In psychology, sublimation is described as a type of defence mechanism where socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations are unconsciously transformed into socially acceptable actions or behaviour, resulting in a long-term conversion of the initial impulse. This definition provides a clear analogy to the processes, goals and ramifications of the practice of cultural appropriation. Within this framework, Pantone’s co-optation of the pink and blue colour palette can be seen as just another salvo in the symbolic warfare between official and unofficial culture, between the socially acceptable and the socially unacceptable.
However, unlike more commonly understood practices of cultural appropriation where the semantic range of the appropriated aesthetic is somewhat limited (initially at least), Pantone’s isolated focus on colour creates a dangerously free-floating signifier to which meaning can be arbitrarily inscribed.
In MTV’s example, the appropriation of Vaporwave aesthetics is elaborated using a full range of formal signifiers; colours, iconography, typographic treatment, thematics, and channels of distribution. Though meaning is distorted and diluted through this process of commercialization, the semantic value of MTV’s appropriation is still rooted in the original cultural context and draws from its aura of “cool”. It acts as an attempt to co-opt a resistant market demographic that is already attuned to the aesthetic, while simultaneously shocking new audiences into paying attention. The semantic references to the subculture remain more or less intact, and though MTV may capitalize on this in their bumpers and on specific channels/shows, it cannot redeploy the aesthetic throughout all of their properties, where its specificity prevents it from conforming to the content. Even on their websites, visual evidence of the rebranding is minimal, perhaps simply due to the UX challenges embracing Vaporwave aesthetics would entail.
With Pantone’s RQ+S, colour is appropriated as an abstract design element in an attempt to sublimate the counter-cultural impulse behind its use, and to make it palatable and profitable for Pantone and the multitude of its allied creative industries. Though Pantone is forced to partially acknowledge RQ+S’ origins by briefly referencing ”societal movements toward gender equality and fluidity” in their release copy, the thrust of their recontextualization positions RQ+S as “embracing, reassuring, secure, gentle, weightless, airy, relaxing, soothing, peaceful and calm.” All of this admittedly “even in turbulent times." The aim is to fully divorce the colours from their specific cultural context in order to generate a mass market commodity.