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  • Komar and Melamid Discover Pleistocene Taste
  • Ellen Dissanayake

In late 1993, The Nation Institute and two Russian émigré artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, performed the first scientific nationwide inquiry about “what Americans want in art.” A thousand and one adult Americans representing both sexes and a variety of geographic, ethnic, and income groups were asked in a telephone survey about their preferences for colors, size, subject matter, and treatment used in paintings.

The project was widely reported in the press, and the art world—not surprisingly—scorned the very idea of polling the masses. Komar and Melamid, who in Russia had been dissident artists, reasoned that in the democratic country of America ordinary people’s opinions mattered. No one had ever before directly asked The People about their preferences. Appropriately in a market-oriented society, they used “market research” techniques to find “a people’s art”—i.e., the kind of art that people really want.

The pollsters asked questions like the following: “If you had to name one color as your favorite color—the color you would like to see stand out in a painting you would consider buying for your home, for example—which color would it be?” “When you select pictures, photographs, or other pieces of art for your home, do you find you lean more toward modern or more toward traditional styles?” “Many people find that a lot of the paintings they like have similar features or subjects. Take animals for example. On the whole, would you say that you prefer seeing paintings of wild animals, like lions, giraffes, or deer, or that you [End Page 486] prefer paintings of domestic animals?” They asked for choices between natural and portrait settings, indoor and outdoor scenes. Among the latter, did people prefer forests, lakes, rivers, oceans and seas? fields and rural scenes? A city with houses and buildings? Which season was best liked? Would respondents choose realistic-looking or “different looking” paintings? Exaggerations? Imaginary objects? Bold stark designs or playful whimsical designs? Sharp angles or soft curves? Geometric patterns or random uneven patterns? Expressive or smooth brushstrokes? A surface that was thickly textured or smooth and flat? Colors blended or kept separate? Serious or festive themes? Busy or simple treatment?

Overwhelmingly people preferred smoothly-painted outdoor scenes that looked “real,” with blended colors. They liked both wild and domestic animals, and human figures, especially of children and women, in casual poses, and historical figures. The favorite color was emphatically blue, with green the second favorite.

Consequently Komar and Melamid made a painting, called America’s Most Wanted, that combined in one work all the most-liked features. It was a “44% blue landscape” showing water, clouds, distant hills, a lighly-treed foreground, casually dressed human figures, George Washington, a yawning hippopotamus, some children, and a male and female deer—all painted in a conventional, all-purpose nineteenth-century realist style. A second painting, America’s Least Wanted, showed a “different-looking” abstract or “imaginary” conglomeration of bold, stark geometric shapes in colors of gold, orange, peach, and teal, with a thick textured surface.

Similar polls subsequently carried out in nine other countries—Russia, Ukraine, France, Kenya, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Turkey, and China—revealed surprisingly similar preferences. The artists made paintings using the most wanted and least wanted features for each country, presenting them in an exhibition and eventually in an expensive book. 1 The pictures differed only in small details (e.g., a large hippopotamus and Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya, a water buffalo and rice paddies in China, and groups of playing children in Turkey). Everywhere the preferred setting was an idealized blue landscape.

When I heard about the project, I could not help but notice that its findings bore out rather strikingly those of soi-disant “Darwinian Aesthetics,” 2 although neither the artists nor anyone connected with the survey appears to have known about this body of work. Darwinian aesthetics (sometimes called evolutionary aesthetics or, applied to landscapes, “environmental aesthetics”) identifies and describes universal [End Page 487] human preferences for particular features that affected our Pleistocene ancestors’ survival (e.g., led them to make better decisions about when to move, where to settle, and what...

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pp. 486-496
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