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Home / Articles / · Archive / News & Columns /  Editorial | Colorful Metaphors: Everything looks worse in black and white.
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Editorial | Colorful Metaphors: Everything looks worse in black and white.

By John Rasmuson
Posted // January 14,2009 - That a black guy is moving into the White House has got me thinking in color. n

(pause)

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I pause to fiddle with that opening sentence. I keep changing “in color” to “about color.” The latter is as pedestrian as buying a can of paint at Home Depot. The former seems the province of a novel, not an essay. What’s a simple scribbler to do?

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Credit Ellen Meloy for putting me in such a deliberative frame of mind. The late Utah nature writer’s memoir The Anthropology of Turquoise was so compelling that I have read it twice so far. Among the sentences I underlined was: “Color is the first principle of Place.” Note “place” is spelled with a capital P an alert of both literal and figurative dimension. Meloy’s context was the red-rock landscape near her home in Bluff. Mine, for present purposes, is not so literal. I’m thinking of the movie Pleasantville. Set in the time of Ozzie & Harriet, it uses color figuratively. The status quo is depicted in black and white; change is signaled by the application of the rest of the palette. Sex is color-inducing. So is reading. Reese Witherspoon’s character sheds her black-and-whiteness by engaging in both. The absence of color is indeed the first principle of insular Pleasantville. In its black-and-white neighborhoods, there is no progress, no improvement, no personal growth. On a figurative level, the movie implies that color is good, black and white is not.

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There’s no question that black has a list of distasteful associations longer than that of Dick Cheney or the real Darth Vader. The foreboding black spot Long John Silver receives from the pirates in Treasure Island is one that comes to mind. Another is Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” lyric, “Everything looks worse in black and white.” However, both are at odds with the fact that black bespeaks elegance. In tuxedos, limousines, steel-and-glass architecture, whiskey, sunglasses and LBDs (little black dresses)—black is the color of sophisticated taste.

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“If cool was a color, it would be black” asserts pop-culture critic Chuck Klosterman. He is probably right. Many years ago, I was walking around SoHo, the epicenter of cool in New York City, dressed in fashionable Utah duds—khakis, button-down-collared Gant and penny loafers. I was feeling pretty cool until I walked into a men’s boutique. It could just as well have been named Zorro’s, for there was nothing in the store that wasn’t black. I felt like a parrot in a starling rookery. It was a lesson in cool that stays with me especially when I look in a full-length mirror.

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If black is cool, color is profitable. Profitability just may be The First Principle of postmodern American culture. I have read that auteurs prefer the expressive medium of black and white for their films—think of Citizen Kane—but such commercial considerations as television rights dictate Technicolor. The unconventional use of color contributed to the success of Miami Vice in the 1980s just as it does to CSI: Miami. Michael Mann, the executive producer of Miami Vice, had a simple formula when it came to color: no earth tones. Detectives Crockett and Tubbs were dressed in pastel linen suits.

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I confess that my taste favors earth tones. Autumnal browns and grays tinged with red and yellow. The mottled hues of Sprague Library’s slate roof is my aesthetic ideal. It isn’t one shared by television producers, which is not altogether surprising, and I’m left to wonder just how colorblind I might be, figuratively speaking. I do lack the ability to envisage living-room walls painted other than off-white. And I don’t have the instinct to pair colors. My tendency to wear gray sweaters with khaki pants is an artless practice that grates on my wife.

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She has a gimlet eye when it comes to color. The same is true of most women. It may be a gender-specific trait. I read a story in The New York Times about restaurants that attract a female clientele. “Women like color and playfulness in restaurant design,” the story said. The attraction of one restaurant was its “vivid red banquettes.” The owner of another eatery felt mint-green walls made a difference.

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What about men’s hangouts? Decorated in “clubby brown tones.” In other words, earth tones. No surprise to me.

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At the risk of engaging in the stereotype of woman-as-grocery-shopper, I began to ponder the implication of “color and playfulness” in food labeling. I concocted a hypothesis—earth tones have less appeal to women, therefore those colors would be rare on labels—and I conducted an unscientific survey by walking the aisles at Whole Foods. Sure enough, earth tones were as rare as a cop in a pink linen suit. I found only a few rusty browns on chocolate, tea and cereal. What was most notable, however, was the absence of black. The only black label I found in the entire store was on a cylinder of goat cheese from Shepherds Dairy in Erda. I called Vaughn Oborn, the owner and cheesemaker, to ask about it. He said that when the label was designed many years ago, other color combinations were carefully considered. Black won out because it afforded simplicity and contrast, thereby setting Shepherds apart from other cheeses in the display case.

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Such decisions fit neatly into the “thinking about color” category, I think. The intellect sorts data that mostly seem framed in binaries—either/or, profit/loss, black/white, men/women. To think “in color” is a prismatic indulgence of the emotions. That a black guy has finally made it to the White House registers in red-white-and-blue joy.

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Private Eye is away this week. Send comments to comments@slweekly.com.

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