We’re all pretty sick of the dress. Apparently friendships have been shattered, relationships destroyed, all because we see different colors in a photo of a dress. But really, we’re all a bit sick of the debate. It’s a picture of a dress. The color doesn’t really matter.
But our perception of it does. That’s the part that’s been most interesting to everyone over the last few weeks: why and how different people see different colors in the same photograph.
Last week, my friend Kristina and I wrote about the subjectivity of art in archaeology. I argued that trying to figure out how life was through historical artistic expression isn’t necessarily the right approach. Instead, we should use these pieces of art to understand the perceptions of people at the time.
But what happens when we have something like the dress? What happens when our perception of something so seemingly concrete as color differs so drastically? And what does that mean for archaeology?
The dress highlights this issue, because some people (like me) see gold and white, and can’t really imagine seeing any other color. Other people (like Kristina) see blue and black, and also can’t imagine seeing any other color. And then there are some people who see gold and white sometimes and blue and black other times.
Gold and white versus blue and black are radically different colors, which is why the dress has been so controversial. It reminds me a lot of when I first started looking into beads in Scotland and I came across the phrase “black/pink” to describe a bead.
My first reaction was “Um, excuse me. Black/blue I get. Black/purple I get. Or even black/green. But black/pink? Really, people? It’s one or the other! How can you possibly not decide between black and pink?”
And then I went to look at beads at the National Museum of Scotland. That’s when I found a lot of beads that are obviously black. That is, until you shine a light through them. Then, they are the brightest magenta I have ever seen in glass form.
That difference was based largely on light, as was the difference with the dress. The photo was overexposed, making a blue and black dress look white and gold to a lot of people.
But how can we discuss something like beads, an object for which color is a primary characteristic, when people’s perception of color can be so radically different? How do we know that our perception of that color is the same or similar enough to the perception of that color by the people who made and used those objects that we can start talking about what it all means?
Like I said last week, I don’t know that we can. We can’t go back and ask them what color the bead is, or whether that mattered. I wish we could, but we can’t. We can only look at the information we have, mess with the data in whatever ways we can, and try to find meaning in the patterns we create.
But there’s another side to this story: our own, modern perception of these historical objects. While people in the past might not have distinguished between light blue and dark blue beads, the fact that I do is interesting in its own right. Where I draw the line is interesting, because I have made a decision somewhere about where light blue stops and dark blue begins. And that decision is interesting. In many ways, the methods we use to conduct research are just as interesting as the conclusions we make from our results.
Using historical art to understand the perceptions of people at the time is only half the story, if that. In a sense, our own perception of the historical art is equally important in terms of what it says about us. Bringing it back to the dress, not only is everyone’s different perceptions of the dress three weeks ago incredibly interesting, but so is the way in which we discussed those differences, investigated the reasons those differences existed, and then examined those reasons either individually or as a group.
In the end, then, our study of archaeology, particularly something subjective like art, is as much a story that we’re telling ourselves about ourselves as it is a story the people in the past were telling themselves about themselves.