This is Not a Book: Komar and Melamid’s ‘Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art’

Komar, Vitaly. Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1997

There should be a warning on the cover of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid’s Painting by Numbers: The Scientific Guide to Art: “This is not a book.” From the opening page, offering “America’s Most Wanted” painting (“dishwasher-size,” as preferred by 67% of the representative sample), the reader becomes a participant in a radical happening, 1990s-style, with polls, endowments, global travel, and practical jokes. Komar and Melamid, two émigré artists who launched their American career some twenty years ago with the project of buying and selling souls, are up for another devilish bargain. At stake this time is the nature of art, of “the people’s choice,” and of artistic authority. What is the universal language of the 1990s – Art or Polls? Is there such an old-fashioned thing as the “universal language” of beauty at all, or have we fully colonized the post-modern multiculturalism of taste? Who is the author or co-author of popular fantasies? Finally, do the artists themselves engage in a sell-out of art or, on the contrary, in a dissident defense of beauty?

Komar and Melamid pledged to create a painting for the people, thus fulfilling the promises of both Socialist Realist art and capitalist advertising. After conducting the first scientific poll of artistic tastes from Kenya to China (with United States and Russia in between), they made a shocking discovery. The “most wanted” painting, regardless of race, class and gender, turned out to be a landscape in which predominated the world’s favorite color, blue. The landscape was realist rather than “different,” with a few ordinary as well as famous people in the foreground (“fully clothed” was the preference in the United States, partially nude in France). Meanwhile the “least wanted” painting was invariably done in the style of geometric abstraction. Whether at the bottom of this lies a prejudice against non-representational styles or a suspicion of anything that looks “different” remains unclear. Komar commented on the American poll: “In a society famous for its freedom of individual expression, our poll revealed conformity in the majority.” (p. 8) In the land of diversity, the expression that something “looks different” is usually a polite form of rejection. In the words of the editor of the volume, Jo Ann Wypijewsky, the project of “Most Wanted” was a happening of continuous embarrassment. Embarrassment can be described as the self-consciousness of a loss of control; it is the most public private emotion. The blush of embarrassment betrays an individual recognition of the violation of public etiquette, of the conventional boundaries between public and private, and, in this case, also between art and statistics, popular and commercial culture, kitsch and beauty. Who is more embarrassed at the end, the artists, the people or the pollsters?

Komar and Melamid’s project is first of all an embarrassment for authorship.While the author-genius in the Romantic sense, or even an idiosyncratic modernist auteur, might be dead or at least moribund in the current state of “virtual democracy,” co-authorship has become a fact of life. Komar and Melamid are among the most inventive contemporary co-authors. Besides collaborating with each other, they have collaborated with elephants, history (in the project “What is to be Done with Monumental Propaganda”), and Stalin (in the remaking of the Lenin Mausoleum). This time they are collaborating with the “silent majority” of the democratic state. The subtitle of the Scientific Guide to Art encompasses two ideas of truth – the Soviet Marxist-Leninist conception of scientific truth and the American notion of statistical truth. Komar and Melamid do not parody these ideas of truth; they put them to the test, dramatizing their implications. If their fellow émigré Ilya Kabakov builds his total installations on the threshold of individual obsessions and aesthetic dreams, combining the confessional and the conceptual, Komar and Melamid build on the dream of the collective and its grotesque distortion–“from communist utopia to virtual democracy.”

Komar and Melamid’s co-authorship is dialectical, reflecting a desire for belonging to “the people,” for history, the majority, as well as émigré estrangement – call it a “mental ghetto” or a vantage point. Melamid observes that art dealers in the suburbs and small towns tend to be foreigners, like the Arabic vendor of Korean landscapes in Bayonne, New Jersey. Foreignness, exile, and artistic estrangement go together. The artists’ metaphors reflect their own transition from Soviet to American contexts, as well as the transgression of these contexts. Even the world’s favorite color, blue, does not represent universal serenity for the artists. Komar associates it with his “first encounter with Western civilization,” which took place up in the air, in the toilet of the Boeing that carried him to the United States. He flushed and saw, to his enormous surprise, a dark blue color–the color of freedom and of the artificial heaven of consumer goods. A different kind of blue landscape fla(u)shed in front of the artist’s eyes. It is from this resident-alien perspective that Komar and Melamid search for “the people’s choice” and a “universal language.”

“The dream of modernism, you know, is to find a universal language. People believed that the square was what could unite people, that it was truly universal. But they were wrong. The blue landscape is what is really universal, maybe to all mankind,” says Melamid. The Russian avant-garde movement began with a manifesto entitled “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste.” At first glance it might appear as if Komar and Melamid’s project is a defense of public taste and a slap in the face of modernism and the art establishment. But the matter is not so black-and-white – or rather, blue-and-orange. The Russian avant-gardists never quite managed to toss tradition off the “ship of modernity.” Similarly, these émigré-artists remain haunted by the specter of modernism.

There is trouble in the paradise world of the blue landscape. In the American “Most Wanted” painting, the eyes of the wandering George Washington never meet the gaze of the contemporary vacationers. In Russia’s “Most Wanted”, the Jesus Christ look-alike seems to turn his gaze away from the laboring youth. They inhabit the same painting but seem to exist on different planes. The smooth surface of the painting is deceptive. There is a sense of excess in the painting: like Total cereal, it has an extra helping of everything the people want, yet without any connection between the ingredients. Something here is deliberately out of joint. The seamless surface is in fact a collage.

Each of the paintings in the book seems thoroughly quotational – often citing from the national tradition. The triangles in Russia’s “Least Wanted” painting, for example resemble those of El Lissitzky, Kazimir Malevich, and Vassily Kandinsky, while the “partially nude” mother in France’s “Most Wanted” painting vaguely evokes Eugene Delacroix’s “Freedom on the Barricades” and Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass” (as well as some amateur pictures from the beach in Normandy). None of the blue landscapes was executed en plein air, and they are not Hudson River School paintings. Komar and Melamid used “an ideal landscape based on the Italian painter Domenichino (1581­1641)” as a template. The blue landscape does not depict anyone’s native soil, but rather “a paradise within,” a nostalgia for freedom. “The blue landscape can make people hermits for a second…Making people hermits for a second – maybe that is the basic idea of art,” says Komar (p. 21). Yet the citational texture of the paintings does not suggest a post-modern multiplicity of narratives. The ironic artists take their blue landscapes seriously. It may be an artistic cliché, but for many people the blue landscape represents the aesthetic dream in everyday life, a moment of disinterested contemplation. Its beauty is almost Kantian. What is common to the people polled from Kenya to China is not so much their attachment to nature as their shared everyday dreams of the beautiful. The kitschy, partially clad humans and animals that seem to come from international calendar art merely assist in “making strange” the haunting blue of the background.

In his essay “Can it be the Most Wanted Painting even if nobody Wants it?” Arthur Danto writes that “Komar and Melamid are post-modern artists who yearn, as in a way we all do, for the sweet innocence of premodern art.” (p. 132) In my view, if there is any nostalgia here at all, it is a nostalgia for the modernist belief in the role of art in society and in an aesthetic “universal language ” (which does not have to be that of modernist abstraction). Komar, dissenting from his co-author, confesses his hope that the “people who come to see our ŒMost Wanted’ will become so horrified that their tastes will gradually change” (p. 25). Is the “People’s Choice” project, then, a perverse defense of aesthetics’ via negativa?

The artists, trained in conspiratorial techniques, realize that the only way to speak publicly about art, at least in America, is by speaking about polls. The statistical graphs in the book themselves resemble modernist abstract paintings. They appear aestheticized, illustrating that modernist styles have been transferred into life where they celebrate the victory of science, statistics, and the media. At a discussion in Ithaca, Komar raised the following question: if he ate one chicken and Melamid ate none, would the statistic say that each of the artists had eaten half a chicken, even if Alex actually had gone hungry? A statistics professor explained that his method was concerned with chicken consumption in general, not with individual eating habits. At this point, the hungry artists realized that the statistical approach might threaten their collaboration.

It has often been suggested that in contemporary society, polls have replaced politics, and even though the pollsters and statistics professors openly acknowledge that theirs is a limited science, it has been made to function as the true representation of the people’s choice. Seemingly the most democratic tool, statistical analysis is frequently used as the most authoritarian one. Rather than articulating desire it constructs it. Komar and Melamid take the polls at face value – literally. This literal-mindedness, coupled with a rather fantastic technology, is characteristic for much of American media culture. The artists reveal the latter’s absurdity: The most wanted thing calculated with the help of the polls is precisely what nobody wants – except those who order the poll.

The graphic organization of the Scientific Guide to Art allows for many divergent readings. At times I found myself less interested in the statistical charts than in the individual fantasies of the ideal art work, printed in small letters at the bottom the page, gleaned from confessions by people in the “focus groups.” These fantasies included depictions of “a dying Republican”; “me driving a Ferrari through the Octopus by Caravaggio,” and “something I cannot imagine and have never seen before.”

Ultimately the chase for the elusive “choice of the people” and for a universal language of art is more inspiring, insightful, and surprising than the “Most Wanted” paintings themselves. Painting by Numbers almost resembles a coffee-table book. This is small wonder in a situation where the editors of major presses cancel book contracts after polling samples of salespeople in chain book stores. In a recent New York Times article, one of those culture managers commented that the shelf life of an average book is “somewhere between radicchio and cultured yogurt.” Komar and Melamid offer us ways of cheating the system and making “different” art in the age of polling and virtual reproduction.