Why does contemporary art occupy such a marginal place in our cultural life? Could it be because artists don't give a shit about the general public? The hallowed tradition of the avant-garde is anti-populist to the bone, and despite its ideological demise (few sane individuals still subscribe to the idea that artists can lead us to a bolder, brighter future), its structural legacy remains. Indeed, it becomes more difficult by the day to disagree with Ortega y Gasset's quip that the main purpose of contemporary art is to 'help the elite...learn their mission which consists in being few and holding their own against the many.'
There's a certain poetic irony in the fact that the first survey of the American public's taste in art has been commissioned by a pair of Russian émigrés. With financial help from the Nation Institute, artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid hired an opinion research firm to conduct a 'scientific sampling' of 1001 adults. After sifting through this statistical portrait of the nation's aesthetic biases, Komar and Melamid created 'The People's Choice', the exhibition of paintings that objectively reflect American tastes.
The artists' goal, according to a press release, is to replace 'the archaic 'hit or miss' system of artistic creation...with a truly scientific mechanism assuring that the popular taste will be served!' In a neat stroke, the socialist dream of a people's art is realised with the tools of corporate capitalism.
On the surface, it sounds like an elaborate and expensive prank (the polling firm's services carry an $80,000 price tag.) But Komar and Melamid's project raises concerns not only about how people weigh aesthetic choices, but about relations between art and commerce, and the nature of polls, which, as it turns out, produce kitsch in art and politics alike.
Having initially planned to produce different ideal pictures for various demographic groups, in the manner of localised ad campaigns, Komar and Melamid wound up painting only two canvasses: America's Most Wanted Painting (1994) and America's Most Unwanted Painting (1994). This decision was dictated by the results of the survey, which surprisingly painted a picture of an aesthetically unified society whose tastes cut across social lines. Thus even though the preference for blue (the favourite of 44% overall) diminishes with increased income and education, it's still the colour preferred by the majority in every group; ditto for paintings of outdoor scenes (88% overall), paintings with soft curves (66%) and those with fully clothed figures (68% to only 3% favouring nudes).
Predictably, America's Most Unwanted Painting, a small canvas featuring a 'tasteful' farrago of coloured geometric shapes, is guaranteed to appeal to art world types. America's Most Wanted Painting, on the other hand, combines the nation's favourite ingredients into an innocuous landscape with wild animals (preferred by 51% over domestic breeds), lots of blue and green (the second favourite colour at 12%), a group of people (preferred over individuals 48-34%) and George Washington (56% favouring historical figures over more recent celebs).
In the exhibition, these two 'ideal' pictures were comically flanked by large-scale graphs and charts executed in primary colours. Besides giving new meaning to the phrase 'painting by numbers,' these pictures seemed to suggest a new role for Ellsworth Kelley-style hard-edged abstraction. But while they provide content directly linked to the average viewer's concerns, they do so in the public's least favourite style of painting.
By presenting a confusing typology of surface graphs, pie-charts and bar graphs, some of which are rendered in three dimensions and presented as sculpture, Komar and Melamid drove home the point that there is no single representation of the truth. In visual form, at least, statistics are shown to be easily manipulated: any faith in the sociological sciences begins to look like a nostalgic blunder.
Yet with the increasing relativism of values endemic to postmodern life and the loss of 'objective' standards, polls have become a societal touchstone in the US. However provisional our morality may be, however unstable our beliefs, they reformulate the world in clear-cut terms, assuring us there's a definitive answer for every question we might ask. Polls also keep alive the illusion of communal life.
'The People's Choice' pointedly pokes fun at this situation. Its mechanically-produced pictures obviously aren't a viable solution - they're no more than a marketeer's idea of how to produce people's art. But in reversing the avant-garde formula whereby artists dictate taste to the people, Komar and Melamid raise some thorny questions. If we're happy to trust electoral politics to the masses, why not our art museums? Why should aesthetics be held above or outside democratic principles? And most disconcerting of all, which audience are artists trying to serve?
The biggest joke of all is that corporate marketing practises are linked, by default, to democratic principles. By tailoring their art to meet specific consumer profiles, Komar and Melamid acknowledge that the primary freedom artists have in a consumer society is the freedom to choose their masters. But ultimately, perhaps one should be wary of drawing conclusions: 75% of the respondents maintain that paintings don't necessarily have to teach us any lessons, but 'can just be something a person likes to look at.'
First published in Issue 16