Colour by David Batchelor

by Erik Hinton

19 May 2008


Let me confess that I am categorically opposed to works such as this. I hope this admittance of prejudice will temper your reading of the forthcoming review. The works to which I refer are those heavy compendiums of collected writings about a certain topic from intellectual luminaries.

Firstly, these volumes are easy and create a situation in which they cannot possibly fail. Through their implicit or explicit labeling of the authors they chose to include as authorities or lightposts, it is difficult to encounter writings included as anything but necessarily intelligent or groundbreaking. By founding their content on a canon which they create and then subtly slip into your ear as dogmatism disguised as survey, these works legerdemain their way into respectability.

cover art


David Batchelor

Documents of Contemporary Art

(MIT Press)

You may ask, “Well what about short story collections and the like? You cannot possibly feel similarly averse to such compendia.” My response is somewhere between, “Yes, I can,” and some appeal to the larger organizational principles of quality writing or historical representation. The sort of book to which I refer, however, just pick a sampling of obscure writings that have not been vetted by public opinion—because no one has ever read them—or the skill with which they were written. Such volumes merely include works because their authors were famous for other writings.

MIT Press’ new addition to their Documents of Contemporary Art series, Colour. is the archetypical instance of this phenomenon. At some point, editor David Batchelor must have thought to himself—or been told to think to himself—that he should conjure out of thin air the color canon and promptly began mining the last century and a half of thought for any references to tints or tones. The collection features essays penned by authors from Baudelaire to Baudrillard and a whole mess of intelligentsia in between.

Now don’t get me wrong. Most of the writings included are smart and reflect the brilliance that earned these thinkers acclaim in the first place. Furthermore, it is maddeningly interesting to see how seamlessly tenets of structural, postmodernism, phenomenology, etc. all translate to the aesthetic subject matter of which the anthology is about. However, at all times the reader is keenly aware that the pieces they are reading, for the most, found their way into MIT’s latest stab at trendy intellectualism—one can see Colour cutely sandwiched between a Banksy picture book and PostSecret at Urban Outfitters—only because their authors’ names command respect in the community of trendy intellectuals.

The argument could be made that smart is smart and thinkers good at one thing should be good at all things that are to be written. However, such a way of thinking is dangerous. This mentality imperils society not because it gives intellectuals a free pass and undue power over intellectual affairs, but because it reifies intelligence and makes it an objective affair.

Such a paradigm tacitly concludes that an author’s works become respected because they have a high inherent value, and works at the erasure of the social forces which constructed the piece as worthy of merit. The assumption that a thinker has become famous because he is just that talented, the assumption upon which arbitrary think-tank collections such as Colour are founded, is a naïve one, and neglects factors such as the caprice of the scholarly communities and the immense power of critical reception.

I do not mean to completely undercut the agency of the authors and artists that have become well respected. I merely insist upon a measure of skepticism that canon-engines like Colour brushes under the table.

Such concerns aside, Colour is not a bad book, just an irresponsible one. The essays range from mediocre to extraordinary and usually lean towards the latter. Praise is in order to that extent, at least.

Should you add this book to your library? Such a concern brings me to my final objection to Colour, and that is of its moot value. At no point does this volume attempt to establish a thesis or put itself explicitly in the service of any higher good to be achieved by its publication. Rather, the editor tells us that he merely wanted to compile essays on colour because there is so little written about the topic.

Perhaps this is a noble goal, but the book produced does not read like an encyclopedia whatsoever. The idea behind a reference volume is that it is to be, one day, referenced. However, I can’t imagine anyone using Colour for anything other than perusal, as its applicability is somewhat self-contained.

Ultimately, this book fails. Although interesting, it over-exerts itself erecting a pantheon of intellectuals and loses focus. A much more brief volume that strove to expose some trend in thought on color or accentuate the ties between aesthetic thought and social or metaphysical thought would have been much more welcome. Instead, we are left with the literary equivalent of a paint-swatch folio.



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