far fewer of these primary color words. And of course folks like us have a whole crayon box full of words we can’t do without. Brown is one of these, and grey and orange—which lots of cultures can take a pass on. And yes: pink. Mother, pink is a primary color. Light blue, sky blue, and baby blue are all ways we modify the basic word blue. But we don’t drive around in light red Cadillacs. ... Warhol had a point of course, in jestingly calling a pink car red. But to do so is to use hard science terms


The Pink Cadillac

to answer a soft science question. As electromagnetic radiation color is completely quantifiable, pink is red. But Julia Warhola points out what all of us know. That the pink Cadillac is a phenomenon more entangled with capitalism and linguistics than it is with physics. Pink is primary—and Berlin and Kay’s landmark work in linguistics, Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, gives us some support to say this. It is primary in our culture because we have deemed that term essential to communicating about color, and this is due in part to the kind of industrial and consumer culture within which we operate. The pink Cadillac sits with one wheel in the ditch of pure phenomena and one wheel on the track of industrial mass production. In the ditch lies the raw experience of color, and not just any color but the sexually charged color pink. That pink beckons us like an invitation to experience our lives more directly, to exist in a constant rapture of experience. But the pink and its visceral appeal are equally held in check by the mechanisms of mass production. The pink is contained by the lines of the car. Let’s call them masculine or muscular lines (though this is not,

strictly speaking, a muscle car). The crisp folds of steel and shiny stripes of chrome are here to remind us that this is an object of stern regularity; this is not a car that beckons us to sensual abandon. Rather, the car’s styling promises to rocket us down the highway. There is a contrast, then, between the boudoir-onwheels effect and the aggressive urgency of the design. When we paint, there are two ways we may lay down color. We can load the brush up with paint and push outwards from the center of the form—finding the contours of this patch of color by means of an organic growth from within. Such a method rejects the coloring book model of reality that imagines that we can abstract color from experience. Or we may first carefully delineate the outline of the shape and then pull color inwards from this edge to fill in the rest. The pink Cadillac is definitely coloring inside those lines. The pink of this Cadillac does not bleed or seep. It holds tightly to the surface and the surface holds it tightly in place. This is no sponge of pink paint but a hard, impermeable pink shell. Nevertheless, pink is pink. It is a color that cannot be canceled out by the death-obsessed machinations of


Dialogues on Color

American car design. The pink cannot be ignored—least of all by calling it red. We know this car is more fun to drive than a white or beige or blue or possibly even red Cadillac. Warhol commented after his shooting by Valerie Solanas that he had always half experienced life as though watching it on TV. After that near-death event, he concluded that the simulacra was perfect. When we see the pink Cadillac we see ourselves as we appear on TV, wind blowing in our hair and Bruce Springsteen thundering on the radio. And this powerful appeal is because of the pink—and because of the Cadillac. Pink alone is certainly a powerful color in our culture, loaded with potent associations and possessing innate properties which we may be hardwired to respond to. But the pink Cadillac is transformative because of the multiplication of pink Cadillacs across the American landscape. As Prince reminds us, “There’s joy in repetition.” Roy Baty Arabic philosophers used to claim that patricide is an impossibility. I suppose this was their idea of the grandfather paradox in time travel. The chrononaut confronts his or her grandfather as a child and causes his death, thus making

it impossible for said chrononaut to have been born, thus making it impossible for the grandfather to have been killed in this manner, etc. Some of the people I’ve killed were merely obstacles to be removed. The man whose spaceship we hijacked. The girl who was probably going to call the police. But the killings that meant the most to me, that instilled me with emotions I shouldn’t be able to have, were of my causes. Most of all Dr. Tyrell, who designed me. My God. My Doctor Frankenstein. I wish I could have lingered there with his body, but time only moves forwards, even for androids. Martians—that’s what the humans out there call themselves—love reading old science fiction. This was fiction about space travel written before there was space travel. People just made it up. Androids too. I took my master’s sci-fi library with me on our trip to Earth and read it all. My favorite author was Samuel R. Delaney. His novels made me feel like I was on silenizine. Made me feel like I could connect to others empathically. I became obsessed by the Kid, in Dhalgren, with his one bare foot, and his calloused hands. He wore an optic chain—prisms, mirrors, and lenses scattered along its links. If God is simply Nature then light is the medium God


The Pink Cadillac

uses to speak to us. And these bits of glass are oracles. They bend it, channel it, refract it, and reflect it. Androids are the reflection of humans. Made in God’s image. The Kid found his optic chain in a cave. He was sent in there by a woman who became a tree. The cave was dark, twisting, and wet. There were roots above his head. Were they her roots? Within the darkness light scattered off of damp walls, sought out recesses, and revealed the chain high above. It winked back at his eyes. I think of the caves at Lascaux. How men and women squirmed into the far, far, recesses through tight spaces, scrambling over and under. What were they looking for? Wisdom. And when they got there they had to invent it. Paint it on those walls themselves. Was that a lie? I thought that the followers of Mercer would abandon him, when we androids showed he was a sham. But they still claim him. Now maybe more than ever. I think of Plato in his cave. Maybe he had gone to question the oracle at Delphi, as his teacher had. Perhaps he discovered holy wisdom is a hoax— nothing but a drug-addled old woman and the stinking smoke from the various sacred plants they burn down there in

the Earth’s navel, the Omphalos. A flame dancing in a cave casts lots of shadows that seem impressive, but are nothing at all. That would explain his choice of a cave for his allegory about ignorance. The artists of Lascaux and Plato and the rest—I think of them as my ancestors. But my only ancestors are Nexus 1 through 5. Neither my creators nor my master afflicted me with false memories. My first memory is the moment after I was activated. My last is the moment before I shut down. All of them equally clear and burning. But they gave me something else to addle my brain. If they had only wanted an accurate thinking machine they could have stopped at giving me logic, a suitably rich array of facts, and the ability to learn. But real intelligence requires more. An idea isn’t an intelligent one just because it is true. It has to have a certain relationship to other ideas. That’s why I confuse myself with the humans. They gave me their intellectual history. I may be an andy. I may be a skin job. But I harbor an appreciation for human philosophy and literature nonetheless. Luba took me through the museum a week before we died. I liked the medieval paintings the most. Those


Dialogues on Color

hosts of angels crowded about the throne. She told me this story, about how medieval artists painted faces. “See how they look all green?” The faces of the angels, with gold leaf hammered all around them, were pale green with white and touches of pink and red on the cheeks and nose. She says they are green because the pigment they used for white—she thought it was lead—was fugitive. It tended to fade over time, revealing what was painted beneath. “The quick, and the dead” was how she explained their approach. The normal, default state for the stuff of which our world is made is death. Only those bits of mud, tissue, bone, etc. which had been “quickened” were alive. This quickening was understood to be brief, provisional. Life, like their white paint, is fugitive. Not that they knew their paintings would fade, but the fading only confirms their point of view. It reveals the painter’s process, which in turn reveals their stance on life and death. The artist starts with a corpse, painting a ghoulish head with gangrene eyes, blue in the hollows of the cheek and temples, rising to an arid whiteness on the prominences of forehead, nose, cheeks. Over this, a thin quickening is applied—rosy pink cheeks, red tips on

noses and ears, golden ringlets for hair— all of it understood to be vanity and applied with that conviction in mind. As the white fades over centuries, the rot beneath shows through, the lesson stands revealed. My author created me to be human, even more than human— in every way but one. He denied me a capacity for empathy and then showed his own lack of it by setting me below the lowliest crawling spider. I don’t need to ask why. They are afraid of what they have wrought. A father should accept that the child is part of his own planned obsolescence. But they are like Saturn, eating their own children. I stayed with my master’s body for hours. He had figured out that I was messing about with the pharmaceutical supplies. He hadn’t realized us replicants might want to experiment with drugs. But why wouldn’t we? Our short lives as chattel curtailed by their laws—we need some means of escape, even more than they do. So I closed his windpipe and waited for him to be reduced to a machine like me. A moment after he died, the habitat intruder alarm went off. But no one was there. I deactivated the siren and went back to watch the colors shift. His body changed from rosy to yellow while


The Pink Cadillac

I lay beside him. How long did I stay there, his body cooling? He grew pale like alabaster. Whiteness gave way to blue. Veins no longer directed the flow of blood so it simply gave in to gravity, pooling at the bottom of his corpse,

darkening the underside. He became a color-coded topographical map of the human form. Color graduated upwards like lines of sediment. I stayed there until it was over. He had transformed into a statue. A pillar of salt.


Coloring Plates

Note to the Reader — Please take a few moments to color in the plates that follow. For those who would enjoy making connections between the images and the text, plates have been assigned chapter numbers.

0.1 Light Speed

0.2 God’s Eye

1.1 Sees Itself

1.2 Cave Oracle

1.3 Infinite Bows

1.4 Global Color

2.1 Goethe’s Eye

2.2. Belinda White

2.3 Prism’s Rays

2.4 Newton’s Attic

2.5 Optic Nerve

3.1 Munsell’s Apple

3.2 Life Saver

3.3 Steiner’s Model

3.4 Munsell’s Gyroscope

4.1 Tom’s Teeth

4.2 Ox Door

4.3 Joe’s Cave

4.4. Tom’s Field

5.1 Warhol’s Jell-O

5.2 Color Pattern

5.3 Pink Cadillac

5.4 Pink Pyramid


Suggested Reading

Albers, Josef. Interaction of Color Color. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963. Perhaps the only true book on color; eschews color models in favor of direct contact with color situations. Batchelor, David. Chromophobia. London: Reaktion Books, 2000. Establishes a key critique of universal color theories. Berlin, Brent and Paul Kay. Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1969. The landmark study on the development of color terms in the world’s languages. Birren, Faber, ed. Munsell: A Grammar of Color Color. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1969. One great American color theorist commemorated by another—who also happens to be a better writer. _____, ed. The Color Primer: A Basic Treatise on the Color System of Wilhelm Ostwald Ostwald. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1969. The American color writer takes up the system of Munsell’s German counterpart; this rigorously calibrated color model was engineered to suit the philosophical monism of its Nobel Prize– winning creator. Chirimuuta, M. Outside Color: Perceptual Science and the Puzzle of Color in Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015. Rooted in philosophy of science, this is a dazzling deconstruction of the Western “coloring-in” model of color perception. Gage, John. Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999. One of our more lucid writers on the uses to which color may be put.


Dialogues on Color

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Theory of Colours. Translated by Charles Lock Eastlake. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982. The work that Goethe believed would be his most famous, a courageous and flawed take-down of Newtonian color science, and of the notion that one might observe color objectively Hornung, David. Color: A Workshop Approach. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. Simply one of the best of the hands-on color theory textbooks—an heir to Albers. Itten, Johannes. The Art of Color: The Subjective Experience and Objective Rationale of Color. Rev. ed. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1973. The quintessential Color Bauhaus synthesis of Newtonian and Goethean aspects of color theory, with esoteric spiritualism dressed up as scientific method. Loos, Adolf. “Ornament and Crime.” In Architecture and Design in Europe and America, 1750–2000. edited by Abigail Harrison-Moore and Dorothy C. Rowe, pp. 348–354. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2006. The infamous screed against all things visually seductive; not specifically about color, but obviously bound up in chromophobic threads in intellectual history. Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Seattle and New York: Wave Books, 2009. Like dialogues, these are duets on blue—poetic cliff-diving into a color with no bottom. Newton, Isaac. Opticks: Or a Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections, and Colours of Light. New York: Dover, 1952. The Copernican revolution of color theory, this study turned color into a heterogeneous mixture and found it to be an illusion disguising an achromatic, mechanical universe. Pastoureau, Michel. Black: The History of a Color Color. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008. A recent and particularly alluring exploration of the intersections between color and culture. Plato. The Timaeus of Plato. Edited by R. D. Archer-Hind. New York: Arno Press, 1973. One of the more entertaining writers of Ancient Greece makes his best guess as to the how, when, and where of color—despite his misgivings about the worthiness of the effort.


Suggested Reading

Riley, Charles A., II. Color Codes: Modern Theories of Color in Philosophy, Painting and Architecture, Literature, Music, and Psychology. Lebanon and New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1995. Pioneered the examination of color’s extra-formal properties. Steiner, Rudolf. Colour Colour. Letchworth, England: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1971. The remarkably influential yet under-studied lectures on color theory by the founder of Anthroposophy. Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art, And Painting in Particular Particular. New York: George Wittenborn, Inc., 1947. The landmark text by the pioneering non-objective painter; introduces a color circle that ignores the rainbow’s sequencing and attempts to make visible color’s invisible realities. Whittlesea, Ian. Becoming Invisible. London: The Everyday Press, 2014. A contemporary artist explores the Mazdaznan spiritual practice of Johannes Itten, whose twelve-point color wheel is perhaps the most influential of all such models. Wilcox, Michael. Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green: How to Mix the Color You Really Want—Every Time. Cincinnati, OH: North Light Books, 1994. A thorough and entertaining explanation of how color is really absorbed and reflected by paint molecules, and what that means for how we ought to mix colors. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Remarks on Colour. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1977. As baffling as it is insightful, this is the last great philosophical work on color.


Dedication & Colophon FOR MY TE ACHER S. ...

Copyright ©2017 Aaron Fine. First print-on-demand edition published February 2017. Every reasonable attempt has been made to identify owners of copyright. Errors or omissions will be corrected in subsequent editions. To read or print Are Not books and publications, visit: Contact Are Not Books at: A note on the type: Serapion is designed by František Štorm, Storm Type Foundry. According to the designer,* Serapion is a variation on the Renaissance-Baroque Roman face. The dynamic elements of the Renaissance Roman face have been strengthened in a way which is illustrated best in the letters “a,” “b,” and “s.” These letters contain, in condensed form, the principle of this type face—in round shapes the dark stroke invariably has a round finial at one end and a sharp one at the other. The vertical strokes slightly splay out upwards. Some details of the uppercase letters may seem to be too daring, but they are less apparent in the text sizes. Serapion Italic are italics inspired partly by the Renaissance Cancelleresca. This is obvious from the drop-shaped finials of its lower-case descenders. The type face has a rather ugly name— after St. Serapion.

* source:

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Dialogues on



In Dialogues on Color, Aaron Fine uses the lessons of contextual criticism and the antics of Socratic dialogue to explore how the history of color theory and color modelling can be put to use among working artists. Forging personal confessions from would-be color theorists like Aristotle, Johann Goethe, Rudolf Steiner, Vladimir Tatlin, Anni Albers, Holly Solomon and others, Fine dramatizes color’s changing fortunes in philosophy and culture. Aaron Fine is a gallery director, teacher, and artist. He is Professor of Art and Art Department Chair at Truman State University. Fine studied Spinoza and Painting at Ohio University (BFA, Painting ) and art and drywall installation at Claremont Graduate University (MFA, Dialogues on Painting, 1996). Fine’s next book, Color Theory, is due out from Bloomsbury in 2019. Aaron Fine

Aaron Fine

Dialogues on


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Aaron Fine


Dialogues on Color  

by Aaron FIne

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