The quote from Marshall McLuhan in the late 1960s, “The Medium is the Message” is still relevant when considering the role of color in the environment. McLuhan believed that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role. He used the lightbulb as a metaphor – a lightbulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles, yet it is a medium that has a social effect – the light bulb allows people to create spaces during nighttime that would be otherwise enveloped by darkness. I suggest that color has the same ability to change an environment by its presence.
Take the story published in the New York Times, by Michael S. Schmidt and Yasir Ghazi on May 15, 2011, As Baghdad Erupts in Riot of Color, Calls to Tone It Down, as an example that illustrates McLuhan’s concept.
The authors state that downtown Baghdad has a new police headquarters painted two shades of purple – lilac and grape. The central bank has been painted in bright red candy cane stripes, the Trade Ministry is pink, orange, and yellow. Blast walls have been repainted hot pink. The article continues, “Baghdad has weathered invasion, occupation, sectarian warfare and suicide bombers. But now it faces a new scourge: tastelessness.”
For decades Saddam Hussein’s government ruled over aesthetics in Iraq’s capital with the same grip he exercised over the people. A committee of artists, architects, and designers approved the color of buildings as well as the placement of landscape. With many beige brick buildings, and color used sparingly, most often on mosques, the city’s appearance was uniform and restrained – and dull.
When the Iraqis began rebuilding, the color police were gone. Color was no longer controlled. The New York Times writers state the color chaos is taking place because the regime’s artists, and arbitrators of taste had enough wealth to be able to leave the country.
Ferdinand Leger said, “Color is a human need like water and fire.” I do not believe that color is being used solely because the wealthy and educated elite have left Baghdad, leaving only the uneducated lower classes behind. This argument is based on chromophobia, a dismissal of color as a legitimate medium of human expression and human freedom.
Color has the power to influence experience that affects the observers on cross-disciplinary levels. Exuberant bright colors are stimulating, invigorating, enthusiastic, fresh, and different from what the citizens had seen during Hussein’s reign. Given that studies have shown biological, psychological, and sociological response to color, I believe the culture is using color in a positive way, to pull itself up from a horrible set of circumstances.
Maybe these are not the most harmonic color combinations. Riotous color appears to reflect the strength it took this culture to overcome the perils and horror of oppression and war. I applaud the free thinking. Over time, the citizens will find their own balance. I do not believe the elite intellectuals who pine for the days of Saddam’s color control, really understand politics of change. This is a good kind of riot.