Colors: Presentation and Representation in the Fine Arts
There is no doubt that colors play a crucial role in the fine arts. Both the phenomenology and the interpretation of paintings, photographs, and films (the fine arts I’ll focus on in this work) change dramatically depending on the colors that are used to compose them. A black and white reproduction of a Rothko painting loses one of the central traits of the work. It is similarly a crucial aesthetic choice by photographers or filmmakers to have their work shot in color or in black and white. This choice will constrain the phenomenology of the resulting photographs and films and how viewers will eventually perceive and interpret them. Less clear, however, is the significance, the meaning of colors in the fine arts. In this paper, I argue that colors have no absolute meaning in the arts, but the effect they are supposed to engender in viewers, the significance that colors have in various pieces, will change as we consider different works, even, in some cases, if they belong to the same period. Despite the relatively uniform phenomenology of colors, their meaning varies dramatically in painting, photographs, and films. This makes colors behave in far more conventional ways, that is, representing via conventional codes rather than via recognitional prompts, than we may initially think in light of how relatively stable color phenomenology tends to be. It is, thus, important to distinguish the way colors represent from the way they are present in these various media. And by examining the implications of this distinction, I argue, we obtain a suggestive framework to examine colors in the fine arts. To support this conclusion I examine the meaning and significance of colors in selected paintings, photographs, and films, identifying some similarities but particularly several differences among various works.
My thanks go to Brit Brogaard, Allan Casebier, Elaine Indrusiak, Dom Lopes, and Jordan Schummer for extremely helpful discussions of the issues examined in this work. My thanks are also due to an anonymous reviewer for insightful suggestions.
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