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Reading: Komar and Melamid
05/02/1998 Komar and Melamid: Painting by Numbers

Now that I've had some time to slow down after the last three weeks, I've finished Komar and Melamid's Painting by Numbers. What at first seems like a joke on both the art world and on "the people" is much more complex.

An interesting quotation investigating the implications of the survey results indicating that blue is the favorite color preferred by most of the American population, with green coming in second and yellow last. (Others are in the middle.)

From Vox Pop: Notes on a Public Conversation by JoAnn Wypijewski, Part 2 of Painting by Numbers.

The Lüscher Color Test...is the popularized "Quick" version of a more expansive test that first came into use by psychologists in 1947.... [L]et's pretend that America, as represented by the favorite and second-favorite color preferences indicated in the poll, is taking the Quick Test. The object is to rank eight colored cards in descending order of desirability.... the resulting choices are meant to indicate the chooser's wishes, worries, conflicts, at a particular moment in time.

By this standard, America is an anxious wreck.

It loves blue and green, meaning its greatest hope is for a tranquil environment in whch things proceed in orderly fashion, along more or less traditional lines, and in which it has a measure of control over events. It seeks excitement and exhilaration byt feels somehow obstructed in its desires, prevented from obtaining those things deemed most essential, and obliged to forgo some pleasures. It can feel satisfaction, but at its back there is a whisper that all might be fleeting. Its choice of yellow in last place or second-to-last place is bad news, indeed, since yellow is the color of the future, of change and hope. "Rejected yellow," according to the test's interpretation tables, suggests alienation and profound insecurity, a sense of hopes disappointed, ground lost, and fear that there may be "no way out." When yellow is in last place, the calm of blue is a distant dream, that "agreeable object that flies from us." [from Goethe's book on color, speaking of blue] And rather than symbolize serenity, it suggests an urgent clinging--to tradition as a hedge against insecurity rather than as simple continuity--and a dis-ease or outright intolerance toard that which is familiar. (page 62, italic insertion mine)

Ring any bells? I don't think this serves as some validation of psychological profiling by preferred color, but as a description of the American psyche in the '90s you can't beat it--despite the current economic boom which, remember, is only benefitting a small percentage of the population. It's interesting to note that this color profile changes as one goes up the economic scale. On the same page, Wypijewski notes that "the lower a person's income the greater the love of blue, and the higher the income the greater the love of the color of money." (The survey results are exhaustively cross-tabulated for the curious.) As she writes later in the same paragraph, "Fear is in the air, and that funny blue landscape is looking a lot more macabre."

This painting, which at first seems to be a simple joke on the bad taste of "the people" has feelers out to our collective anxiety, is representative of it. And even if we throw out this color interpretation, we still feel unease when considering the painting itself. Its parts don't fit together, and not just because it's a "bad" painting in terms of design. George Washington stands there with nothing in particular to do, and he has nothing to do with the other parts of the painting--the picnickers in contemporary clothes, or the hippo (especially the hippo). Arthur Danto's essay sheds some further light on this.

From Arthur C. Danto's Can It be the "Most Wanted Painting" Even if Nobody Wants It?, in Part 3 of Painting by Numbers

It would have been interesting...if Komar and Melamid had included a set of questions that asked if people preferred paintings that resulted from finding out what they most wanted in a painting, or paintings in which the artist painted from inspiration. [Danto follows this with a reference indicating he suspects they would prefer the inspiration.] My sense, then, is that the "most wanted painting" is incompatible with what most people want of a painting. But that may be different from what most people want in a painting.... [M]y parallel intuition here is that something can be the "most wanted painting" even if nobody wants it. (page 136)
I think that Danto's distinction between "what people want of a painting" and "what people want in a painting" is one of the finest (in both senses) distinctions I've seen in a while. And later he hits us with another:
What is striking about America's Most Wanted is that I cannot imagine anyone really wanting it as a painting, least of all anyone in the population whose taste it is supposed to refect. No one who wants a painting of wild animalsor who wants a painting of George Washington wants a painting of George Washington and of wild animals. (page 138)
These two distinctions do a lot to explain (but not necessarily explain away) some of the strangely unsettling qualities of the whole Most Favored projects. Danto also points out that, asked to specify a wild animal, most people wouldn't say "hippo," but a hippo undoubtedly fits the bill. The fields mapped out by "our" desires are wide enough and far-ranging enough to contain surprises. The incongruity of the "most favored" painting is the incongruity of dreams. And few would argue that dreams are completely without waking meaning, if only to reveal what obsesses our waking minds.

Sure, much of this project is a joke, but it's the best kind of joke--one that asks serious questions, one that kicks the foundation out from under certainties. I have more thinking to do about this.

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