Sunday, June 25, 2006

By the Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s “People’s Choice”

Last week’s posting, Data Visualization as Art, reminded me of another topic where art and numbers intersect. In this case, it’s Komar and Melamid’s “People’s Choice” project. I say “project” because People’s Choice comprises many different paintings, each of which is the result of market research into the “most wanted” and “least wanted” paintings of various countries. The data from the market research is part of the displayed art too.

This 1999 New York Times review of the project’s accompanying book, Painting by Numbers: Komar & Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art, explains the idea:

Noting the gulf that yawned between a democratic society and its self-consciously elitist art world, Komar and Melamid decided to find out for themselves what people who were not a part of that world liked to see in pictures. Accordingly, they availed themselves of that scorned but ubiquitous resource, the opinion poll. Beginning late in 1993, telephone researchers hired by them questioned 1,001 Americans of all demographic shadings, asking them about their preferences as to color, dimensions, settings, figures — 102 questions in all. Sixty-seven percent of respondents liked a painting that was large, but not too large — about the size of a dishwasher (options ranged from “paperback book” to “full wall”). A whopping 88 percent favored a landscape, optimally featuring water, a taste echoed by the majority color preferences, blue being No. 1 and green No. 2. Respondents also inclined toward realistic treatment, visible brushstrokes, blended colors, soft curves. They liked the idea of wild animals appearing, as well as people — famous or not — fully clothed and at leisure....Armed with this information, Komar and Melamid started to paint.

Below is Komar and Melamid’s “Most Wanted” painting for the United States, reduced down from its original “dishwasher-size” canvas. It features the attributes just mentioned (yes, that’s George Washington posed in the middle):

The image is from the Dia Art Foundation’s site, which has a Web version of People’s Choice, including the survey results.

Back to the New York Times review:

Komar and Melamid’s project is conceptualism at its most elegant and
effective, a little bomb thrown into the works. It puts into question
not only the relation between art and ordinary people, and the meaning
of ‘‘the market,’‘ but also the ambiguity of opinion polls and, by
extension, the discordance between the individual and the mass.

Finally, the Dia Foundation’s Director’s Introduction quotes Melamid:

In a way it was a traditional idea, because a faith in numbers is fundamental to people, starting with Plato’s idea of a world which is based on numbers. In ancient Greece, when sculptors wanted to create an ideal human body they measured the most beautiful men and women and then made an average measurement, and that’s how they described the ideal of beauty and how the most beautiful sculpture was created. In a way, this is the same thing; in principle, it’s nothing new. It’s interesting: we believe in numbers, and numbers never lie. Numbers are innocent. It’s absolutely true data. It doesn’t say anything about personalities, but it says something more about ideals, and about how this world functions. That’s really the truth, as much as we can get to the truth. Truth is a number.

You might as well consider that commentary part of the piece too.

In art textbooks of the future, look for People’s Choice to join Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can paintings as emblems of (post)modern consumer society.

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