The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Most Wanted and the Least Wanted Paintings

Due to the generosity of our good friend Carolyn Abrams ( who gave me this book as a Christmas present, I'll begin a discussion of the theories offered in The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution by Denis Dutton, Professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Thank you, Carolyn. This fascinating book unites art and evolutionary science and makes us consider the roots of our artistic nature. I'm captivated since I am both an artist and have a graduate degree in paleontology.

The first chapter, Landscape and Longing, was an eye-opener! Perhaps I'm too ill-informed and the rest of you already know this, but Dutton mentioned an international project I'd never heard of: Komar and Melamid's People's Choice Project that resulted in a report on the artistic preferences of close to two billion people around the world. I'll summarize the outcome for you as it's stated in the book, but will also refer you to the project's website if you want additional information

Here are bits of the author's remarks about this intriguing survey:

Komar and Melamid are Soviet artists who were originally trained as socialist realists. They relied on a professional polling institution to administer the poll.

At the conclusion of the poll, these artists actually painted the most wanted and least wanted paintings for each country (website above) based on the favorite colors, shapes, and subject matters.

The least wanted paintings are modernist abstraction. According to the author, 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.

Almost without exception in every country, the most wanted paintings are a landscape with water, people, and animals. The overwhelmingly favorite color in the world is blue, according to this poll.

Being a master of graduate-level multivariate statistical analyses, I can tell you that almost all statistical analyses are flawed, and often fatally. This survey is not without problems, some more serious than others as the author points out. Despite the problems with this survey, Dutton finds one stunning fact is revealed by it: people in very different cultures around the world gravitate toward the same general type of pictorial representation of a fairly uniform type: Kenyans appeared to like landscapes that more resembled upstate New York than what we might think of as the terrain of Kenya. So, perhaps the appeal of the blue landscape is universal to mankind.

Why is this so, asks the author? It's not too far a stretch in the imagination of an evolutionary biologist to see the connection. Humans evolved seeking water, vegetation, animals, and other humans to survive. What we've sought for milennia becomes imprinted on our brains as desirable.

But, there's more! Dutton cites any number of scientific studies related to human evolution in specific environments and other psychological polls. I won't enumerate them here, but they're worth reading about if you want to pick up this book. A study by Elizabeth Lyons shows that contemporary women prefer landscapes with vegetation in them more than men do. Her hypothesis is that the role of ancient women as gatherers and men's role as hunters led to this natural preference in art.

The author concludes this chapter with: We are what we are today because our primordial ancestors followed paths and riverbanks over the horizon. At such moments we confront remnants of our species' ancient past.

Your thoughts??


Carolyn Abrams said...

Hi kathy, i'm sure glad it is you digesting this book and not me! Interesting material though. I went to the website and am fascinated by the majority of most wanted is basically the same landscape design! and the majority of the least wanted are abstract squares or triangles designs!
Thanks for reading and reporting!

Carolyn Abrams said...

p.s but you already said that!! I guess it didn't really hit until i actually saw the paintings. I'm so visual!!

Elizabeth Seaver said...

I have also done some study of anthropology, and I think this will be a fascinating book. I look forward to your discussion of it, and I may have to get a copy myself!

Ken Goldman said...

Great blog Kathy. Thought provoking. I'd note that the choices given between representational and modern abstractionist art were not the finest examples from either category. Before enlarging the examples to see them better, I kind of tended towards liking the abstractions better, but when I enlarged them, they had so little substance (re. principles & elements of design), that as mediocre as some of the landscape painting were, I'd have to say, if forced to choose, I'd have rather have lived with them too. I'd like to have seen the same study applied to various stratus' and educational levels of society. To sum up, I found the choices frustrating. This study could have best been used like a Rorschach test of sorts to elucidate the level of choice often forced on us in politics (Ie. a choice between the lesser of two evils).

Unknown said...

Hi Carolyn, Thanks so much for this book. I love it!!(I'm visual, too)

Hi Elizabeth - do share your insights about this! I'd like to learn more.

Hi Ken - you make some important points. The paintings were created after the poll was taken, so the respondants didn't see these art works. Rather, the paintings were created when the artists applied the results of the poll to canvas. Granted, the paintings are very poor quality, but they weren't meant to be real works of art. Rather, they were intended to be the visual, rather than tabled data, results of the poll.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee Ann said...

I was really surprised by this. Some time ago I read Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory, which looks at cultures and the connection that each one has to landmarks and representative landscapes of their own. Much of the discussion centered around the art they have produced, although it was an historical view, rather than the contemporary one. I was fascinated to see the veneration each culture had for their own surroundings. Perhaps through our globalization we have now homogenized humanity to the point where the sacred landscape of our ancestors no longer speaks to us? The search for water and food is of course universal in the human experience from the beginning of time, but those things have taken radically different forms in different places. Do we now, all of us, only recognize it when it is presented in the form of an "upstate New York" landscape? If that's the conclusion, it makes me very sad. It feels like a loss of wisdom from our past, of how to survive and appreciate what "is". I for one will never be moved by the landscapes that were in the preferred group. I hope I never am, not because there is anything wrong with them, but because other landscapes speak to me, and to lose that would be to lose part of myself and my ancestry.

hw (hallie) farber said...

Those "over the horizon" paintings (also seen in Italy's choice) could represent a wish to escape or wish for freedom. In Holland most things are legal--they don't need to escape. The Web choice is bit strange.

Mary Paquet said...

Kathy, very interesting. If one takes this a step further, if you want to sell paintings, must you paint landscapes? I will be waiting to see the following posts to see where this discussion takes us as artists.

Unknown said...

Excellent post! It's like you threw out a new chew bone for the pack of followers to chase and play with.

I am so glad you also view surveys with a skeptical eye. Art and beauty is so subjective in itself. Then throw in culture and social many factors to influence a preference like this.

For example, in terms of beauty one only has to look at history to see how diverse our world is when it comes to their idea of beautiful women. Plump women have been in and out of fashion. Japanese wives of nobility used to shave their eyebrows and blacken their teeth.

In face, I don't recall seeing many Asian countries represented in the poll. Also, I question their use of items as measurements of size.

Especially when [I think it was Italy] the survey had the book about a quarter of the size of the refrigerator door. It would make sense for the Italian family who are used to going to the market daily and not needing to store much more than basics, but not to the American family.

This blog is better than my straight black coffee to get my brain cells hopping. Thanks Katharine!

Celeste Bergin said...

Hi Kathy--I remember seeing the book the Russian team produced about this. I got it from the library (a long while ago). It was a hoot--because the book was written without a lot of regard for English. It was Russians writing in their "best" English and just letting it stand. Comical. It seemed to be handled with a lot of humor and the resulting "most wanted painting" was definitely a tongue-in-cheek thing. I mean! George Washington! lol...but their survey did make a pretty good impression on me... from the standpoint that I could agree that I prefer a cozy landscape to a batch of razor shapes.
I personally am always straddling the chasm of representational and more abstract work. My representational work is more "respected" by the people in my life ....but my curse (or strength, depending on how you look at it) is that I love , Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Picasso, Malcom Liepke, Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell, Christo! Sergei Bongart I love them all and they influence me that is why I can't "land" on Celeste Bergin's style--(I no longer care--I'm going with the all over the map thing..I'm comfortable there!). The survey (if I remember right) was about what people wanted displayed in their homes. If I had a big enough house I would have every manner of art in it. It would be more like a museum than a house! lol. Thanks for reminding me about the survey. Those Russians would be scratching their head over YOU..the eggshell artist. Should we all do an experiment to add a George Washington, some people, a lagoon, and some deer to each painting to see if sales exponentially increase? lol.

Unknown said...

Hi Pam - oh, I'm obsessed with the ocean!! Thanks for commenting.

Hi Lee Ann - you raise an interesting question and I'd love to know the answer. Thank you!

Hi Hallie - good point about the "over the horizon" perspective. The author talks a little more about our instinctual desire to have a vantage point that gives us a clear view of the distance. Maybe that has something to do with it, too. Thanks!

Hi Mary - I was waiting for someone to make that connection! I guess we'll all be painting landscapes, now :) Thanks.

Hi Sheila - you hit on some of my primary criticisms with the poll as well. Thanks so much for raising questions about these problems. I think it would be incredibly difficult to create a poll that's universally unambiguous and understandable. Thanks for your comments!

Hi Celeste - Ahhh... finally, someone who's read the book about this! Thank you for shedding light. There are some humorous aspects to all of this, so Dutton had to find a relevant point, and I think he did. Like you, if I had tons of wall space and great wealth, I'd hang paintings in all sizes from all genres. Your final statement made me laugh .... I guess it's time for me to paint George Washington in a landscape with broken eggs on his head. Thanks!

Mark Sheeky said...

Very funny! Pictures painted after a survey to tally with caclulated beauty! It's only when I read the survey questions when I realised how silly it all was. Favourite colour?, second favourite?, wild or domestic animals?!!, religious or secular??!!! So many arbitrary choices.

Mark Sheeky said...

... and there are a lot of "don't know" and "depends". I find it hard to beleive that only 6% of Frenchmen prefer a nude to any other option! Ha ha! A brilliant post Kathy.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy and All Above, The comments are so good, it's hard to add anything! I am most curious about what is genetic and what is learned. How much of our inner vision is each and can it be measured?

What strikes me is why, then, do the "primitive" cultures generally have flattened, decorative art? They had the same brains. Why weren't the painting landscapes on their temples and pyramids?

Denis Dutton said...

Such interesting comments from people with different takes on issues that fascinate me. Looking forward to developments.

Denis Dutton

P.S. Yes, the Komar and Melamid use of statistics is laughable. I've written on that in more detail here, though it was not included in the first chapter of my book:

Denis Dutton said...

Such interesting comments from people with different takes on issues that fascinate me. Looking forward to developments.

Denis Dutton

P.S. Yes, the Komar and Melamid use of statistics is laughable. I've written on that in more detail here, though it was not included in the first chapter of my book:

Unknown said...

Hi Mark - something to think about! Thanks for commenting.

Hi Peggy - great questions. I don't know the answer. Perhaps Prof. Dutton can help us with this??

Unknown said...

Welcome, Prof. Dutton! Thank you for commenting on our discussion of your fascinating book. I doubt that I can unwrap it as expertly as you wrote it, so please feel free to correct my comments and add to them. Your book is wonderful!

-Don said...

What another great conversation you have started here Kathy! Everyone's comments are so thought out and interesting. I look forward to your unfolding of the chapters of Mr. Dutton's book and am excited that he's along for the ride.

My first thought regarding Kamor and Melamid's Project is, wouldn't everyone polled have access to modern technology like phones, televisions and computers to answer the questions? How would we get a true sense of a tribal Kenyan's take on art? Or, a Chinese farmer's? Or, an Eskimo fisherman's? Did the pollsters climb the Himalaya's or wade into the Louisiana swamps? Did they canoe down the Amazon or take a safari into the African plains? Maybe what this survey captured is modern people's preferences throughout the world who have already connected to a world view on some level or another?


hw (hallie) farber said...

Interesting reading on Mr. Dutton's site--America's Most Wanted, and Why No One Wants It.

Unknown said...

Hi Don, Good point! I don't know the answer to that question, but it's worth considering. I guess we might wonder more about the motivation for this poll in the first place. Thanks for your comments!

Hi Hallie - thanks for the recommend. I'm headed there now!

james said...

I was very pleased to find this site. I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoyed every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out the new stuff you post.
How To Sell Paintings