PRINT September 1987



“PRELIMINARY RESEARCH IN THE NEW field of photobiology, or color therapy,” reported an article in the New Yorker recently, “indicates that a bubble-gum color called passive pink may have an almost immediate effect on aggressive behavior. When a berserk 16-year-old is placed in a four-by-eight-foot passive-pink cell at the San Bernardino County Probation Department, he is calmer within a few minutes. After ten minutes or so, he’s sometimes lying on the floor, nearly asleep.”

This kind of news, even when dis patched from a prison cell, can almost always be relied upon to give our hopes a little boost. At last, a practical solution to impossible binds may be out there peeping over the horizon. When a way of coping with the world possibly resides in a palette, all sorts of chances for change introduce themselves. With an extension of this philosophy, a thin layer of latex over the walls could completely alter a life in a matter of minutes; those grim mood swings that have defeated years of costly analysis could well be banished once and for all by a trip to Martin Paint.

Of course, it doesn’t take the news of col or therapy to introduce these shades of a clash with the question of color. We already have behaviorists telling us that our so- called color preferences are actually dictated by psychological forces over which we have little conscious control. We have the Color Marketing Group of Arlington, Virginia, which each year issues predictions of major color trends. We’ve got consumer preferences justifying the colorizing of movies.

We’ve got a tyranny of color subjecting whole districts of San Francisco to the homogenization of upscale living. We’ve got Postmodernists rescuing us from the white world of the Modern by plunging into the “revival” of color. Even if you’re not a 16-year-old male resident of San Bernardino County, it’s enough to drive you berserk. In art, in architecture, and in science, col or has emerged in recent years as a subject of increasingly significant debate. To the scientific color-therapists, the Post modern palette must seem so much stylistic eyewash, a glossy cover for art’s refusal to exchange surface for depth. They appear to see science as a reformer, battling to rescue the soul of color from the dissolute life it leads in culture. Science is to transport us away from the vicissitudes of taste to a world organized by theories of and possibly prescriptions for social behavior. The problem is that while it may be true that after ten minutes in the pink cell the crazed teen passes out on the floor, in an hour or two he may be up on his feet, more out of control than ever. (San Bernardino officials have discontinued use of the cell.) We should need no warnings of the tragic dangers of basing a system of social or human organization on color.

Whenever science and the arts converge, their meeting has an urgency and a promise. Sometimes, however, the fruit is only utopian dreams—a pink-painted prison is still a prison. If science and art want to be cast as saviors, their task must be to open our eyes to a rainbow of possibilities.Paradoxically, in the current state of the world, the rainbow may be most visible to people who are color-blind.

Herbert Muschamp directs the Graduate Program in Criticism at the Parsons School of Design New York. This column appears regularly in Artforum.