November 27, 2004

Democratic art.

Yesterday, I complained about the Wisconsin quarter. An emailer wrote:
If I do collect that one at all it will be like the daffy great-aunt, relegated to some attic room. Most of the state quarters have been, shall we say, "unfortunate," but that's what you get with a popularity contest amongst amateur designs. Compare that to the spring 2005 version of the nickel.
Yes, the new nickel is excellent. I note the entire bison is pictured, not just a head. The the new Jefferson profile is even less that a head now. Still, it looks nice, and it was designed by artists. Art cannot really be done by a democratic process.

For a demonstration of how bad art produced by democracy is, I strongly recommend "Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid's Scientific Guide to Art." This is from the Library Journal review:
In December 1993, the Russian emigre art collaborators Komar and Melamid began a statistical market research poll to determine America's "most wanted" and "most unwanted" paintings. Since then, the whimsical project has spread around the world. Polls in the United States, Ukraine, France, Iceland, Turkey, Denmark, Finland, Kenya, and China revealed that people wanted portraits of their families and always "blue landscapes." After conducting research, the pair paint made-to-order works that meet the wanted (landscape) and unwanted (abstract) criteria; they follow up with town meetings as virtual performance pieces.
The paintings in the book, produced to give people what they've said they wanted, are hilarious.
For a brilliant collection of ideas about art and facts about artists, I recommend David Markson's "This Is Not a Novel." It contains the too-snobbish Schoenberg quote: "If it is art it is not for all, and if it is for all it is not art." It also contains a quote, from Diego Rivera, at the other end of the spectrum of opinion about art: "Art which is not propanganda is not art."

UPDATE: Komar and Melamid have a terrific website, where you can read their surveys and look at the various paintings. The material is well-organized. You can click through all the countries on a particular question. I enjoyed seeing what color was the most popular in each country. It's always blue! And the second most popular color is nearly always green. Is that because we've adapted to the natural world?

Komar and Melamid (with David Soldier) also have a most wanted songs project, as one of my students just pointed out. Unfortunately, you can't listen to the most wanted song at this website, but here's their description of it:
The most favored ensemble, determined from a rating by participants of their favorite instruments in combination, comprises a moderately sized group (three to ten instruments) consisting of guitar, piano, saxophone, bass, drums, violin, cello, synthesizer, with low male and female vocals singing in rock/r&b style. The favorite lyrics narrate a love story, and the favorite listening circumstance is at home. The only feature in lyric subjects that occurs in both most wanted and unwanted categories is “intellectual stimulation.” Most participants desire music of moderate duration (approximately 5 minutes), moderate pitch range, moderate tempo, and moderate to loud volume, and display a profound dislike of the alternatives. If the survey provides an accurate analysis of these factors for the population, and assuming that the preference for each factor follows a Gaussian (i.e. bell-curve) distribution, the combination of these qualities, even to the point of sensory overload and stylistic discohesion, will result in a musical work that will be unavoidably and uncontrollably “liked” by 72 plus or minus 12% (standard deviation; Kolmogorov-Smirnov statistic) of listeners.


UPDATE: Prof. Bainbridge responds to this post, adding a point, which he predicts I'll agree with, and I mostly do. Art is best produced by artists, and it is usually best that they act separately from government. But I don't support the complete separation of art and government, because government must have its coins and paper money, monuments, signs, buildings, and so forth. In producing these things, it is best to rely on artistic experts and not simply put things up for a vote. I want such things to be beautiful, and it seems that many of the people who are doing the voting are thinking about things other than beauty, such as the representation of corn on the quarter. As to trusting markets to produce art, as Prof. Bainbridge recommends (and I agree), we end up with a lot of trashy but decently good pop art, and there isn't anything terribly wrong with that (although I insist on zoning to protect me from trash of the architectural kind). There will still be artists who chose to produce high art, and some people will pay money to some of them some of the time.

5 comments:

Cockroach said...

Happen to read this blog by chance. I was searching for peoples comments regarding collaboration in art for my dissertation on 'whether collaborative cinema is more democratic'.

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