Thursday, June 08, 2006

Color: Further reflections

Public opinion surveys have cast light on the ranking of colors. Today, with ratings of 50% or more, blue is the unambiguous winner in all Western countries. Green, trending towards 20%, is second. However the preference for blue is not universal. Reportedly, Japanese prefer black. Moreover, blue did not always enjoy its present preeminence. As Michel Pastoureau has shown in his beautiful monograph on the hue, blue was largely disregarded in Greek and Roman times. The available technology was hard to reproduce. It also tended to have a negative reputation. (Not noted by Pastoureau is the finding that a light blue was the color of the angel of death for the Early Christians.) It was only in the high middle ages, when it became the color of the Virgin Mary, that blue began its ascent. The variability of the status of blue confirms the overall finding that the symbolic associations of colors are culturally determined.

In earlier decades gays and lesbians could dress in green or lavender in order to convey their orientation and to signal to others. Apart from these stratagems, what are the actual color preferences of gay people? As far as I know, no surveys have been conducted.

Color is a major factor in painting, helping to account for the popularity of museums. Moreover, unless there is some special reason for reverting to black and white, color is universally preferred in films and television. Computer printers, once limited to black, now generally provide the option of color.

Color has not always been so esteemed. During the Renaissance there was a debate over the status of disegno versus that of colore. (In the narrow sense, disegno means drawing, but it also connotes a broader awareness of structure and composition.) The upshot of the discussions was that color was legitimate, but must settle for lesser status. One Renaissance writer, though, associated color with painted women, with prostitutes. He was referring primarily to the use of make-up, but the comment potentially applies to dress as well, as whores have tended to wear bright clothing. So too, at times at least, gay men. “Don we now our gay apparel.” The Rainbow Flag may be another avatar of this polychrome tendency.

Chromophobia, aversion to color, became prominent in the Reformation, when Calvinists and Lutherans alike encouraged reliance on black as an emblem of sobriety. This hue was also the preference of austere Spanish grandees, as seen in the paintings of El Greco.

Hedonist courts, however, such as that of Henry VIII of England, kept to bright and varied colors. Thus colorful dress was for a long time associated with the aristocracy. It was only in relatively recent times that black became standard for male evening dress (the tuxedo). Perhaps the gay tendency to wear bright colors reflects a reversion to the earlier aristocratic preference.

Looking over the various colors associated with gay people in the segment reproduced below, one is struck by the fact that they are highly specific, making little contact with the overall symbolism of color. An exception is the red ties of a hundred years ago, a kind of voluntary parallel to the scarlet letter.

(Concluding note, don’t tell Islamists about the former gay preference for the color green.)


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