American's Most Wanted Painting

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Posted by carmin on December 11, 1997 at 10:10:55:

Painting by the Polls

What kind of art do Americans really want? The question prompts a bilious sigh. But two Russian émigré conceptual artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, have proposed an answer, for painting at least, that unites careful polling, statistical analysis and a scathing sense of humor. In 1993, aided by polling experts, Mr. Komar and Mr. Melamid queried a sampling of Americans about their artistic preferences. Using the results, they created two paintings -- "America's Most Wanted" and "America's Most Unwanted," which were shown in 1994 at the Alternative Museum in Soho. These are participatory works, rather like the 1996 painting the two did with Renee the elephant, who wielded a brush with her trunk, except that in this case the elephant is public opinion.
These two works, and paintings based on recent testing for 10 other countries, have now been published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in a book called "Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid's Scientific Guide to Art, edited by JoAnne Wypijewski." Statistically speaking, the painting Americans want is a realistic, "dishwasher-sized" landscape. It contains wild animals and clothed persons relaxing.
It is autumnal but also predominantly blue. The painting has some of the eeriness of a diner mural. A great river is visible. Two deer disport themselves at the water's edge. A steep, wooded hillside cascades down to the shore, where George Washington walks, ignored by a small American family in modern dress. It looks, in fact, like the Heaven of House Republicans, except that there is too much nature.
This painting, and the book that presents it, is a wonderfully tricky work of art. It incorporates nearly all the artistic elements Americans say they prefer, but the result is dreadful, a most-wanted painting, as the critic Arthur Danto points out, that no one could want. To look at this painting is to participate in an instant referendum on the arts, a referendum that illustrates the nature of popular taste without excoriating it.
As Mr. Komar and Mr. Melamid explain, the research for this painting -- the poll itself -- mimics the polling by which American politics is conducted. "We trust these people to vote for the President," Mr. Melamid says of Americans. "But we never trust them in their tastes, in their esthetic judgment," even though, as the authors found, Americans were quite specific about what they liked.
And what about "America's Most Unwanted"? It is a small, abstract piece, the size of a paperback. It looks like the ragged old linoleum under the kitchen stove, only oranger.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

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