Are surveys art?

In honor of President's Day in the U.S., I bring you this work of "art," generated on the basis of a survey of 1,001 Americans' preferences about art:


The work was created to embody the survey responses. The respondents were asked questions like "what is your favorite color" and "would you prefer paintings of outdoor scenes or indoor scenes." The artists, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, then tried to paint as many as possible of the survey responses into the scene.

Thus, blue dominates in this painting of an outdoor landscape. There are wild animals (as opposed to pets), and a family group (rather than an individual). George Washington is present because people said if famous people were depicted, the preference would be for historical figures rather than contemporaries.

The same survey was repeated around the world. Interestingly, the results were nearly the same almost everywhere. You can see the full set of paintings here.

Here are the survey results.

So, is this art? Is it even science? Discuss.


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It certainly explains why Thomas Kincade sells so many of his painfully shitty "paintings". (If you enjoy art *at all*, DO NOT Google up Thomas Kincaid and look at his "paintings"! You will be very sorry if you do.)

What's wrong with the Dutch?

I like Italy & Iceland. It's interesting that Holland is the only one that's abstract though Italy has a surreal aspect. What's needed is a follow-up survey to check these made up paintings against what are considered master-pieces and see what the responses are by country.

A painting with all of my favorite elements isn't the best painting any more than a meal with all of my favorite foods is the best meal. I like peaches and I like hot sauce, but I don't want hot sauce on peaches.

Much like some John Cage compositions, the painting is art, but the main statement of the art comes from the process more so than the content.

Trevor Stone: "I like peaches and I like hot sauce, but I don't want hot sauce on peaches."

Ah, that's just because you haven't had my spicy peach chutney yet!

Looks like the cover of a Jehovah's Witness magazine.

Trevor said something interesting. There seems to be a problem with how he transitioned from surveying about individual components of a painting to combining them into a singular piece. It's very unclear to me if most people agree that a singular painting combining highly rated individual parts is in any way an extension of their preferences.

I liked a lot of the paintings that the countries liked 'least' - their compositions were largely more coherent and structured.

Maybe someone should mention Dennis Dutton's seven universal signatures of art: expertise/virtuosity, non-utilitarian pleasure, style, criticism, special focus, and imagination.

I would propose that these works lack at the very least the imagination component, as well as others of the seven, to varying degrees.

My vote: not art.

Not art gets my vote too. The reason is that I think what we're seeing here (except for Holland, there's always gotta be a nut, ya know?) is the representation of what heaven should be like.

Italy's least wanted is interesting and I think a statement about tourism more than anything else. Perhaps what they feel has been inflicted on them, rather than as they are.

Other than that, I'd conclude that geometric designs should be limited to quilts :-)

Read The Art Instinct - Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution by Denis Dutton, just out - which reflects on just this issue, and evolutionary reasons for our aesthetic similarities

By Stella Monday (not verified) on 16 Feb 2009 #permalink

"There's always gotta be a nut"?! Once again, it appears that only Holland knows about art :)
Anyway, rather than the singular features combination that is mentioned above, I think science could come up with something better to measure supposed universality of aesthetics (which, incidentally, reminds me of old Gestalt ideas on 'good' forms). Some multi-dimensional scaling methods seem more optimal for this, especially if they allow for individual distances.. Suppose one rates many, many paintings in different cultures, forming a distance matrix, and finding 'optimal' locations within the matrix? With modern graphical morphing, one could then come up with new, if not original or artsy, visuals.

Oh, i love this project! :) For me there is no question that it is an art project and a fantastic one at that! It arises all the questions (and asking questions is often what modern art is concerned with nowadays) about art, kitsch and how what people want/like may not be what they would like in real work of art.

I think there should be made a distinction between the end result (single paintings) and the process. Of course, it is possible to evaluate the paintings separately from the whole project, but does it make much sense?

I'm not sure how much art is present in the project. It seems these results are a problem for thinking that different cultures think differently. If the people surveyed like the same art, then it is possible that the cultural differences found in other surveys (e.g., Nisbett et al) could have been the result of miscommunication and not something more fundamental than that.

The did this survey with music, too. The Most Unwanted Song (Google it) is hilarious; it gets better with subsequent listens.

As to the question of whether or not it's art: Let he who thinks he's got the authority to monopolize definitions cast the first stone on this one.

I'd rather just enjoy their creation.

It is fun to see this project still generating interest. It was originally begun in 1995, the second of Dia Art Foundation's series of web-based artist projects.

The art is in the process/project itself, not in the paintings. The survey, and the resulting paintings are also not science and were not intended to be. It is a fun take on how marketing and advertising works, and serves as commentary on the mediocre, lowest common denominator stuff that is dished out to western consumers. The cultural context of the project is also fascinating: a project conceived and conducted by two Russian immigrants, very shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, and so early in the history of the web!
As an aside, a factoid from the history of psychology that is relevant to this discussion: J.B. Watson "invented" the focus group.

I love Cognitive Daily...Thanks!

I think it is sad that this painting is supposed to represent what Americans want. It seems empty with meaning and nothing more than a painting for escapism. Why are Americans so scared of abstract art? Yes, it is not easy to understand immediately, but shouldn't art be thought provoking? It is ironic that the art most Americans like is not the art that is representative of our country, i.e. Jackson Pollock and so on.

By art history (not verified) on 17 Feb 2009 #permalink

As my hectic day progresses, I found the universal images oddly restful. Visually not what I would want in terms of "challenging art" but, art should and does cover a wide range - from the elitist (why can't they appreciate J.P.) to the bank art (it's just a wall covering).

I like the mix of a visual "relax" with a process that sets folks off. What a great project.

Science feels like this at times, but in reverse. A good scientist pushes their brain into the discomfort zone, to check over and beyond the nice edges and clear meanings. Then uses comforting process to validate or discard - so that we can move on.

We are not going anywhere in particular (sort of like evolution), but just finding out what is. Which is typically NOT what we expect. How fun is that.

It's science, but it deals with psychology, and biology, and hence the results are messy and contentious. The Dariwnian rationale is suggestive though, for many of the elements...In the African savannah, which humans have inhabited for 99% of their history, sensitivity to landscapes was crucial. Clouds indicated rain, flowers indicated fecundity. So no wonder they are popular choices in landscape and still lifes, respectively.

Landscape architects and real estate enterpaneurs have understood for a while that people like a height looking down, near a body of water, such as a lake, a river, a fountain, or a ocean front, near wildlife, or sculptures thereof.

They also like fruitful terrain in which to forrage, trees with low branches that are easy to climb. Even if all these features are purey aesthetic, and not functional - e.g. fountains and ponds aren't used, they just "look nice"... Some elements, such as the historical figures, may be less well-explained by this, but the rationale behind it as a whole must be regarded as coherent...

It is refreshing to have artists responding to "what people want." In following architecture (see yesterday's LA Times review of the new Caltech building by Thom Mayne) trying to include what a client wants is considered a huge cop-out. While the composite shown here is oddly disjointed, it makes the point that there can be an intersection between what a client/patron wants and what the artist delivers. Which also raises the question of whether architecture is art at all, and whether it should please the users, the people who see it from the outside, or neither.

It annoys me that there seems to be no organization behind which countries choose to include people.