America’s Most Wanted, and Why No One Wants It.

in Philosophy and Literature 22 (1998): 530-43.

Denis Dutton

Let’s imagine offering to discover for Americans their Most Wanted Food. To be accurate and avoid inappropriate elitism, we do a careful, 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 emigré artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid with their painting, America’s Most Wanted. Looking through their book, Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamids 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 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.

America’s Most Wanted (click on image to see a larger version)

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 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 ideal art,” which can’t have much reassured the editors of The Nation that their money was well spent. The words of Komar and Melamid express persistent hint of ridicule, both of The Nation and of the “ordinary people” whose artistic opinions and preferences were so earnestly sought.

In order to emerge from the project with dignity intact, The Nation editors try to reduce the issues to politics. This is especially prominent in the major chapter of the book, written by The Nation’s managing editor, JoAnn Wypijewski. Consider her interpretation of what the poll said about color preferences. The survey found that, like every other country in the world, America’s favorite color was blue, with an overall rating of 44%. (America’s Most Wanted therefore was painted with 44% blue, which is again a joke: if 71% of the population prefers chocolate ice cream, it does not follow that everybody’s favorite ice cream is 71% chocolate.) Blue was most preferred, notes Wypijewski, by people living in the central states (50%), between 40 and 49 years of age (49%), conservative (47%), white (46%), male (45%), making $30,000 to $39,900 (50%), and who don’t go to museums (50%). However, since the poll was only of 1001 people, and had a margin of error of ± 3.2% (that is, 3.2% either side of the figures she so precisely provides), these nuances don’t mean anything at all, compared as they are with the nearly identical figures for women and other income groups. For a moment it seems clear that a liking for blue tends to decrease with education: 48% for high-school-or-less, 34% for some postgraduate education. But even this correlation is far less than it appears: turn to the back of the book and examine the actual tables and you discover that there weren’t 1001 postgraduate interviewees, but only 103; the margin of error in that cohort would be around ±12%. Since the high-school-or-less group consisted of only 421 people (margin of error probably ±5%), it is statistically possible that the blue preferences of these two groups actually coincide or are even the reverse of what the poll appears to report. The point, nowhere explained in the technical apparatus (Wypijewski is oblivious to it) is that if the margin of error of a poll of 1001 people is ±3.2%, it does not follow that any question asked of a fraction of 1001 respondents possesses the same level of accuracy. So while it may well be, as the poll reports, that Blacks and Hispanics are less likely to favor blue than Whites, it could be a much closer thing than the 15% preference gap given here, since there were only 100 Blacks and 66 Hispanics interviewed.

Desperate to impose her political views on this wispy evidence, Wypijewski turns to The Lüscher Color Test, which, she explains, “first came into use by psychologists in 1947,” and that is supported by “a twelve-page list of scholarly papers, mostly in German.” She owes it to her readers to supply some more detail on this diagnostic test; as she fails to do so, I’ll do it for her. Prof. Dr. Max Lüscher, who is head of his own Institute of Psycho-medical Diagnostics in Lucerne, has patients give a rank ordering of color preferences from which he is able to gain “insight into the causes and psycho-vegetative structure of symptoms or complaints” providing a “structural therapeutic strategy” for psychotherapy and homeopathic therapy. These miraculous results can be accomplished in a five-minute session, and with computer assistance can determine “the state of 34 personality traits” according to 5015 “precise definitions.” Skeptics are referred to Dr. Lüscher’s book, The Law of Harmony Within Us, now in its sixth edition.

Applying the Lüscher Diagnostic to the color preferences of Americans, Wypijewski is able to analyze the national personality, although she refrains from prescribing her choice of homeopathic therapy (severely watered-down Marxism, I’d wager). She discovers that the country’s “greatest hope is for a tranquil environment in which things proceed in an orderly fashion, along more or less traditional lines, and in which it has a measure of control over events.” Spooky, I hear America saying, it’s so true! Dr. Lüscher’s test must be for real! But the Lüscher analysis goes deeper: the United States “seeks excitement and exhilaration but feels somehow obstructed in its desires...obliged to forgo some pleasures. It can feel satisfaction, but at its back there is a whisper that all might be fleeting.” To which I’d add that America is probably going to meet a dark and handsome man. But whether he’d much care for America is uncertain: you see, America doesn’t like yellow, “which suggests alienation and profound insecurity, a sense of hopes disappointed, ground lost, and fear that there may be ‘no way out’.” It all indicates “an urgent clinging — to tradition as a hedge against insecurity rather than a simple continuity — and a dis-ease or outright intolerance toward that which is unfamiliar.”

“It may sound a bit like astrology,” Wypijewski admits, adding in breathless italics, “but what if it were true?” How about insecurity?, she asks. The poll shows that the lower a person’s income, the more he or she loves blue as a first color choice, and “the higher the income the greater the love of the color of money (people who make more than $75,000 a year are three times as likely to favor green as those who make less than $20,000).” Some might suggest that fondness for green shows how ecologically-sensitive the American rich are, while the other end of the spectrum prefers blue because of its blue collars, but Wypijewski doubtless would be offended by such a flippant analysis. For the past two decades, she explains, the great mass of Americans have seen “their futures fade as their wages have fallen or stagnated.” Fortunes have risen only for the top 20%, “and of those only the top 1 percent have done extremely well.” Since 1979, forty-three million Americans “have seen their jobs be erased,” while families “crack under the strain....great slabs of nature have been sold off to the lords of industry, rivers run foul with mine tailings and timber debris, capital is ruthless, and government remote or actively complicit. Waco. Oklahoma City. Cries for the death penalty, and for the losers’ revenge upon the losers.” That’s what liking blue gets you.

Wypijewski then turns to preferences for black, pointing out that the poll “shines a tiny light onto the split nature of black.” It’s far tinier than she realizes. “Those with incomes under $20,000 are twice as likely to prefer black as those with incomes over $75,000. But those who go to museums most are also about twice as likely to prefer black as those who don’t go at all.” African Americans are more partial to black than whites as their second favorite color, although the same percentage of them (4%) prefers black as their favorite color as do whites. Does this show that black is, as she suggests, emblematic of defiance and the underprivileged? Why do people with incomes under $20,000 tend to like black more than the rich? Does it indicate the black mood of the destitute? Is it their love of the black flag of anarchy? Are these people largely poor African Americans still stirred by the idea that Black is Beautiful?

The real answer, completely missed by Wypijewski, will jump out at anybody with an eye for fashion who examines the tables of figures: there is an apparent preference (8% as opposed to 4%) for the color black among people aged under 30, including students and young people who are not yet in paying careers, and who therefore fall in the less-than-$20,000 category as well. The poll was taken a few years ago during a period when among many students and young people black was in vogue for clothing. It’s not the poor and dispossessed who are defiantly expressing their preference for black, it’s high school and college kids listing their current clothing and hair-tinting preferences. Poverty and deprivation doesn’t determine the gap in black preference between these young people and their elders with incomes over $75,000; it’s the current youth culture, which also goes in for dark blue fingernails and nose studs.

But even here there’s less than meets the eye: it’s those pesky error rates again. The preference of all voters was 4% for black. Remember, that is 4%, ±3.2%. However, the 4% preference for African-American voters, since there were only a hundred of them, was actually 4%, ±12%. Similarly, there were only 95 people in the $75,000+ group, so their first-preference rating for black of 3% should read: 3%, ±12%. As there were only 155 first-preference color voters with incomes below $20,000, their 8% preference should be given as 8%, ±10%. Believe it or not, it is in light of this meaningless mirage of statistics that the managing editor of The Nation proposes to instruct us on the politics of color preference.

However, not all of the statistical evidence adduced by the poll is as pointless as this. In fact, some of it is very valuable indeed, and deserves to be closely studied by anyone concerned with the current state of aesthetics. For the sample of the poll extended across nine countries beyond the United States: China, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Kenya, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine. Extended cross-culturally, this larger sample did reveal some persistent and statistically solid trends, and on those questions which were applied across national groups the error margin is less that 3%. As Ellen Dissanayake shows in the present issue of this very journal (pp. 486-96), this broader poll does suggest — indeed, inadvertently discovers — the existence of a set of universal interests in art or, if the word “art” seems too grand, pictorial representations. I refer all readers to Dissanayake’s essay as the only scientifically informed comment on Komar and Melamid yet to appear in print. In contrast to Dissanayake’s article, the contributors to Painting by Numbers are marked by their refusal to acknowledge that the poll stands as serious empirical evidence for a natural, evolved universal aesthetic preferences. At the core of this reluctance sits the deeply engrained doctrine that all experience is passed through the lens of culture, indeed, is constituted by culture.

In the field of aesthetics, Arthur C. Danto has over the last thirty years argued continuously in one form or another for what might be termed the social-constructionist (or theory-constructed, or artworld-constructed) philosophy of art — what the philosopher George Dickie has formalized as Institutional Theory. It is not surprising, therefore, to see Danto, who is art critic for The Nation, defend a profoundly flawed, social-constructionist reading of the Komar and Melamid poll. Nor is it surprising to see him do it with such characteristic wit and eloquence.

Danto has followed the careers of Komar and Melamid since 1978, and frankly admits that at first he had trouble with their work. They had produced a series of landscapes by a one-eyed nineteenth-century artist named “Nikolai Buchumov,” who is as much their fabrication as the Buchumov oeuvre. Later they exhibited burned fragments of soup-can paintings — pseudo-Warhols seemingly retrieved from a fire — as well as a most appealing Morris Louis-type co-production with a painterly elephant in the Toledo zoo (I happen to adore the painting). Danto appreciates the humor in all this as well as importance of their most searing paintings, bitter send-ups of Socialist Realism produced when there was still a Soviet Union, such as one which shows Stalin as the inspiration for the invention of art.

After his warmly admiring account of the collaborative career of Komar and Melamid, Danto is less keen when he turns to America’s Most Wanted. He is bothered by George Washington and a hippo sharing the same scene, a conjunction he unwisely analogizes to Newt Gingerich’s Contract with America. The paradox of wanting to reduce taxes and eliminate the federal deficit does have a solution (cut spending); there’s no similar conflict in America’s Most Wanted, just incoherence. It is a painting, Danto admits, that “has no place in the world of art at all.” It is “mischievous,” and he finds the true paradox to be the fact that the putatively most-wanted painting turns out to be a painting no one actually wants.

So far, so good. But when he discusses the results of the world-wide poll Danto can come up with nothing to throw any light on the issues. He finds it perfectly predictable that a poll of American tastes should yield a landscape in “Hudson River Biedermeier” style. What does surprise him is that “throughout the world the results have been strikingly congruent, in the sense that each country’s Most Wanted looks like, give or take a few details, like every other Most Wanted....And it is at the very least cause for reflection that what randomly selected populations of the world round ‘most want’ are paintings in the generic, all-purpose realist style the artists invented for America’s Most Wanted. The most wanted painting is something of the kind that embellishes calendars from Kalamazoo to Kenya.” And then Danto blurts out a remark which, if true, would undermine a generation of art theory (including Danto’s own it’s-theory-that-makes-art art theory): “The 44-percent-blue landscape with water and trees must be the a priori aesthetic universal, what everyone who thinks of art thinks of, as if modernism never happened.”

Having thrown down this hypothetical challenge to his own most deeply held aesthetic commitments, Danto then tries to explain away this uncanny cross-cultural uniformity: “It is possible, of course, that everyone’s concept of art was formed by calendars (even in Kenya), which now constitutes a sort of paradigm of what everyone thinks of when they think of art.” Referring to psychological research that shows that there are paradigms that govern what people will think of first when asked to identify something in a category (asked to name a bird, people will usually say robin or sparrow, not albatross), Danto tries to argue that calendars have come to govern worldwide what people think of when they think of art. If this is true, he suggests, it would also explain the worldwide resistance to modernism mentioned above. “It is altogether likely,” he says, “that what Komar and Melamid have unearthed is less what people prefer than what they are most familiar with in paintings.” And he then adds, most surprisingly, “I would wager that the unrepresentative population at the museum opening [presumably any museum opening] shares the same paradigm.”

But what then do people really prefer? The theory that underlies Danto’s analysis is that picture preferences are infinitely malleable, that there are no underlying preferences that are not socially constructed, or derived from everyday experience, just as thinking of a robin (instead of an kingfisher) when asked to imagine a bird, or thinking of a man (instead of a woman) when asked to imagine an airline pilot, are stereotypes inductively derived from walking in the park or flying in airplanes. There is a denial at the heart of Danto’s view: the denial that there might be some kind of identifiable category of natural interests in pictorial representations. For Danto, it all must come down in the end to enculturation, social brainwashing, to the extent that he even suspects that the kind of crowd that comes along for free chardonnay at art openings share the same socially constructed art-stereotypes as the rest of the populace.

“That would be why,” Danto continues, “when throughout history anything has deviated significantly from the predominantly blue landscape, the spontaneous response has been that it is not art.” The true villain in the persistent, worldwide resistance to modernism — roughly, abstraction — must ultimately be the calendar industry: “Why else would the Kenyans, for example, come out with the same kind of painting as everyone else even though 70% of them answered ‘African’ to question 37 — ‘If you had to choose from the following list, which type of art would you say you prefer?’ — when the other choices were Asian, American, and European?” Danto then concludes his discussion with three stunning sentences; for clarity’s sake I number them: (1) “There is nothing in the least African about the Hudson River Biedermeier style of landscape with water.” (2) “But it may be exactly with reference to such images that Kenyans learned the meaning of art.” (3) “It is no accident that in the Kenyan questionnaire, in response to the question on what types of art people have in their homes, 91 percent mentioned prints from calendars (though, in fairness, 72 percent mentioned ‘prints or posters’).”

As regards (1), who says there’s nothing African about the painting? The literature to which Dissanayake refers imputes the genesis of environmental aesthetic interests and preferences to the demands and opportunities of the hunter-gatherer life of our ancestors in the Pleistocene. The universal appeal of America’s Most Wanted could well lie in its resemblance to a lake or river scene in east Africa a hundred-thousand years ago. The painting’s gold frame, along with Washington and the deer, imply “Hudson River School” to the knowledgeable critic, but remove the people and animals and the scene merely suggests a generic lush forest surrounding water anywhere from New Zealand to Alaska to Asia to Africa. Danto the art critic is responding to what he perceives as a style; the basic illustrative content is not even exclusively North American, let along Biedermeier or Hudson River School.

Regarding (2), yes, familiarity with such images will affect what Kenyans view as “art.” But that does not in itself explain why in culture after culture such representations of bluish, lushly summery landscapes retain their appeal. Calendar brainwashing reminds me of the kind of argument, often trotted out by tone-deaf Marxists, that Beethoven retains popularity because capital has a vested interest in keeping people listening - as though there’s nothing intrinsic in Beethoven’s music that people find arresting. In actuality, it’s the reverse: capitalists can make money off Beethoven because people find pleasure in the music independently of anybody’s profit or loss, independently of the demands of social class, independently of any authority who tells them they ought to like it. Turning back to the Most Wanted paintings, the question is, do calendars incline Kenyans to like these sorts of pictorial representations (which Danto seems to believe don’t even reflect Kenyan reality), or do both the calendars and the picture preferences quite independently of one another tap into some deeper inclination — a landscape interest or preference that is not socially constructed, but a Pleistocene inheritance? It is at this pivotal point that Danto, along with everyone else in Painting by Numbers, has nothing to say: in fact, they don’t recognize the question, because it does not fit the social-constructionist paradigm within which their thinking is constrained.

Therefore, when Danto adduces as support for his supposition (3) that calendars determine Kenyan taste, that there is a non-accidental (91%-of-sample) relationship between the presence of calendars as a kind of “art” in Kenyan homes and Kenya’s Most Wanted — in other words, that we have here a causal relationship — he is stretching his social constructionism beyond the breaking point. The question is not how the sinister, multinational calendar industry manages to subvert taste and populate the whole world with blue-landscape liking zombies (at the same time making art education such an arduous, uphill slog for the right-thinking proponents of modernist abstraction wanting to spread the good word). The tantalizing question is, why is there such a persistent preference for the blue, watery landscape?

Painting by Numbers is such a strange melange of disparate elements: Wypijewski’s left-wing politics, the endearing whimsy and veiled ridicule of Komar and Melamid, the mostly dodgy, partly useful statistics, and Danto’s theoretical misdirections. Add to this the verbatim reports by Americans of the things they’d want if they could commission a painting (“My cat,” “A painting of the atomic nucleus,” “A lizard walking across the desert straddled by this guy Phil I know,” etc.), and throw in the astounding reaction to the survey from art establishment authorities at a symposium at the Whitney Museum: “the idiocy of these blue landscapes”; it’s like “asking illiterate people to judge poetry.” What a dog’s breakfast of a book. But I still love Komar and Melamid’s colorful 1996 collaboration with the Toledo elephant, Painting with Renée’s Footprint. Good work, Vitaly, Alexander, and Renée!

Copyright © 1998 Johns Hopkins University Press.