S̶e̶e̶i̶n̶g̶ Experiencing Red

by Lisa M. Williamson

Joseph Beuys, Das Kapital Raum 1970-1977 (1980), detail. Staaliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Sammlung Marx, Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, SMB. Photo by Thomas Bruns.

Mark Rothko’s Untitled (1970) invites us to experience Red in-and-of itself, while Joseph Beuys’ Das Kapital exemplifies Rothko’s worst fear, that “black will eat the red.” Red deactivates Rupi Kaur’s and Harley Weir’s Instagram accounts for violating community standards while simultaneously dominating the 2016 presidential election. People seeRed when they are angry, and yet are uncomfortable and disgusted by Red when confronted by it in their social media news feeds. How is it that a color historically tied to the outcasts of society becomes the symbol of what will “Make America Great Again,” especially while the outcasts continue to be rejected? It begs the question, is today’s political power struggle over Red?

Psychology tells us Red is the color of sex, religion tells us it is the color of power, and politics tells us it is the color of defiance. And yet all three categories are intrinsically linked. During the Middle Ages, a Red flag raised on a ship signaled a willingness to fight to the death. It was during the 1831 Merthyr Rising in South Wales that a Red flag was first raised to symbolize the power of laborers. From here we can trace Red through communism and socialism. So strong was the response to this color that in the early 1900s the flying of a Red flag was outlawed in several states due to the Red Scare. During the civil rights movement, Red was adorned with a raised fist or a Black Panther, the aesthetic ground chosen because of its association with revolutionaries, agitators, and anarchists.

But Red has another history that pulses through politics. In looking at Western culture alone, we can begin with the ancient Greek goddess Artemis, the protector of young girls ushered into womanhood. Zeus bestowed upon her eternal youth, meaning she would never menstruate. Coincidentally, the suicide rate was high for young females during the time period between first menstruation and the ritual of marriage supposedly due to “wandering womb.” In other words, there was a rejection of young women’s bodies through high standards dictated at the time, specifically as they pertained to the expulsion of blood and the body’s preparation for child bearing. In the Bible, Leviticus and Ezekiel used the words “unclean” and “impure” to describe menstruation. #LiveTweetYourPeriod is just one trending hashtag designed to normalize menstruation, reject its shameful implications, and reclaim Red. Because, truth be told, if Kaur’s dot-stained sweatpants had been published in black and white, it would not have been flagged as “indecent” by Instagram standards.

Rupi Kaur and Prabh Kaur, Untitled, 2015, digital photograph, Instagram

Red is the symbol of the abjected, those objectified individuals who Julia Kristeva reminds us are not amoral but are perversions of the law.[1] They are the friends who are stabbed in the back or shot in the street. The abjected are alienated because they represent our fears. They are the faces in which we search but find no recognition of kinship. To experience Red is to experience oppression, censorship, and violence and to be spat upon for not conforming or for wanting something more. When map color coding for presidential elections first appeared in 1976, Red was the color of Jimmy Carter and the Democratic Party, a party more closely associated with socialist ideals than the Republican Party. However, as Mitchell Stephens, author of A History of News, points out, “Red was a term of derision.” When displaying color-coded maps, news stations assigned Red to the party they did not support. Nobody wanted to be affiliated with the color abused by Stalin, Mao, and Hitler. It was not until the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore that the color-coding system was cemented, partly due to the length and drama of waiting for an outcome. The reason The New York Times chose Red for Republicans, as senior graphics editor Archie Tse explains, is because: “I just decided red begins with ‘r,’ Republican begins with ‘r.’ It was a more natural association.” To ignore the political connotations of color in favor of alliteration is one thing, but Slavoj Zizek points to the implications of aesthetic illusions designed to strengthen the State apparatus[2]. Red, as the object of abjection, becomes the object of ideology when propagandized and the “parasitic symptom” of capitalist society operating under the illusion of freedom. Of this illusion, Zizek says, “they know their idea of Freedom is masking a particular form of exploitation, but they still continue to follow this idea of Freedom.”

The illusion of freedom represented by the relatively new Republican symbol is exemplified in Beuys’ Das Kapital, currently on display at Hamburger-Bahnhof in Berlin. Situated in close proximity to Andy Warhol’s Mao, both pieces address Red. Where Beuys illustrates the consumption of this fragile life force with a dark blanket that masquerades as freedom, technology and progress, Warhol illustrates the highest form of Red’s exploitation under the guise of a cultural revolution. The presence of the cast aside is heavily felt as a result of its absence, with Mao cloaked in green, the color opposite of Red. Side by side the exhibits demonstrate black consuming Red, and the illusion of red masquerading as Red. Both pieces call us to accept Rothko’s invitation to experience Red, a color related to hot emotions and fiery resolve. A color that is both hardy and vulnerable, intoxicating and repulsive. A color that represents the diseases of society.

Yellow and orange have also been tested by the media in color-coded maps, but for whatever reason the colors Red and blue, hot and cold, are the colors that have been upheld. Can we say with confidence that Red is unequivocally the most befitting color for the Republican Party? Should it instead be assigned to the Democratic Party? Or a third party? Does it even matter? Without seeing Red we would not have the Black Lives Matter and Me Too Movements. We would not have the fight for reproductive rights and gun safety at the forefront of our minds. Maybe Red is still the color that inspires the fight against abjection.

Author: Lisa Williamson is a foundations professor at University of Memphis and PhD candidate at IDSVA.