What’s your favorite color? Do you prefer paintings with sharp angles or soft curves? Do you like smooth canvases or thick brushstrokes? Would you rather look at a painting with figures that are nude or fully clothed? Should the people in the painting be at leisure or working? Should they be indoors or outside, and if the latter, in what kind of landscape?
These are a fraction of the questions that the survey research firm Marttila & Kiley, Inc. asked 1,001 ordinary Americans over 11 days in December 1993. The firm had been hired by
, two artists born in the former Soviet Union who emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1970s. For their project “The People’s Choice
,” they set out to figure out the elements that would constitute their countrymen’s “most-wanted” and “least-wanted” paintings. Then, they produced actual versions of both.
“In the early 1990s, I felt ready to be part [of] what is called ‘American People,’” Melamid recalled during a recent email interview. “The political class used then, and still uses now, [the phrase] ‘American People’ a lot: American people want that, American people are the best. The question was, obviously, what is [the] American People and I am one of them? To find out the truth about American people, politicians, entrepreneurs, fraudsters, fundraisers, and pundits use polls. Why not artists?”
“The People’s Choice” was a straight-faced satire of the complaint that contemporary art is too elitist and should cater to populist tastes—an especially popular refrain coming from the political right during the culture wars of the 1980s and early ’90s.
’s survey turned up admittedly fascinating statistics: 44% of Americans said they preferred the color blue; 49% of them favored outdoor scenes that depict lakes, rivers, and oceans; 41% expressed a preference for large paintings, with more than 60% favoring dishwasher-sized paintings, while less than 20% wanted their paintings to be refrigerator-sized; and 56% of Americans said they wanted historical figures in their paintings, rather than modern celebrities.
But democracy can be fraught. The most-wanted painting Komar & Melamid eventually unveiled at the Alternative Museum in Manhattan in 1994 is about as damning an indictment of art-making by committee as anyone has ever devised. It looks like a rushed
canvas that had been touched up by Thomas Kinkade
The very blue landscape painting depicts a lakeside scene that might seem innocuous at first glance. In the foreground, three figures in seemingly modern dress—hikers, perhaps—walk toward the lower-right-hand corner of the painting. Just ahead of them, two deer are frolicking, but they also seem to be walking on the surface of the lake. Could this be a futuristic, dystopian nature scene? Maybe. But near the center of the composition, a man is standing in conspicuously old-fashioned garb. Is he a wayward trick-or-treater? Not exactly.
“Even from a distance, I knew it was George Washington, and I find that disturbing,” museum-goer Brian Keith Jackson told the Associated Press
in 1994. “This painting is so dull, so predictable. It’s like something you could buy at Kmart.”
Clearly, populism had its limits. But if the most-wanted painting provoked revulsion for some, what about Americans’ least-wanted painting? Only a quarter of U.S. survey respondents said they looked for modern art when decorating their homes, while 60% said they favored figuration over abstract or stylized imagery. And while 43% claimed
as their very favorite artist, only 4% picked
. Sharp angles, geometric forms, and clearly separated colors all proved very unpopular. So, Komar & Melamid created a tiny, heavily textured jumble of crisply defined yellow, red, orange, and gray triangles. It’s the kind of generic abstraction that might appear on the wall in a low-budget movie scene set at a modern art gallery. Or, as a less forgiving New York Times
writer put it, “it looks like the ragged old linoleum under the kitchen stove, only oranger.”