General 12-11-2003

The Column: Should I Wear the Red Shirt, or the Blue One Again?

Michael Fallon's column this month is a meditation on the relativism of taste: even critics don't like the same things all the time.

Michael Fallon

Joseph Albers, an influential abstract color-field painter and teacher, taught that the experience of color can be relative, depending on the environment and context in which it is viewed. This understanding of the relativity of color informed his, and many of his students’, work for a large chunk of the middle part of last century. Interestingly, Albers always began his classes with a first lesson to drive this idea home. That is, he would ask his students to go through a stack of color samples and pick out the color red. After a few minutes, Albers then asked students to hold up their cards, and the inevitable variations of colors showed that no two people perceive color in exactly the same way. Or as he once said: “If one person says ‘red’ and there are fifty people listening, it can be expected that there will be fifty reds in their minds. And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different … ”

Why is this so? There are likely several reasons. There are different cultural associations for colors: in northern-European-based cultures, red is considered stimulating and lively; in Mexico red is used to celebrate the dead during the festival of Dia de los Muertos. Yellow in the West is thought to be cheerful and eye-catching, but in the East is associated with discomfort, unease and foreboding. White in the Europe is viewed as the essence of purity; in India and China, white is associated with death and mourning. And so on.

Individually speaking, our perception of color is highly fluid and subjective, based in our own individual cognitive processes. Furthermore, colors themselves are highly fluid, changing in appearance when they are seen in different combinations and configurations, and in variable conditions of viewing. That is, how we see a color depends on its interactions with surrounding colors. A particular color can come forward or recede, seem larger or smaller, change value and hue, depending on what is in its background.

I was struck by the practical effects of this color relativity not so very long ago. Pink is usually thought of as a cheerful and enlivening color–the color of Valentine’s Day and lipstick and roses and baby bottoms. But when recently looking at some late paintings by Philip Guston, I noticed that his pinks are rather sickly on the whole, surrounded as they are by vomit greens, slate grays, and harsh browns. One man’s cheerful rosy color of love, I thought, is another man’s nauseating color of ill-at-ease.

At this point I have an admission to make. Though you wouldn’t expect to hear so from a critic, actually I’m pretty much a relativist.1 So I love this about colors, that you never really experience them in the same way twice.

I’m the sort who’s never been able to answer definitively the ever-popular questions: “What’s your favorite (pick one) band/movie/book/food/season/sport/&c?” Truth be told, I prefer to sample from all of life’s bounty rather than settling on the flavor of the moment. What strikes me as enjoyable at one moment may well be repulsive a few moments later–in different light, at a different temperature, among different people, in a different milieu. Just because in one moment I happen to be sampling something that’s tasty–who’s to say that I’ll still have the same feeling an hour or two from now? People who eat the same food, or watch the same movie, or listen to the same song over and over and over are a different species from me, as far as I’m concerned.

Come to think of it, why is it that people want us to choose and settle on things, anyway? To me, it smacks of the sizing-up tendency that is all too American (and is inherent in such common American questions as: So, what do you do for a living? What kind of car do you drive? Where are you from?). I’d prefer to answer humbler, more reasonable, and more interesting questions: What’s good that you’re listening to now? (Answer: “The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions”; it slow-burns so damn good.) What movies have you seen lately that you liked? (A: “The Wedding Singer”; Drew Barrymore is cute, and the soundtrack is like a time trip back to high school.) What book have you read lately that you enjoyed? (A: “Rimbaud Complete”; his poems, essays, notebooks; what freakin’ prodigy!) What have you cooked lately? (A: A squash soup with some Turkish spices; you shoulda been there.)

That’s me in a nutshell today. But here’s the cool thing–if you asked me the same questions a day or two from now, I’d have a completely different set of answers.

These admissions are intended to say something about the inherent contradictions (for me) of being a critic. It is generally assumed that a critic is someone who knows what the fuck he (or she) is about. A popular view of the critic is as a kind of high inquisitor, seated smugly on a throne, his gloved hand poised to give the signal that everyone dreads—either thumbs-down banishment to oblivion, or thumbs-up clemency until the next time.

Truth is, the critic—or at least this critic—is just as uncertain and unknowing and malleable as anyone else. That means, I’m sorry to say, I don’t have any answers for the art world. A good amount of my response to art is based on all the relative factors affecting me that day. What basis then, some might ask, do I have for writing art criticism? Well, I answer, what I have instead of the Absolute Truth is a burning interest in the subject and a bit of informed knowledge about it, and, most important, an ability to condense the experience of a work of art into a short written piece for publication. Sometimes, at the time of my writing, I may enjoy a work of art, may be turned on by its set of issues, and I’ll write up that excitement and appreciation. Other times, I may dislike the work, or be disappointed by it, and I’ll write that. I try to be fair. None of this is set in stone. I’m human enough to know that sometimes my tastes change through time, or sometimes my tastes are simply dependent on the moment.

Life is full of uncertainties and half-truths; that’s just the way it is, art fans. To bring this back around to my original point, the relativity of color has some interesting ramifications if you think on it. Like, for example, how the fact that some days you feel like wearing a red shirt and other days a blue shirt has less to do with whimsy than with the flexibility of your relationship with the world. This is true even if you long ago decided, as a child perhaps, that your favorite color is blue. You still might want to wear red from time to time; it’s part of being human.