Red and Blue, and the Lost Primary

By John Bloom

I remember as a child in the 1950s the red and blue show globes at the pharmacist’s counter or in the drugstore window. Glowing red and blue liquids were a sure sign of profession and health, and an intriguing vestige of the 17th-century apothecary. I never knew what was actually in the containers, though I made up stories. I came to think that the red and blue were emblematic of the arterial and venous states of blood flow—again a conjecture but generally agreed upon explanation. This red-blue view about human blood circulation is what we learned in school. I remember the illustrations in our general science textbook. As an imagination, I guess it was easy to teach. In its simplicity, it is nonetheless dualistic. Blood sustained life: renewed and red on its way out from the heart-lung complex, exhausted and blue on the way back. This approach characterizes, rather than accurately describes, and is tailored for didactic purposes in the name of science. The dualistic imagination emanates from and serves to reinforce the dominant Western paradigm: polarities as a primary framework for explaining not only the circulation of the blood but also electricity, magnetism, and a host of other scientific concepts that are part of our vernacular understanding of how the universe works. But it is time to move past the simplicity and power of dualistic mind-body dichotic thinking. It is not serving us anymore, and there is no better example of this than our current political system.

The red-blue modality has come to frame the contrast between our two most visible political parties, and is told as a story of opposition in a manner eerily similar to and equally as simplistic as the story of blood circulation. That red and blue are construed as opposites is a complete distortion of what they represent of human vitality. In the blood, the descriptive colors are not in opposition but merely stages in a continual transformative process that never physically or chemically divide. We are stuck with a misleading meme that is a blunder both metaphysically, metaphorically, scientifically, and probably emotionally.

A Theory of Color

Bear with me through a brief foray into pigment-based color theory, as articulated by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the 18th century and still relevant today. First and foremost, there are three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. Right away you can surmise that yellow is the primary lost in the proverbial political shuffle. But Goethe wanted to seat color theory in perceptual and conceptual experience—the full dimensions of human reality. This means that we see color optically and simultaneously experience a certain soul resonance. In other words, color bypasses the typical path of intellectual knowing and instead speaks directly to our feeling. We do not need to think blue to experience blue. That is the inbound pathway. The outbound pathway is that color serves as a manifest expression of soul life. In short, Goethe indicated that color is the language of the soul. If you doubt this, I encourage you to try working with color in a way that is both fluid and open. Be advised that while the materials are easily attainable, the actual aesthetic discipline is both challenging and profound.

To understand this Goethean approach, one has to be open to the direct experience of color and be willing to live with and scientifically observe that experience as it informs daily life. A big ask. But without a big ask, how do we imagine change will happen? Goethe recognized that yellow has a quality of light (day) and blue the quality of darkness (night). One could say that this is a kind of base polarity. However, he does not stop there. He goes on to posit that red has a similar effect on both yellow and blue. It serves both equally as an intensifier. That is, if I have a field of yellow and into that flow a bit of red, the red will mix with the yellow to bring it to orange. But orange is not a discrete color here as you might find it in the crayon box. Rather it is an intensification of the yellow, and the eye will move through the field of yellow to land on the red-orange. A similar process happens when you add a bit of red to a blue; in which case, violet is an energetic concentration of the blue. This is a lot to digest—but easily reproduced with even the simplest watercolor kit.

This fluid and unified view of color is very different than the way colors are commonly named, as discrete entities. The three primary colors and the resultant color wheel bear about the same relationship to aesthetic experience as the periodic table does to chemistry. The whole of the systems is there, but one has to see past the charts to the living experience behind it. Furthermore, as the basic elements come to life in combination, their meaning emerges from our participation in and perception of those life forces.

Color Experience

Let me take another step in this exercise with the three primary colors—red, blue and yellow—from the viewpoint of one’s experience of them. We know the primary colors are primary because they are the irreducible colors from which all others colors emerge. The mix of any two primary colors gives us what are known as secondary colors. Red and blue produce violet; yellow and blue, green; yellow and red, orange. Next is the concept of complementary colors. People commonly define complementary colors as opposite one another on the color wheel. This understanding is true in one sense, although it fails to grasp what “complement” means, which is to complete or make whole. If we take the “opposites” view, the complementary pairs are red-green, orange-blue, and yellow-violet. But are they really opposites, an idea that resides soundly in the dualistic mindset? In reality, no. Let’s take one pair, red-green, as an example. Red is the primary color, and in green the other two primaries yellow and blue are co-present. In other words, in the complementary “pairs,” all three primaries are present, albeit in different proportions. So the three are found in the two.

Now it gets a little more complicated but no less wondrous. There is a principle called simultaneous contrast. An example of this phenomenon occurs when you put a neutral gray card next to a red one, the gray appears greenish. Place a yellow card next to the same gray one, and the gray will take on a violet hue. The experiment illustrates how, in looking at a primary color, we also “see” the complement as projected onto the neutral gray. The Impressionists used this optical reality to enhance the experience of color. To make an orange paint mark more intense, they placed it next to a mark of blue. The marks then mutually reinforce each other through the principle of simultaneous contrast. The orange became more orange, the blue bluer.

Here is the last and most important piece of this exercise, the concept of the so-called afterimage. The afterimage is what we experience when we close our eyes after looking at one color for an extended time. If we have looked at red, for example, we will see green when shutting our eyes. The green, in this instance, is what is called the afterimage. Given the reality of simultaneous contrast, what is actually happening is that we are experiencing the green even as we are looking at the red, though we are conditioned to tune the complementary afterimage out. So the word “afterimage” is a misnomer. We are always experiencing wholeness. Here is why: while we are looking at the red, we have a simultaneous image of the green, and thus are experiencing all three primary colors co-present. The nature of color is such that in our perceiving of it, it generates simultaneously within us an experience of its complement. What this then means is that all three primaries are present even if we think we are looking at one color. The three are present in the one. Awakening this unified experiential reality means a major shift in awareness.

From Color to Threefold

To move past dualism, we have to look at our experience of both inner and outer as equally valid. Science is slowly getting to the place where the observer is also a participant, and therefore never really outside the system. What this means is that we affect what we perceive even as what we perceive affects us. It takes a particular consciousness to hold an objective-subjective relationship to this both-and relationship. Recognizing this shift of consciousness is a step toward shifting the paradigm of knowing. Color, since it is the language of the soul, and the soul embodies the inner life, is a great medium and exemplar for such a consciousness shift.

How do we take this learning back to reconsider the false polarity of red and blue? And, how might the inclusion of yellow foster a truer reflection of human experience beyond the dualistic paradigm? And what does color theory have to teach us about life, anyway?

To address these questions, I will refer to a threefold imagination of social life as first posited by Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher, scientist, and archivist of Goethe’s work in the early 20th century. His approach, which he called the Threefold Commonwealth, was an attempt to rectify the chaotic cultural, political, and economic state, which had already led to the disasters of World War I (1914-18). Without addressing and transforming those three primary domains of social life, Steiner imagined that Europe would plunge again into another disastrous war. He died in 1925 and thus did not live to see how prophetic his words had been. What Steiner suggested was a way of being in the world that is unified in its threefoldness, yet respectful that not all experiences are the same. Rather, we are constantly in a dance between ourselves and the world, our inner voice and the messages and sense impressions we receive from the external. Further, since we are all social beings, our relationships vary in depth and purpose. Steiner’s purpose was to set a framework with which to understand this and to provide us tools with which we can create a new level of creative clarity for managing social and organizational life beyond dualistic or oppositional conflict.

First, Steiner looked at the three basic domains of social life: cultural/spiritual, rights and agreements (political), and economic. This framing in itself is not particularly unique. What was radical—in the sense of connecting to the roots of human wisdom—was his applying the three principles of the French Revolution—freedom, equality, and brotherhood—not solely to the political realm as the French had done. Rather, he associated each principle with its appropriate realm in the following way: freedom in culture and spirit, equality in rights and agreements, brotherhood in the economic.

In culture, we have to remain free to develop our individualities, create our rites and rituals together, our modes of expression, and all the educational processes that support our evolution of consciousness. Such freedom would produce chaos in the realm of rights and agreements. Instead, the principle of equality should govern how we govern. Each human being brings his perspective to the creation of agreements or laws. But in the actual decision-making process, it is one person one vote, a mark of democracy. In economic life, the reality is that we are completely interdependent. Someone makes my clothes and builds my car so that I can do my work in finance on behalf of others. The imagination here is that economic life is driven by being aware of others’ material needs and bringing our own capacity in service to meeting those needs. This is not the normal way that economics is taught. Self-interest is usually at the center; but, from an economic perspective, self-interest is a myth—one of the stories at the heart of materialism and dualistic thinking. Threefolding has much to say from micro to macro, in how we guide our lives to how we work in a community and, furthermore, how we arrange the functions of government, economics, and culture.

Integration of Color and Threefold

While the practice of threefold could occupy much more attention, let me return to the unity of three primary colors. If we could imagine assigning one of the primary colors to each of the threefold domains, we might gain some insight into how we could work with each of the three domains, remain true to the character of each, and yet operate with an awareness of the full complementarity or afterimage that includes the other two. I would like to reiterate an important principle here: The nature of color is such that in our perceiving of it, it generates within us simultaneously an experience of its complement. Assignment for the purpose of this imagination: blue to rights and agreements; red to economics; yellow to cultural-spiritual.

If we hold the principle of equality in rights, how can it be that some people are treated as less equal, especially when predicated on their choice of religion or circumstance of birth, both of which are in the domain of cultural and spirit and guided by the principle of freedom? No one should be told who they are by someone other than themselves. If that were the case, it would be an exercise of power over another’s individuality. Yet this happens all the time. For example, when politicians (blue) and the business leaders (red) determine educational curricula (yellow) that serve their ideologies, it constitutes a pollution of the educational process. The truer purpose of education is to support individuals in their own becoming, so to speak, and to develop a citizenry capable of participating in democratic processes with respect for the value of each other’s freely formed views. Following the logic here, if education is misdirected, how could we imagine the realms of politics and economics as not debased since the three sectors directly affect each other through the principle of complementarity. Those who have painted know that if you start with a muddy yellow, the rest will be muddy too.

If well look at how the economic world currently operates based upon the myth of self-interest and unlimited natural resources, we can see why we get such disparity of wealth. Part of the self-interest story is that, as an individual, I can exercise my power over others to accumulate wealth for me. That seems to be at the heart of the free market concept. But in the economic world, we are not absolutely free, as we are in the cultural domain because we really would not get very far without others working to make the material aspects of our lives possible. The truer (primary red) picture of economics is one of compassionate interdependence, a web of transactions and interactions in which each of us freely chooses to participate. Once we have made that choice as an individual, we are no longer free in the same way. There are many examples of how, when the colors are mixed up, the domains are confused. An experience can be politicized (think education), or the formulation of our identity can be besieged by commerce (think advertising). And so much can be driven by fear that the only way we feel safe is when we believe that we have power over others.

Shifting Consciousness

The whole point of the color exercise and this threefold analysis is that it is a framework that, if carefully taken up, can set us on a path to having power with each other rather than over one another. How might the false red-blue political duality change? Imagine two politicians discussing education. Instead of talking about how and with what content children should be educated—a discussion driven by ideology and standardized testing—they would consider how to assure every child’s right to an education. One that respects a free cultural life and the need for each child to be seen as a human being striving to contribute her or his gifts to the world. Or imagine a world in which corporations come together, not to control the marketplace and maximize profits (self-interest), but to look at their own needs in relation to what is needed in the world. The ideal would be to find an equitable relationship between self and community interest that recognizes the reality of mutuality and regeneration.

We need to imagine a world that can be different. But, first, we need to change our own thinking and practice. If we can hold the reality that the circulation of blood is a complexity of processes that goes well beyond the input-output red-blue reductionist view, and instead operates as a whole system capable of self-renewal through clearly defined interdependent functions and interactions with both internal and external environments, then perhaps we can move beyond a dualistic win-lose paradigm.

I have never met a human being who did not want to be seen as a whole person—red, yellow, and blue. Can we be whole and support each other by recognizing when we are building culture out of our inner freedom, when we are creating agreements as equals, and when we are economically active with an awareness of interdependence? It’s a big ask. But without the big ask, we won’t change. And without the change… well, I rather the challenge of change than to lose any primaries.

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