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Chromophobia and the Illusion of White

April 11, 2008

In Chromophobia, the central argument of artist and writer David Batchelor is that a societal fear of corruption or contamination through color permeates Western culture. Opening with the example of a visit to a fetishized ultra-white modernist house, he concisely sets up the idea of a dominatingly oppressive whiteness.

This great white interior was empty even when it was full, because most of what was in it didn’t belong in it and would soon be purged from it. This was people, mainly, and what they brought with them. Inside this great white interior, few things looked settled, and even fewer looked at home, and those that did look settled also looked like they had been prepared: approved, trained, disciplined, marshaled. Those things that looked at home looked like they had already been purged from within. In a nutshell: those things that stayed had themselves been made either quite white, quite black or quite grey. This world was entirely purged of color. (11)

Here white illustrates a world that is engineered to draw attention to everything it seeks to exclude. This is fascist impenetrable white in service of the contained and rational, with white notions of Bauhaus lines and International style exemplified under Mussolini by Terragni’s Casa Del Fascio. This white cronies up with ideas of rationality and ethnic purity. It draws attention to what is not homogenous. Before entering the home Batchelor commented on the neighborhood’s affluence and noted the solitary drunk in the dingy yellowish-green coat. Here white highlights that which it endeavors to exclude.

But I am also interested in the symbolism tied with the physicality of white. What must pure and fussy white have meant for the mud-smeared inhabitants of the Middle Ages, or the coal grimed city of London’s industrialization? White would be tied to an end of structures and clothes stained black from factories, and in a sense, an existence rooted in the mud and soot-stained toil of manual labor. White is progress, and leisure, and the mind. White is crawling out of the muck and a new order with a place for everything and everything in its place. But as Batchelor points out, this idea of white is more than anything an illusion.

The inner life of this world was entirely hidden: nothing was allowed to spill out from its allotted space; all circuitry, all conduits, all the accumulated stuff that attaches itself to an everyday life remained concealed, held in, snapped shut. Every surface was a closed, impenetrable façade: cupboards were disguised as walls, there were no clues or handles or anything to distinguish one surface from another; just as there were no protrusions, neither was there a single visible aperture. In this way, openness really was an illusion maintained by closure, simplicity was ridiculously overcomplicated, and unadorned clarity was made hopelessly confusing. You really could become lost in this apparently blank and empty white space. (18)

In Chromophobia Batchelor repeatedly returns to the chomophilic example of the Wizard of Oz in which Oz appeared in vibrant oversaturated color, while everything in Kansas was the faded grayness of black and white. Perhaps better underscoring this constructed and oppressive illusion of whiteness, is an example taken from the original L. Frank Baum version The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. One of the main differences between the book version and the movie was the Emerald City. While luminous and green in the movie version, in the book the city was depicted as completely white. Everyone entering the city was forced to don green tinted glasses, so that everything only appeared enchanted and emerald. The city was a trick and an illusion, much like the reality of Batchelor’s oppressively white home. This white was no more simple and clear than the Emerald City was green.

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