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  • America’s Most Wanted, and Why No One Wants It
  • Denis Dutton

Let’s imagine offering to discover for Americans their Most Wanted Food. To be accurate and avoid inappropriate elitism, we do a care-ful, demographically adjusted survey of gustatory preferences, hiring the Gallup organization to conduct scientific polls, renting church halls for focus groups (videotaped), and talking to everyone who wants to be heard. It’s expensive, to be sure, but we manage to persuade a respectably liberal nonprofit foundation to fund our research—after all, we’re finding out what the people want. As the results come in, we discover that Americans’ tastes in food are wide-ranging, whimsical and imaginative, often traditional, but also ethnic in every direction. Despite the vast variety, however, we determine that numerically dominating the food taste list are preferences for hamburgers, pizza, ice cream, and chocolate. So we put our culinary skills to work and come up with the ultimate dish. Here, America, is your Most Wanted Food: hamburger-flavored ice cream with chocolate-coated pizza nuggets. Eat it!

This is precisely the stunt perpetrated by Russian émigré artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid with their painting, America’s Most Wanted. Looking through their book, Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art, edited by JoAnn Wypijewski (Farrar Straus Giroux, $50.00) you have to wonder how their supporters and accomplices (they take up two pages of acknowledgements) must in retrospect feel about having gone along with these chaps. Komar and Melamid oversaw an extensive poll of the art preferences of people worldwide. Subjects were asked what they would like to see a picture of, whether they preferred interior or landscape scenes, what kind of animals they liked, favorite colors, what kinds of people and whether [End Page 530] clothed, and so forth. Taking the aggregate results, our artists produced the most wanted and least wanted paintings for each nationality. Typically, the least wanted painting was an abstract design of jagged shapes featuring a thick impasto and the disliked colors of gold, orange, and yellow. Invariably (with the one exception of Holland, which chose abstraction), the most favored painting was a mostly-blue landscape with water, people, and animals. Their America’s Most Wanted combined a liking for historical figures, children, and wild animals by placing George Washington on the banks of an attractive river or lake. Near him walk three clean-cut youngsters, looking like vacationers at Disneyland, while in the water behind a hippopotamus bellows. To consider the survey seriously and then turn to its painted results is to realize you’ve been conned. It’s as though Marcel Duchamp had managed to secure foundation funding for an extensive cross-cultural study of aesthetic preferences in plumbing before presenting the world with Fountain.

When I tried a couple of years ago at an American Society of Aesthetics meeting to entice Alexander Melamid into admitting that America’s Most Wanted, which was then being unveiled, was really a joke, he quickly walked in the other direction. I found this rather exasperating, and I sense another kind of exasperation (uncertain if it shouldn’t be bemusement) in the conversation recorded in the book between Komar and Melamid and the editors of The Nation. The artists cannot only paint in any style you’d like, they can serve up theoretical stew in any flavor you want. Most of what they say is a pseudo-profound mish-mash of clichés, truisms, and nonsense. Why the worldwide preference for blue landscapes? Komar: “I believe it reflects people’s nostalgia about freedom . . . . You know, we are not free . . . . if . . . life is not an act of free will . . . . In search of freedom, of blue landscape, we can at any time open the big door that leads out of this room . . . . But most of us are not capable of suicide; we are afraid to find out maybe behind this door there is another installation, another, different-colored landscape.” And on, and on. They mention the idea that the attraction of the blue landscape is genetically imprinted, but drop it fast. At one point Komar proclaims that the poll is an “ideal grotesque of...

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pp. 530-543
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