Every artist wants people who view their work to feel connected to it in some way. There’s no denying it, really. Whether this connection is negative or positive is irrelevant.
But what do people like to see in art—specifically in painting? What constitutes good painting to the average person? What does it mean when artists begin to cater to these needs, and how do artists figure out what people want from art?
The answer? Polls.
Fifteen years ago, Russian artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid embarked on “The People’s Choice Project” to discover what people want to see when they look at art through polls mirroring those in politics. Komar and Melamid then produced a series of paintings for 14 different nations.
The paintings are, frankly, timelessly boring. Think I’m being snobby? Check them out for yourself:
The website features paintings from countries all around the world. With a simple click of the mouse, you can look at the “most wanted” paintings … and the “least wanted” paintings from each country polled. The questions range from how much money people believe should be spent on art to what genres they like to see.
All of the most wanted paintings are realistically rendered landscapes, except for Holland, whose painting is smaller, featuring an abstract blending of colors with no discriminate shapes. Amongst the landscapes, most of the ideal paintings have a tree on the left side, a big skyline and some sort of wildlife and a human figure.
In a summary of the survey, Americans preferred “traditional styles over more modern designs; they also express a strong preference for paintings that depict landscapes or similar outdoor scenes”. More specifically, Americans opted for a lake scene, with billowing clouds in the background, deer at the edge of the water, children in the right foreground and (hilariously) George Washington in the mid-right section of the painting. Apparently historical figures were deemed a major component of “good” or “wanted” art.
So where is the value in this Komar and Melamid’s exercise? Why do they do what they do what we want them to do? Nothing is sacred in this postmodern world of ours and they as artists, perhaps ironically, would be the first to admit it.
In an interview with The Nation, Alex Melamid said, “Artists now—I cannot speak for all, but I have talked to many artists who feel this way—we have lost even our belief that we are the minority which knows. We believed 10 years ago, 20 years ago, that we knew the secret. Now we have lost this belief. We are a minority with no power and no belief, no faith. I feel myself, as an artist and as a citizen, just totally obsolete. I don’t know why I am here, what I am doing …”
If art has lost its meaning … and the art that is “most wanted” features deer, children and dead presidents … what are we to do? Is the only thing left to become a slave to the polls? Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Komar and Melamid’s work is the fact that the audience has become complicit in creating the art.
If the audience (or poll takers) controls the artist, then how can we define the new function of the artist? In creating these paintings, the artists stultify both what art culture has become and the culture that informs the aesthetic sensibilities of the audience. Mind-blowing and original, Komar and Melamid’s ideas deserve our consideration and respect.