Contemporary Languages of Color: Cultivating
Nuance and Complexity
Its relatively easy and comfortable to investigate value symbolism
in popular culture or literature. It may be less comfortable to
examine the nuances of language within our own classrooms. For example,
in a typical classroom, students will be disappointed to receive
low marks; pleased to discover that they have achieved a high
standard. In a typical art education curriculum, students studying
value scales will be taught to call dark values low values
and light values high values. What messages are we sending
Some may argue that analyzing language in this way is getting too
touchy, that I am too quick to look for insult and injury where
none is intended. Yet it is important to remember that being oblivious
to the racial implications of situations or language is a luxury
of being white in a society that privileges whiteness. It is precisely
this covering of difference that as artist educators we must investigate
Kerry James Marshall creates complex, layered text and image paintings
that reflect upon the lived experiences of African American people.
The skin tones of all of his figures are a saturated black. Marshall
describes his work as a reclamation project.
"Its a reductive strategy, but its also an idealizing
strategy after a long period of black people thinking and assuming
that to be called black was a negative designation. In that way
a lot of people fall into Eurocentric notions that black is bad."
"I chose that blackness as an emblem. Its not a negative
reduction because when you look at the images they are not drawn
in a simplified, flattened way. I always try to imbue the figures
with incredible resonance and density so that they seem to have
a certain kind of life force. Their differences are articulated
even as they are reduced in terms of color to a single cipher. Theyre
not all the same. They may look all the same at a distance--they
are not all the same." (personal communication, March 1996.)
Discussing his reflections on black and white symbolism as a thoughtful
"The bad guy is wearing black, but then
I see these people going to a high class social affair and they
tell me that that's a black tie affair--that I cant go in
unless Im dressed in black. That must mean that its
more complex . I thought. How can black be elegant and no
good at the same time?'
"Simba, the white lion of the jungle, Tarzan king of the jungle--one
white man beats up a whole tribe of black people--well that all
seemed so absurd. If I see how ridiculous all of that is to start
with maybe Im less inclined to be particularly angry about
those representations when I see them. I saw it from when I was
a kid. There's something more to this than what Im hearing
(personal communication, March 1996)
Marshalls words point to the importance of drawing our students
into conversations that enable them to critically examine the full
complexity of their observations and insights about how symbol systems
create meaning in our lives. Teachers who ignore the obvious racial
implications of the language of color in our race-conscious society,
risk inadvertently teaching students that the language of art and
symbolism taught in the artroom is not relevant to their lived experiences.
As art teachers, we educate students to be attentive to nuance.
We enable students to understand artworks through careful observation
and by contextualizing the works within a range of appropriate associations.
To do this work effectively, we as teachers must be alive to the
many currents of cultural meaning that flow through our classrooms
and our discourses. Teachers are sometimes concerned that students
may become angry or upset when directly confronting negative color
symbolism in class discussion. I believe students lose faith in
a system of education that ignores or suppresses the resonance and
echoes of complex cultural issues in subject matter.
In my experience, students are reassured when the school environment
gives them the tools to understand and analyze how familiarity and
otherness are created in culture. Ultimately, students,
parents, and fellow faculty from the schools diverse communities,
feel respect for art programs that express their commitment to multi-culturalism,
not as merely studying diversity from the point of view of mainstream
white America, but who see multi-culturalism as teaching students
to see art and culture from a range of subjective positions.
W.E. B. Duboiss dictum that The problem of the twentieth
century is the problem of the color line is still alarmingly
relevant in of the twentyfirst century. We cannot erase color lines
by trying not to see them. We can color our students visions
of the future. Students can understand, analyze, and resist divisive
messages from the media and high culture.
We all see so much negative color symbolism,
it sometimes seems to be hardwired into our brains. By showing that
this is culturally constructed meaning, art teachers model that
such meaning can also be culturally deconstructed.
We can construct a colorful and color
blind culture, what the great African American poet Langston Hughes,
called the America, that never was, but yet could be.
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Dubois, W.E.B. (1989, 1903). The
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Feelings, T. (1995, Winter). Telling the Truth of the Middle Passage:
an interview with Tom Feelings. Rethinking
Hooks, bell. (1991) Representing Whiteness in the Black Imagination.
(L. Grossberg, C. Nelson, P. Treichler, Eds.) New York: Routledge.
Itten, J. (1961). The Art of Color.
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Johnson, J.W. (1995, 1912). The
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.
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