We like to think that we have refined taste, whether we’re talking food, hobbies, or art. But if you actually track what average people do on a day-to-day basis, you’re more likely to see them watching reality TV and eating Cheerios than going to the opera and cooking foie gras.
Back in the 90s, a Russian artist pair called Komar and Melamid wanted to explore what the average, everyday man was looking for in art. They realized that the tastes of the art elite were likely a poor indicator of what most people would want to see in a painting. Playing off the prevalence of opinion polls and market research in consumer culture, the artists hired a polling firm to help dissect what people living in different countries find visually appealing. Through a series of polls and focus groups, the artists were able to chart out what different kinds of people preferred in their paintings. For example, in the US, 44% of people said blue was their preferred color. 88% of Americans preferred to see a landscape in their paintings. Respondents liked seeing people, and wanted the painting to be as realistic as possible. Results were surprisingly consistent across countries and demographics, with some variations here or there.
The whole project had an edge of social commentary, as the artists were making a point about making decisions based on polls, about average taste, and about consumerism in general. Once Komar and Melamid had their data in hand, they set out to make what they called the “Most Wanted” and “Least Wanted” paintings. They incorporated the colors, styles and subjects that floated to the tops or bottoms of the polls. The resulting American painting is a landscape in soft colors with a portrait of George Washington in the mix. The “Least Wanted” painting, on the other hand, is tiny and full of harsh edges and geometric shapes.
Komar and Melamid also created paintings for the other countries, then released all of the paintings along with the actual data on what people liked. They held a series of town halls and roundtables about the paintings, too. Some were with “average citizens,” and some were with people from the art world. The art world rejected the “Most Wanted” paintings, unsurprisingly. But what’s even more interesting is that “average citizens” didn’t immediately relate to them, either. When asked outright what their dream painting would be, most people had much more imaginative answers than what you see in the “Most Wanted” painting. So how do we explain the gap between what people came up with as their “dream painting” and what people replied to in the polls?
Well, for starters, asking someone an open-ended question is much different than giving people a list of possible replies. Second, few people would probably come up with the idea of a blue-tinted landscape painting as their dream painting, even if it is what they find most pleasing, overall. Asking people about which individual elements they prefer, and making something composite that speaks to their emotions, are two different things. But whether or not these paintings are really the most or least wanted, or somewhere in between, Komar and Melamid’s project raised a lot of interesting questions about art, its purpose, and its target. Should there be different approaches to making art for the masses, and art for the elite? Should art for the masses even exist?
I’m curious how this project would differ if the artists did it today. Would there be references to technology? Would people still prefer historical figures, or would they want to see more modern celebrities? Would most people still say that painting just needs to be nice to look at, versus having an explicit goal?