Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art
In December 1993, the Russian emigre art collaborators Komar and Melamid began a statistical market research poll to determine America’s “most wanted” and “most unwanted” paintings. Since then, the whimsical project has spread around the world. Polls in the United States, Ukraine, France, Iceland, Turkey, Denmark, Finland, Kenya, and China revealed that people wanted portraits of their families and always “blue landscapes.” After conducting research, the pair paint made-to-order works that meet the wanted (landscape) and unwanted (abstract) criteria; they follow up with town meetings as virtual performance pieces. This intriguing and serious volume documents issues raised by the conflict between high art and popular taste.
I read this after devouring Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste, which quoted several bits.
The book was published in 1997, so it’s almost 20 years old, but, in this age of Instagram likes and Tumblr reblogs, I read it mostly as a cautionary tale about artists looking to their audiences for direction as to what they should produce for them. As Diana Vreeland said, ”You’re not supposed to give people what they want, you’re supposed to give them what they don’t know they want yet.”
The best part of the book is the beginning interview with Komar and Melamid. I’ve quoted some of my own favorite bits, below.
Everyone works collaboratively. That is why society exists. Even artist who imagines himself to be like God, a solitary creator, is working in collaboration with his teachers, his predecessors, craftsmen who created his canvas and paints, and so on—just as God created world with help of angels. Old romantic view of artist is a travesty of monotheism.
How modern artists have lost their way:
We have lost even our belief that we are the minority which knows. We believed ten years ago, twenty years ago, that we knew the secret. Now we have lost this belief. We are a minority with no power and no belief, no faith. I feel myself, as an artist and as a citizen, just totally obsolete. I don’t know why I am here, what I am doing. What is so good about me doing this, or any other artist?
The difference between European and American culture:
I’m stunned by the differences between the European culture and the American culture. In America, the best which has been produced in culture came from the bottom of society. Like music—the greatest musicians of the twentieth century were illiterate; they couldn’t read music.
Why artists should look to hip-hop for inspiration:
People really want art, but we, the elite artists, we don’t serve them… What we need is to create a real pop art, a real art of the people, like the music… And the hip-hop, rock, that’s the greatest thing in the world. We need to make art like these people. We have to learn how they work. That’s what is an artist.
How, in Russia, “Sunday painter” was actually a good thing:
In Russia, “Sunday painter” had a very pure, simple dissident flavor, because to paint on Sunday meant to paint for yourself, not for government. I knew a few very professional artists who made a living painting socialist realism for money all week and painted abstract art.
But how that changed when they moved to America:
Now we paint differently. You know the propaganda cliche: we emigrate and become free, and now we can paint all week, without interuption, without weekends. Every day became Sunday, but you’re working every day. No free time, that’s because you’re free.
And whether their work is serious or not:
No one would ask of life, “Is it all serious or all a joke?” because tragedy and comedy coexist in one life. You cannot separate and say it is all one or all the other. It is same with this work, with all our work: it is serious and humorous at the same time.
Thanks to @mulegirl for the recommendation. Here’s a website with some more of the paintings.
Filed under: my reading year 2014