Blue Landscape Paintings, Art and Evolutionary Psychology

America's Most Wanted was an audacious painting, even by the inflated standards of the contemporary art scence. In 1993, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, expatriate Soviet artists who had settled in the United States, received money from the Nation Institute to study the artistic preferences of people in ten countries. They oversaw a detailed worldwide poll, conducted for them in the United States by Marttila & Kiley and by various other public opinion firms overseas. In some locales, the polls were followed up with town hall meetings and focus groups. All participants were asked what they would like to see a picture of, whether they preferred interior or landscape scenes, what kinds of animals they liked, favorite colors, what sorts of people they enjoyed seeing depicted -- famous or ordinary, clothed or nude, young or old -- and so forth. Extrapolated to the general populations of the countries polled, the graphs and tables of figures produced by Komar and Melamid's People's Choice project claimed, not unreasonably, to be a reliable report on the artistic preferences of "close to two billion people."

But this project produced more than numerical preferences: these talented artists (they were originally trained as socialist realists) then went on actually to paint most-wanted and least-wanted paintings for every country in the study -- pastiches based on favorite colors, shapes, and subject matters for each nationality.

The least-wanted paintings are bad news for anyone hoping someday to see modernist abstraction achieve mass acceptance. People in almost all nations disliked abstract designs, especially jagged shapes created with a thick impasto in the commonly despised colors of gold, orange, yellow, and teal. This cross-cultural similarity of negative opinion was matched on the positive side by another remarkable uniformity of sentiment: almost without exception, the most-wanted painting was a landscape with water, people, and animals. Since the overwhelmingly favorite color in the world turned out to be blue, Komar and Melamid used blue as the dominant color of their landscapes. Their America's Most Wanted, the painting based on the poll results from the United States, combined a typical American preference for historical figures, children, and wild animals by placing George Washington on a grassy area beside an attractive river or lake. Near him walk three clean-cut youngsters, looking like vacationers at Disneyland; to their right two deer cavort, while in the water behind Washington a hippopotamus bellows.

To consider the survey seriously and then turn to Komar and Melmid's painted result it to realize you've been conned. It is as though the Nation Institute had been persuaded by two clever chefs to commission an expensive poll to determine America's most-wanted food. The chefs study the resulting statistical preferences -- a highly varied list that is nevertheless topped by ice cream, pizza, hamburgers, and chocolate -- and then come up with America's most-wanted food: hamburger-flavored ice cream with chocolate-coated pizza nuggets. Just because people like George Washington, African game, and children in their pictures, it doesn't follow that they want them all in the same one.

It would be wrong, however, to write off the People's Choice project as worthless, for it did reveal one stunning fact. People in very different cultures around the world gravitate toward the same general type of pictorial representation: a landscape with trees and open areas, water, human figures, and animals. More remarkable still was the fact that people across the globe preferred landscapes of a fairly uniform type: Kenyans appeared to like landscapes that more resembled upstate New York than what we might think of as the present flora and terrain of Kenya. In an interview in Painting by Numbers, the book that presented the data and paintings for the project, Alexander Melamid remarks (apparently into a tape recorder):

It might seem like something funny, but you know, I'm thinking that this blue landscape is more serious than we first believed. Talking to people in the focus groups before we did our poll and at the town hall meetings around the country after ... almost everyone you talk to -- and we've already talked to hundreds of people -- they have this blue landscape in their head. It sits there, and it's not a joke. They can see it, down to the smallest detail. So I'm wondering, maybe the blue landscape is genetically imprinted in us, that it's the paradise within, that we came from the blue landscape and we want it ... We now completed polls in many countries -- China, Kenya, Iceland, and so on -- and the results are strikingly similar. Can you believe it? Kenya and Iceland -- what can be more different in the whole fucking world -- and both want blue landscapes.

He goes on to say that a dream of modernism was to "find universal art," that "the square was what could unite people." But modernism's dream turns out to be a delusion: "The blue landscape is what is really universal, maybe to all mankind."

-- Denis Dutton

from "The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution"

Quoted on Sun Jul 8th, 2012