Holland's most wanted...; and unwanted...

Cartoon-science, maybe. Ironic codology, possibly. But using detailed questionnaires about different countries' artistic preferences, the Russian Pop duo Komar and Melamid have aimed to give the people what they really, really want. By Mic Moroney
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The Independent Culture
Modern art museums must be developing a millennarian sense of humour, judging by the number of countries mapped out by The People's Choice, a nice little Duchampian money-spinner for two New York-based Russian artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. The idea is to find out what people, rather than art knobs, think about art through professional surveys based on a detailed questionnaire. The two then number-crunch the findings and, like good staunch worker-artists, knock up the Most Wanted Painting and the Most Unwanted Painting in each country as an imaginary crystallisation of popular taste.

This wildly methodical approach has already been welcomed in 14 nations, including the US, China, Russia, France, Turkey and Kenya. They've just closed a show in Rotterdam's Kunsthal, and they're now working on Germany where, in September, all 28 Most and Least Wanted Paintings will hang in the Ludwig Museum in Cologne (you can also click through them on New York's DIA Centre website at www.diacentre.org/km/).

Those who place hope in the cultural diversity of the world's peoples will be depressed by the universal preference for rustic, place-mat naturalism. Whether in China, Kenya, Finland or the US, people everywhere seem to yearn for views of verdant, paradisiacal countryside, and the full gallery of Most Wanted Paintings is a frightening throwback to Romantic landscape miniatures of the last century and beyond.

And all because most people like big outdoor scenes (81 per cent), preferably in springtime (49 per cent). A lake or ocean is an attractive option (36 per cent), and it's nice to have a few human figures (36 per cent), but clad if possible - only 6 per cent (mostly males) prefer nudes, although there is a 41 per cent tolerance for partial undress. Such people should disport themselves in a leisurely way (only older folk like to see people working); and animals are nice (50 per cent) - so long as they're wild (80 per cent) and portrayed in their natural environment (also 80 per cent).

In deference to each host nation, the Most Wanted Paintings carefully include local elements, like the pictorial chess-pieces of a bucolic surrealism. Poring through them, you find a small but statuesque Thomas Jefferson; Degas-style ballerinas; the Danish national flag; a Chinese ox and a picture of Mao hanging, weirdly, from a windswept tree; or in Kenya, a rhinoceros apres Ionescu, happily munching the landscape.

The Least Wanted Paintings are just as amusing: enormous, hilariously grotesque (all unnervingly familiar, I'm afraid) abstract canvases; their jagged or rectilinear forms drably combining secondary and tertiary colours in great log-splinters of low-retinal greys and rust-browns.

Mind you, in Holland, the artists took licence from the unusually high proportion (43 per cent) who voted for pure abstraction; and perhaps for the sake of variety, announced that, uniquely, the Dutch prefer abstract art. As Melamid rationalises it, "Holland is a big museum for modern art anyway." Certainly in Rotterdam, the amount and scale of public art is cautionary: great, tangled shrieks of metal rising up to wage eye-candy battle with the glittering high rises of a city radically rebuilt after the war.

Knuckling down to the Most Wanted Dutch canvas, the artists squeezed out their pigments in strict proportion to the colour data. Again, the most commonly favoured colour (31 per cent) is blue (itself a complex argument, never fully addressed in their reports); followed by green (18 per cent); red (13 per cent); and yellow (11 per cent) - with the rest petering away into sad, marginalised point-somethings of a per cent. Their composition holds assiduously to public specifications for simple (75 per cent), richly coloured (86 per cent) painting; full of rounded forms (74 per cent) that blend together (73 per cent) into irregular patterns (63 per cent).

And so, the smallish, untitled abstract was born. At 27cm x 34cm, it's smaller than a broadsheet (58 per cent), and surrounded by a wooden frame, gloss-painted electric blue. The brushstrokes are fine (70 per cent), and the surface is as smooth (65 per cent) as a well-finished kitchen door. Under a spotlight, it gushes a kind of concentrated chemical sweetness and theoretical physicality; loud, serene and consummately vapid.

In the banished room of Least Wanted Paintings, again, the Dutch stand out for their horror of realism. The painting is enormous, bigger than a double bed (2m x 3m, landscape-tilted); the thick water-based colours slapped on in a dripping tachistic abandon, oddly reminiscent of de Kooning (in Holland, the market in his later Alheimer-period paintings is a source of embarrassment). It's also an indoor scene, unpopulated but for a (possibly neutered) domestic cat, blinking out at a wintry New York skyline.

The Dutch are odd in their emphatic (81 per cent) distaste for religious iconography but, like everywhere else, if there's a famous face in the painting, they prefer to see someone dead, or historic (92 per cent). As a result, their nightmare canvas features an image of Bill Clinton (only 2 per cent favour American art of any kind), while outside an almost naked Christ hangs on a frosty cross. Whatever its calculated assault on Dutch taste, it's actually a curiously arresting piece in the flesh: the workman-like scale imposing a Kieferian sense of respect, like some monument to a bleak, solitary, best-forgotten afternoon.

Naturally it's all ironic codology, and from a rational standpoint, you could kick holes in the cartoon-science of the questionnaire: the leading questions and contradictory statistics; the things people say when doorstepped (only 3 per cent consider the fame of the artist in the price of the piece); the way the paintings, shown in big white museums, are extrapolated from responses about more domestic tastes. Yet it does toss up the old implacable truths: clear links between income/ education and fine art; the popular sense of alienation from the art world (stet); etc.

The statistics are always exhibited alongside the paintings on desks, and while the number-grids make for grim rainy-day reading, the digests are fun. Again, in Holland, of 949 relative random adults, only 28 per cent had heard of Andy Warhol (I was shocked), while after Rembrandt (89 per cent) and Van Gogh (87 per cent), the best known and most appreciated artist (also on 87 per cent) was Rien Poortvliet (1932-95), whose prodigious picture-book oeuvre you'll know from his master best-seller, The Life and Work of a Gnome. Seventy four per cent of Dutch parents - mainly mothers - would encourage a child to become an artist (78 per cent to marry one), while only 5 per cent would actually sit down to dinner with their favourite painter.

But the paintings themselves are the main thing, and for all the quasi- aleatory painting-by-statistics conceit, the artists naturally haul their own cultural baggage on to the canvas. Komar (b. 1943) and Melamid (b.1945), a kind of Russian-Jewish Gilbert and George-style double-act, first met at art school in Sixties Moscow. Emerging from the cultural shadow of Brezhnev, a great champion of classic Soviet painting (Lenins, laughing peasant women, farmworkers, etc), the boys moved towards Pop: crafting French Impressionist versions of communist posters; insetting their own mug-shots on Stalin medallions - seemingly harmless juvenalia, until you hear how the authorities reacted to one open-air exhibition with the harsh criticism of bull-dozers.

Arriving in New York in 1978, they began trading souls as Komar & Melamid, Inc (Andy Warhol sold his, and the company was liquidated), before moving on to scams like colluding with elephants on abstract paintings and showing them alongside acknowledged works. But The People's Choice is their most spectacularly successful project to date.

The results of the German operation is keenly anticipated in Europe, where the Most Wanted Painting is expected to backpack off into some variant of Caspar Friedrich's alpine forestry. In Britain, one can easily dream up green and pleasant lands, with perhaps a huntsman, a Union Jack or a wild bulldog romping through meadows of thistle and leek - but so far, no UK gallery has offered to pick up the tab to exercise The People's Choice.

There's is no accounting for taste.

What the people want from their art

81% of people like outdoor scenes

36% like to see human figures, clad if possible

50% like to see animals

78% of Dutch parents would encourage their child to marry an artist

72% of Dutch people have not heard of Andy Warhol

31% of people favour the colour blue

2% of Dutch people like American art

6% of males prefer to see nudes