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The Power of a Rainbow: Tracing the Meteorological Phenomenon in Art and Culture

Colorful rainbows of licorice ribbons (primary)
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Double rainbow by Don Miller
A double rainbow stands over a group of palm trees. | Photo: Don Miller/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It seems only a fool would underestimate the power of a rainbow. One hundred percent optical, this multi-colored rare phenomenon has swayed the hearts and minds of people of all ages, colors and stripes. We’ve corralled rainbows with sunshine and lollipops, depicted unicorns farting them, made them cuter than cupcakes, and actress Amy Sedaris even sprinkled them all over herself — making them girlie gymnastic, as well as sarcastic. There’s never getting over them; either we’re chasing rainbows or they’re chasing us. Like a Rorschach test, the word “rainbow” prompts a variety of responses. And how rainbows are depicted is broad in spectrum as well.

As a logo and symbol, the rainbow is one of the most effective visuals ever linked to a cause or a brand, and true to the metaphorical inclusiveness of a rainbow, it has served and continues to represent many such functions: a “rainbow baby” signifies an infant born to a mother who previously lost a child in pregnancy; a rainbow apple design distinguishes a global technology company based in Cupertino, CA; the “Reading Rainbow” trademark recalls a long-running TV program and literary tools developed by Hollywood actor Levar Burton; and a vibrant peacock identifies a multinational media conglomerate that has its own city within Studio City.  

Routinely making a sudden, often, unexpected appearance with an array of colors that seems as plentiful as a box of crayons, each color in its rightful place, laid out in immaculate rows, a rainbow pulls focus as if by magic force majeure, both loopy and grand. When we begin to observe the rainbow in the context of art, in various modes of expression, we can start to understand how deeply it’s been integrated into our culture and discover that our attachment is more complicated than we may have supposed.

Reading Rainbow TV logo

Rows of color that seem magically sewn together are what make a rainbow ideally suited as a sign of solidarity and as a metaphor of inclusion; the rainbow is perhaps most associated as the symbol of the LGBTQ movement. Created as a flag by Gilbert Baker, he grew up in a small town in Kansas and was determined to embrace his identity as an openly gay man, in a way that would be self-fulfilling within a world where he felt he belonged. After a two-year enlistment in the U.S. Army, Baker moved to San Francisco to become an artist, and he taught himself to sew because he wanted to look more like the gay men who caught his eye in passing, whose bold choices in wardrobe made it seem to him as if they were literally wearing their gay pride on their sleeves. This presented a daily reminder he no longer was in Kansas, but with a limited budget, the only way he could dress for what looked like success was to make his own clothes. 

It’s more than ironic that the man who inspired Baker to make what became the symbol that not only fulfilled his dream of feeling connected but that same dream for millions of others, didn’t dress the part either. In 1977, Harvey Milk, a small business owner, whom Baker had met three years prior, was elected to San Francisco’s board of supervisors and became one of the first openly gay men ever elected to public office in the U.S. That same year, he suggested to Baker that the fledgling artist make a symbol of gay pride that would be inspiring, without being a throwback to an inglorious past, as was the current symbol in use of a pink triangle, which had been repurposed to counter its original meaning under the Third Reich — a badge of shame gays were forced to wear on an outer garment, the way Jews were compelled to wear a yellow star of David. By this time, Baker had turned the craft of sewing into the art that was his livelihood. A self-proclaimed drag star himself, he also made drag wardrobe for friends and clients.

“All art is activism,” Baker says, but a rainbow logo wasn’t going to suit his purpose nor the purpose of a freedom movement, not just because he wasn’t a graphic artist but because he knew a flag was the most powerful tool to convey the surging will of the people. One year later, Baker’s first few handmade rainbow flags were flying at the Gay Freedom Day Parade, and then, just months later, Harvey Milk was assassinated, and in the Gay Freedom Day Parade of the following year, the rainbow flag, as the incontrovertible LGBT symbol, waved forever more, and since then has added a “Q” to its figurative stripes.

“The rainbow belongs to everyone,” Baker says with as much passion today, as one imagines he did when he sought legal assistance from a civil rights attorney in 1978, who was able to ensure that no one would be able to trademark his creation, so it would remain free for public use for all time.

Pride rainbow flag creator Gilbert Baker marches during the 2015 San Francisco Pride Parade on June 28, 2015 in San Francisco, California. | Photo: Arun Nevader/Wire Image
Pride rainbow flag creator Gilbert Baker marches during the 2015 San Francisco Pride Parade on June 28, 2015 in San Francisco, California. | Photo: Arun Nevader/Wire Image

As viewed through the lens of American history, the story of how the rainbow flag came to be is remarkably similar to the origin of the American flag, both seemingly the result of a craftsman’s encounter with one of the leading figures of a revolutionary movement that was well underway. As legend has it, Betsy Ross had been asked by George Washington himself to design a freedom flag based on a rough sketch he gave her — and she fashioned the stars and stripes in the same way history has been fashioned to suit its purpose, because this account isn’t true but was tailored by her grandson well after her death, to seem as if it had happened.

More engaging than even the subterfuge, and how it still lingers as fact more than fable, is how the tale of a general summoning a seamstress at the fringe of his cause was considered such an inspirational narrative that it was sewn together as the best choice to be the historical record, and how it mirrors a similar narrative thrust that actually happened 200 years later. The anachronism is uncanny, to say the least, and to Baker’s credit, he never short-changed credit to the artists by whom he had been inspired, whose similarly striped flags preceded his own. According to Baker, “most inspirational of all was the American flag” especially as it was rolled out in a procession of magnificent incarnations during the U.S. bicentennial in 1976. When all woven together, the rainbow flag is as true to the metaphor of inclusivity as seems possible.

In 2016, Baker’s flag was acquired by NYC’s Museum of Modern Art, where it joined “similarly universal symbols such as the @ symbol,” as a tribute to the impact the rainbow has made, in its various permutations, as a powerful and recognizable symbol of the LGBTQ community.

The rainbow flag waving in the wind at San Francisco's Castro District
The rainbow flag waving in the wind at San Francisco's Castro District. | Photo: Benson Kua/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Rainbows used graphically as symbols are pegged to causes, even as simply as logos tied to brands, but rainbow art has neither entourage nor product to sustain it, so as much as rainbows have most of us at hello, they are likely to prompt a different response from a fine artist, who must consider rainbows carefully both due to their fleeting nature, and because of their commodification in popular culture.

Through such an exacting lens, a rainbow is contrary to virtually every other first impression — it is the least dependable of fair-weather friends that can’t be trusted to remain nor even provide a timetable for departure, as reliable as the duration of a sunset. Though wondrous, rainbows routinely play us for fools because they are almost completely devoid of wonder; everything about them is predictable: climate conditions that mark their arrival, colors and their arc shape — sometimes two. The fact is once you’ve seen one rainbow, you’ve virtually seen them all, and like the cheesiest of card tricks, a rainbow attempts to deceive the observer into believing it is magic when in truth, every aspect of a rainbow is generated with more scientific certainty than even a snowflake.

The greatest landscape painters of the 19th century took great pains to study the science of nature’s magnificent optical illusion. In “Niagara” (1857), we have been told that Frederic Church is “warning against what may be lurking at the end of the rainbow.” In “Rainy Season in the Tropics” (1866), the double rainbow has been interpreted as the dubious future of the U.S. — as two disparate parts must merge as one, after the end of the Civil War.

Robert S. Duncanson, "Landscape with Rainbow," 1859.
Robert S. Duncanson, "Landscape with Rainbow," 1859. Oil on canvas. 30 x 52 1/4 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Leonard and Paula Granoff.

This parable of a rainbow in regard to the Civil War has a powerful adversary in a parallel parable as painted by one of Church’s contemporaries, Robert S. Duncanson, who was hailed as the “best landscape painter in the West,” with West defined as no further west than Cincinnati. Even the title is at odds with what seemed like the deflective norm, as its name, “Landscape with Rainbow,” provides no wiggle room away from a rainbow, not even to shift nor split focus, and the allegory with which it’s been assigned is one of hope, not despair — that antebellum America was an arcadia of hope, even as the Civil War loomed not far in the distance.

It’s important to note that Duncanson was African American, born of a mother who had been a free African American from Cincinnati, and whose father was of African and Scottish descent, so Duncanson wasn’t a descendant of slaves, nor a slave himself, which colored his life and likely the optimism of his work.

Duncanson’s later work had been influenced by what he saw in his travels to Europe, where the poet, Lord Alfred Tennyson, lavished him with praise. “Landscape with Rainbow” is said to have incorporated French attitudes expressed in landscapes painted by Claude Lorrain. At one time, it was heralded as perhaps the finest landscape with a rainbow ever painted, and as the first African American landscape artist ever to earn world recognition, Duncanson’s relative obscurity today is in sync, not just with how African Americans routinely get diminished, but with the ignominious disappearance of rainbows without a trace.

James Turrell, "Breathing Light," 2013
James Turrell, "Breathing Light," 2013. LED light into space, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Kayne Griffin Corcoran and the Kayne Foundation (M.2013.1) © James Turrell. | Photo: © Florian Holzherr

In the history of art, many of the most widely-recognized artists have radically reinterpreted rainbows, using new materials, such as Dan Flavin with fluorescent light tubes, and even Andy Warhol, with a series of separate but related images of Marilyn Monroe as a Hollywood icon in a spectrum of colors — each separate work titled by its color.

James Turrell, one of the key artists of the Southern California Light and Space movement of the 1960s and ’70s, who has two ongoing exhibits at LACMA, “Light Reignfall” and “Breathing Light,” creates, in the latter, an ambiance that seems so ethereal. Upon entering it, textures made of light and bold colors appear as an ever changing challenge to one’s power of perception, in a place whose very dimensions seem intangible, almost like a dream. More than the changing spectrum of colors, what seems most relevant to a rainbow is how these illusory images we embrace as art seem to defy logic, but both are created as the result of a scientific construct, of essential elements, properly in place.

Consider the confidence artist Tony Tasset mustered when he was commissioned to make a giant rainbow as an installation at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City. Tasset was determined to dive into these rainbow waters, and make an impact, aiming between the silly and the sublime, while making his sculpture family friendly, as a gigantic homage to MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz.” Tricky territory when you also consider that out of all the movie’s Technicolor imagery — including ruby red slippers, a yellow brick road and an Emerald City — a rainbow is the subject of Hollywood’s most famous and recorded song, but it is never seen.

According to Marc Pally, one of California’s public art impresarios who served as artistic director of GLOW, Santa Monica’s all-night art event on the beach, and who facilitated/curated Tasset’s “Rainbow,” Tasset’s “interest is in the banal amiability of the rainbow, much like a smiley face.” Pally fully understood the challenge of objectifying a rainbow, when Judy Garland’s musical representation of a rainbow “is ephemeral, just as rainbows are ephemeral.”

Rainbow sculpture by Tony Tasset at Sony Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, CA. | Photo: Chris Goldberg/Flickr/Creative Commons License
Rainbow sculpture by Tony Tasset at Sony Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, CA. | Photo: Chris Goldberg/Flickr/Creative Commons License

There’s no sugarcoating the sugarcoating rainbows have endured over the years. “Rainbows are trite and over-used,” according to Pally, and even Christopher Harrity, interactive art director at Advocate.com, concedes. When he first started at the LGBTQ-interest news magazine, he was advised by his boss to use it judiciously.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the presence of Tasset’s giant sculpture on the Sony lot (94 feet tall, 188 feet across) is how many people have yet to see it or even know it exists, which considering California’s recent drought, applies as much to real rainbows. In terms of Tasset’s “Rainbow” install, this seems more a factor of the sprawling and compartmentalized nature of Los Angeles and is partly why even fewer people are aware of very different examples of rainbow art that exist as murals throughout Los Angeles and other parts of California.

According to art historian, Kim Suarez Secoquian, who is the program/gallery coordinator at ArtShare L.A., “rainbows have had a definite influence on graffiti culture. Although the term itself can easily be seen as effeminate, the complex polychromatic color schemes in pieces are one of the many criteria by which the skill level of a writer or artist is judged.” Secoquian uses as an example a mural in Oakland by late artist DREAM, and in context of its surroundings is how these murals are very much in the realm of rainbows, as they transport the viewer over and out of the place in which they exist.

Joey Yates, curator of the exhibit “Sisters of the Moon” (October 15, 2016-January 8, 2017) at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft suggests the day of reckoning has arrived when it comes to how art is described and categorized, and perhaps the rainbow of vocabulary has been too broad. “We’ve exoticized art in the wrong ways, with terms like ‘naïve’ and ‘primitive,’ even ‘spiritual.’” At his own museum, they have made a shift in how it is called in order to obfuscate the word “craft” — it is now officially referred to as “K-MAC.”

In any case, it seems hard to deny the feminine connotations rainbows have been attributed, and the fact that they resonate for some cultures more than others. A 19th century African American song, popularly known as “God Put a Rainbow in the Clouds,” resonated so much for poet Maya Angelou, that she made reference to it at most of her speaking and teaching engagements, and upon her death, Oprah Winfrey made reference to it also, as a tribute to her late friend.

Poet Ntozake Shange, who struggled with depression for so much of her life, moved from NYC to pursue a master’s degree in American Studies at USC and then settled in the Bay Area, still struggling with her identity, as many women of color have done and still do, because, in our world, identity is as much an admission ticket as anything else. It was when Shange saw a double rainbow, in Northern CA, that she got the inspiration for her acclaimed piece of theater and poetry, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” — in which all the characters are women whose names are cast as seven colors, identical in number but not all are the same shades of a rainbow. She explained to Hilton Als, in The New Yorker, the impact it had on her:

“In that moment of seeing the double rainbow... I felt connected to the delicacy and irrepressible majesty of life.”

Admittedly a very different experience than how people received the famous double rainbow painting of the 19th century — much more church, in a spiritual sense, than Church — this is one aspect of a rainbow whose impact is dubious, it can lay someone bare and prompt her to bare her soul, but once the rainbow is gone, you might hope, even pray, your epiphany lingers on. As much as “For Colored Girls” resonates for everyone, and for African American women, in particular, it is still a very personal story for Shange.

True to the style in which rainbows have grown accustomed as the subject of art in American culture, when the movie of Shange’s “choreopoem” was released, the word “rainbow” had been dropped from the title, shortened to “For Colored Girls,” and by default, that made the rainbow either not enough or too much.

One might chalk this up as another unintended diss of a rainbow in popular culture, added to those that had been delivered to “Over the Rainbow” lyricist Yip Harburg, over the course of his life and career, whose famous song is more about death and deliverance than anything as cheerful as Tasset’s rainbow. One might also add to this, his song “Look to the Rainbow,” a much-recorded tune from a show he wrote called “Finian’s Rainbow,” which was as anti-capitalist a story as it gets. As it turns out, the program didn’t get far, because before it opened, Harburg had been blacklisted and was forced to step away from the production, which soon after stalled.

Atmosphere at the "I Found God In Myself: The 40th Anniversary Of 'For Colored Girls'" press preview at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on September 17, 2014 in New York City. | Photo: Laura Cavanaugh/Getty Images
Atmosphere at the "I Found God In Myself: The 40th Anniversary Of 'For Colored Girls'" press preview at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on September 17, 2014 in New York City. | Photo: Laura Cavanaugh/Getty Images

As much as rainbows have been the icons for artists who are women, African Americans and Jewish socialists, the history of art — especially in California — is filled with stories of renegades, who have gone their separate ways, and often one finds a pack of followers close behind them. Frank Zappa was one of those iconoclasts: a rock and roller, who is attached to virtually every stripe of the rainbow, either man or nature has devised.

Walk into Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood — which a Yelp user describes as “The center of the film/television universe” — and say the word “rainbow” to seller Sean Hathwell, and you won’t get the rainbow from “The Wizard of Oz;” what you’ll get is the Rainbow Bar & Grill and a fact-perfect dissertation of the history of rock and roll in Los Angeles, that begins with musicians like Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, and Laurel Canyon — the bastion of Los Angeles’ rock and roll performers.

Zappa’s choice of color wasn’t only psychedelic and eccentric for its time, it was in synch with Los Angeles’ neon culture — even to the extent he hired an artist named Neon Park to do an early album cover.

That he suffered his worst accident at the Rainbow Theatre in London is a mere coincidence in name, but he rocks and rolls the rainbow, from the Sunset Strip all the way to Oz, in his epic parody “Billy the Mountain.” He riffs on Aunty Em and Toto, too.

Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention at Newport Jazz Festival, June 1970.
Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention at Newport Jazz Festival, Newport, June 1970. | Photo: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

Zappa was a non-conformist, so he’d most likely balk at being the ribbon by which rainbow art is tied or to which he is tied. Rainbows were more a fact of life, because they chose him as much as vice versa, so they co-existed with the ironic flair with which he lived his life — and with which he seems to have died, because after the contents of his estate had been removed and auctioned at Julien’s Auctions in November 2016, the only colorful swath of Zappa left behind at his former home was a rainbow colored mantelpiece, that unwittingly he bequeathed to the buyer of his house, who was no other than Lady Gaga, an artist already tied somewhat “shamelessly” to rainbows, from music to make-up. So whether Zappa had rocked them, rolled them or had tried to run from them, there was no escaping rainbows.

It seems that rainbows speak directly to artists who have been disenfranchised more than others, because of gender and/or race, whereas those who have embraced rainbows as a means to move in new directions prefer to do it without a trace of having referenced them directly, an exception being Tasset’s gargantuan installation that somehow has been made invisible even though it is in plain sight.

There may be no exit from rainbows, as they continue making entrances in the work of artists in many forms. At the intersection of science and art is a future filled with possibility, and like the 2016 February issue of Scientific American reminded readers, there’s a lot more to rainbows than has met our collective eye to date. Stay tuned.

Featured image: Double rainbow in Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska. | Photo: Eric Rolph/Wikipedia/Creative Commons License

Top image: Colorful ribbons of licorice. | Photo: D. Sharon Pruitt/Wikimedia/Creative Commons License

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