Spring 2007

Colors / Brown

What can it do for You?

Alan Gilbert

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

The same week Cabinet asked me to write on the color brown, Time magazine announced “You” as 2006’s “Person of the Year.” Time’s selection turned out to be mostly an excuse to celebrate the emergence of Web 2.0 and its “open source” technology of collective contribution, nonproprietary distribution, and seemingly indiscriminate mixing, which supposedly renders obsolete once and for all notions of high and low, authority and amateur, producer and consumer, artist and audience, etc. It’s the potential realization of postmodernism’s failed dream, despite lingering questions as to whether or not Web 2.0 will fundamentally change basic relationships of power.

I remember the last time there was such enthusiasm about—and gushing rhetoric around—the Internet as democratic tool for radical change. Back then, I read Mondo 2000 and Wired religiously, although I found the latter’s anti-corporate corporate language alienating and opaque. If Web 1.0 meant that bodies would be freed of material burdens, such as other people and offices (Mondo 2000 positively drooled over the idea of solitary individuals having virtual reality sex, and Wired promised that one day soon everyone would be a telecommuter), then Web 2.0 signals the replacement of content with accumulating information, of aesthetics with mechanisms of transmission, and of the isolated subject with one in perpetually updated relation—just click refresh.

Demetrius Oliver, Till, 2004. Courtesy the artist.

Among other things, this means that Web 2.0 is a partial deathblow to conventional aesthetics. This isn’t so terrible, and was inevitable anyway, since aesthetics is a historical construction—a rapidly aging one at that. Francesco Bonami writes in a recent issue of Artforum: “If going to a museum is seen as a kind of airport-lounge experience, you have to accept that art can easily turn into ‘stuff,’ meaning that viewers will experience mostly accumulation rather than sublimation.” This is happening on a much more pervasive and invasive scale outside of the museum space as Web 2.0 continuously and voraciously feeds on the compiling “stuff” of culture and information. In this sense, MySpace and YouTube are doing more to challenge traditional aesthetics than progressive artists, art institutions, and Hal Foster-edited anthologies on anti-aesthetics combined, just as gallery- and museum-going paradigms for appreciating (and critiquing) art are being confronted by Web 2.0’s culture-as-file-and-information-sharing model.

In a catalogue essay on the work of Josephine Meckseper, John Kelsey describes how “all attention is swallowed in the communication of a message rather than in the intensity of an event.” As Web 2.0 poster children, MySpace, YouTube, and Wikipedia prove, two-dimensional foraging is what’s most important. Much of the appeal of YouTube and MySpace results from being able to say—i.e., tell somebody else, typically electronically (email a link)—that you’ve seen or heard something online. Moreover, nobody watches a YouTube video for its formal components. Color, sound, and resolution quality are secondary. Does all of this make a column focused on color a bit irrelevant?

On the contrary. As Josef Albers demonstrated in Interaction of Color, color, too, is profoundly relational. His chapter IV heading sketches one aspect of this: “A color has many faces—the relativity of color.” Interestingly, the example he uses shows perceptual changes that occur to the exact same shade of brown depending on the colors surrounding it. Another example reveals how different browns can be made to look similar when surrounded by lighter or darker hues. Robert Ryman’s obsessive monochromatic experiments with the color white point not to its purity or transcendental quality but to its relativity—material as well as cognitive.

Albers’s and Ryman’s experiments with color may be rigorously phenomenological, as opposed to political, but the experience of color in any meaningful sense never precedes psychology and culture. James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time that, “color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality.” Accounting for color always accompanies the act of perception, which at its most basic is a physical process involving light, wavelengths, retinas, and electrical and chemical processes in the brain. Brown throws this dynamic into striking relief.

Too much color has always confused categories. “As a non-spectral colour, brown has been especially resistant to theory,” writes John Gage in Color and Meaning: Art, Science, and Symbolism. But that’s not for lack of trying. Not surprisingly, Wikipedia has an entry for brown that combines description and supposition. Presenting a list of at times arbitrary associations with the word brown, it informs online “researchers”: “Brown is also sometimes used to refer to brown people or darker skined [sic] Caucasoids of South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa” and, “Brown is the color of many soils, animals, tree barks, feces and many other things in nature.” Whether as nature, excrement, or a racialized other, in European-American culture something in brown always remains unspoken, frequently lodged between the sublime and the abject.

In Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, Philip Ball echoes Gage and points to—consciously or not—brown’s many resonances (the “brown note” in music fabled to induce bowel movements is a different issue): “Brown is another difficult one. It sits on the border between a real color and an achromatic one—a ‘dirty’ color akin to gray.” Despite co-authoring a sonnet with Paul Verlaine that affectionately describes an asshole (not an irritating person, but the orifice), Rimbaud abandoned brown to silence—as he later abandoned poetry—when he didn’t assign it a corresponding vowel in his synaesthetic poem “Voyelles.” I was once intellectually smitten with Georges Bataille’s notion of “base materialism” (death, decay, and shit), and the scatological element in Paul McCarthy’s performances reduces me to a giggling entrancement. And I know I’m not the only person who pauses in curious bemusement whenever I encounter UPS’s advertising slogan, “What Can Brown Do For You?”

In a world where communication, information, and experience are being continuously extended, sped up, and flattened out, everything now seems to happen simultaneously. These new combinations of technology and commerce may have prompted Thomas Friedman to declare that “the world is flat,” but the invisible hand of his—and Adam Smith’s—“free” market is most assuredly white. Aesthetics, race, and nationhood—each are discourses traditionally fearful of brown’s intermixing. In fact, the historical development of the concept of race runs loosely parallel to that of aesthetics, and like aesthetics (and nationalism), culminated in the nineteenth century’s explosion of real and pseudoscience. (Not uncoincidentally, the nineteenth century is also when the first modern investigations into the psychology of color took place.)

In Western societies, white is rendered the invisible color, while brown is among the most visible; in turn, that which is made invisible is considered natural. That’s how dominant ideologies work—by equating themselves with a state of nature and the nature of the state (which is one reason why conservatives are quick to label homosexuality an “unnatural” act, and helps explain the television show Survivor locating capitalist competition in a “natural” setting). Baldwin was right. Color is a political process. When blended, the commingling of black and white may make gray, but brown has a little bit of every color. Baldwin asked, “Isn’t love more important than color?” I agree. As with “open source” social modes, love is a complex relational. And brown is its color.

Alan Gilbert is the author of Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight (Wesleyan University Press, 2006). His writings on art, poetry, culture, and politics have appeared in a variety of publications, including Artforum, The Believer, and the Village Voice; his poems have appeared in The Baffler, the Brooklyn Rail, and the Chicago Review, among other places.

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