Art Meets Market Research: What's Rembrandt's Rating?

May 14, 1998

Book Review
Philip J. Davis

Painting By Numbers: Komar and Melamid's Scientific Guide to Art. Edited by JoAnn Wypijewski, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 1997, 205 pages, $50.00

What have we here? A couple of Russian artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, immigrants to the U.S., witty fellows, have carried out, using a prestigious public opinion firm, an extensive market survey of what people in various countries like and don't like about visual art. On the basis of the information returned, they have, for each country, painted prototypes of both its "most wanted" and "most unwanted" pictures. These prototypes incorporate the aforesaid most wanted or least wanted features.

Thus, "America's Most Wanted" painting is a landscape: a mountain lake, blue skies, two deer playing in the water, three young people (contemporary) walking along the shore, and George Washington also walking along the path, rather stiffly, to provide, I suppose, a required iconic element.

"America's Most Unwanted" painting is an abstract: triangles superimposed on each other, pastel colors, mottled, pocked textures.

The maximum likes and dislikes of eleven countries have thus been summarized in paint, and it turns out that ten of the countries prefer landscapes with water and one (Holland) does not. Perhaps the Dutch feel that they are already drowning in water.

To these paintings (and others), reproduced beautifully and expensively, there has been added a great deal of talk, often sententious, on the state of art, its reception and commercialization, the sources of its values, the souls of Russia and of the U.S., the sins of Russia and of the U.S., and so forth. I found this discussion unsurprising and unenlightening.

Speaking quite generally, I have found that what artists write about art is unrewarding. But because the book under review is a mélange, there is more: a statistical analysis of what the polls show, written by two members of the Cornell Statistics Center, and an essay discussing the implications of the probable truth that no one would want to hang up the most wanted picture.

To top it off, there have been added almost 60 pages of numerical data, for whose benefit I don't have the least idea, giving cross-tabulations for the American poll on 103 separate questions. These data, together with the statement that "the poll results are statistically accurate with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2% at a 95% confidence level" constitute the mathematics in this book.

So what, after all, do we have here? Is this a parody, a hoax, or is it for real? In any case, it is certainly a self-parody. Is it a spoof on the market research on which millions, perhaps billions, are spent each year, purportedly to bring us just the right amount of snap, crackle, and pop in our breakfast food? Is it a reflection on our present numerical mania that runs from the percentages of zinc in a box of dog biscuits to the latest popularity rating of the Speaker of the House? A satire on the uses and abuses to which mathematical statistics have been put? An analysis of the elitism and the speculative souls of collectors that sustain market values in art? Is it, perhaps, a study that theoretical aestheticians will find path-breaking?

I recall that semioticist Umberto Eco, a friend of mathematics, claimed that he put together his blockbusting novel The Name of the Rose by analyzing (privately, I suppose, and without the aid of a marketing firm) the literary elements that the great reading public likes to read. There's gold to be found in averages-occasionally.

I recall being impressed that the art galleries in Taos, New Mexico, contained mostly western art: mountains, plains, corrals, steer skulls, that sort of thing, done in western colors. Surprise, surprise? These pictures, apparently, sell well, and artists turn them out by the gross.

This leads me to a question I've thought about for years. Think of the millions of hotel rooms in the U.S., each decorated with two or three prints (very occasionally originals), supplied by art jobbers. I would be interested to know whether a $500-a-night room is more likely to hang an unpleasant original abstract, while a $50 room will put up a blue skies landscape with mountains and two deer playing in the water. To answer this question scientifically, I intend to make an application to an appropriate foundation, hire an appropriate firm, and instruct it to report its findings to me at the 95% confidence level.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.


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