Why You Need to Read This Latest Book: "On Color"

Is black really black? What does "having the blues" really mean? Are roses red?

Posted Sep 17, 2018

I’m tickled pink to tell you about David Scott Kastan’s remarkably beautiful, original and engaging new book, published by Yale University Press, titled “On Color.” Whether you’re an emerging artist, an art historian, a museum docent, a dedicated fan of painting, sculpture, photographs, fashion or “The Color Kittens,” Kastan, the George M. Bodman Professor of English at Yale, along with Stephen Farthing, a member of the Royal Academy in London and a fellow of St. Edmund Hall at Oxford, have created a piece of art with their new publication that you will both enjoy and find instructive.

“On Color” will make you see the world anew and will have you asking questions about the essential aspects of “whiteness,” with various discomforting ramifications addressed, of what makes nighttime “black,” or what we mean when we call something “red” (it’s not as easy as you think), and why it was said that “not a chest of Indigo reached England without being stained with human blood.” Why did the color violet “offend the art world”? How can we see colors with our eyes closed?

You’ll want to read the book with your eyes open, because “On Color” is a stunningly attractive object, replete with brilliant illustrations that bring to life the insightful, lyrical and perceptive commentary. It is filled with quotations from Van Gogh, Chaucer, Picasso, Chanel, Newton, Levertov, Melville, Rosetti, Zola, Shakespeare, Baudelaire and “The Addams Family.”

Yet perhaps one of the greatest compliments I can give “On Color” is that despite the indisputable scholarly erudition found on every page, the clever edge to its witty prose and its own defiantly unclassifiable nature, it’s a book about aesthetics, literature, language, art, physics, optics, race, class and technology—it remains an enthralling read.

You could, if you wanted, look up more detail about every reference you might not have caught the first time around. (I didn’t know much about the Latin origins of the word “black,” for example, and my knowledge of Newton has always been sketchy at best). But one of the joys of “On Color” is you don’t have to grasp every detail immediately to embrace the central points: Like a great lecture, the significance of its arguments depend on the fluid exuberance and evident authority of its expert guides. 

See, for example, what sort of flight the book takes towards the opening of the chapter titled “Moody Blues”: “Emotions obviously have their own rainbow, but of the many colors of its spectrum, blue is predominant. It has become what William Gass called “the color of interior life.” Bob Dylan got “Tangled Up in Blue,” as well he might, given the extraordinary range of emotions and values that get associated with the color. In English, blue is both titillating (blue movies) and puritanical (blue laws); out of control (talk a blue streak) and purposefully restrained (blue-penciled); startling (a bolt from the blue) and reassuring (true blue); sometimes intimidating (blue blood) though at other times condescending (blue collar); it can be joyful (my blue heaven) and gratifying (blue ribbons), and yet, as often as not, disappointed and frustrated (blue balls).”

And then, in case the reader was feeling any danger of a free-fall into free-association, we are grounded by historical context and given a foundation of understanding held in place by a formidable range of sources: “Since the late fourteenth century, blue has been the color of dejection or despair. Most likely the connection is based upon some obscurely sensed analogy with what is medically known as cyanosis (cyan comes from the Greek word for blue): that is, the recognizably blue discoloration of the skin in the absence of adequately oxygenated blood….In Chaucer’s ‘Complaint of Mars,’ forsaken lovers with ‘wounded’ hearts cry ‘blue tears,’ and almost five hundred years later, George Eliot in Felix Holt still would describe a skilled card shark as someone who ‘’can make a man look pretty blue’ after his wallet has been emptied.’…The playwright August Wilson claimed in 1997 that he had once written the world’s shortest short story, called ‘The Best Blues Singer in the World’: ‘The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean and he was drowning. That’s the story. And that’s the blues.’”

Like most of what is important, singular and beautiful in life, color is what we make it: “Colors don’t mean. The painter Ellsworth Kelly alleged that ‘color has its own meaning.’ Maybe that’s true. But color doesn’t tell us what that meaning is. We tell the color; and whatever we say it means, we make it mean, and we make it mean without much help from our visual system.’

When it comes to color, it’s not that seeing is believing but that naming is knowing. When it comes to the book “On Color,” reading is understanding—seeing better, seeing more, seeing joyfully.