PRINT January 1995


WITH THE EXCEPTION OF THE NEA witch hunt of the late ’80s and early ’90s, no art event in years has garnered the kind of attention the U.S. media devoted to Komar & Melamid’s ongoing project “The People’s Choice.” Like their new work “Washington Lives!,” announced in this issue of Artforum, the project attempts to redefine the artist/client relationship, disabling the respective cults of artistic freedom and art-in-the-service-of-the-people in the cause of a larger debate capable of carrying over into public life. Coincidentally—by “the people’s choice”—the project also recalls a long line of Komar & Melamid’s work by scrutinizing the official iconography of the state, especially its monumental depictions of patriots.

Investigating the topic ostensibly addressed in the NEA flap—artists’ public accountability—“The People’s Choice” consciously revived the holy specter of “people’s art” by polling public attitudes to the visual arts in the U.S. and in Russia. Respondents were asked a wide range of multiple-choice questions about such things as their consumer tastes and recreational activities, their politics and life-style habits, their knowledge of famous artists and historical personages, and their preferences for or against sharp angles, curves, brushstrokes, and particular colors, sizes, contents, and styles in painting. The data-gathering was conducted with a delicious solemnity, unmatched by the most zealous of number-crunchers, and the irony quotient soared as each detail of the poll was broken down into a statistical spread.

Using this data, Komar & Melamid painted a pair of composite canvases, the Most Wanted and the Most Unwanted, for each country. The American and Russian results are strikingly similar: both Most Wanted’s are tranquil landscapes around a lake, with a group of figures relaxing in the foreground and a historical figure in attendance—a heroic George Washington in the U.S. version, a contemplative Jesus in the Russian. Predominant in each is the overwhelmingly favorite color, blue. Both Most Unwanted’s are garish abstractions featuring triangles and reds, the U.S. one small, the Russian large.l More versions of the project are currently being produced in countries around the world—polls are in the works for Germany, Finland, Denmark, France, and also China, where this will be the first opinion poll ever conducted.

“The People’s Choice” is not, of course, an attempt to produce populist art. Like the market-research apparatus that it utilizes, its first aim is to produce a public dialogue—or the appearance of one. In light of the poll’s banal conclusions, and the wretched art that issued from it, the higher purpose might be seen as dialectical: to begin to imagine an outcome something like the opposite of the one actually achieved. Whatever a real “people’s art” might be, it would not look like this. And yet, in a society where public communication and popular taste seem stage-managed by a vast machinery of statistical smoke and mirrors, this is what you get. Or do you?

Komar & Melamid are no Situationists cynically riding the spectacle monster, nor are they Pop mavens bathing in the antiesthetic limelight. Long intimate with bureaucratic thought and practice, their work feeds off a withering familiarity with the arts of the modern state: its procedures for manufacturing consent, and its facility for squeezing every possible drop from the rhetorical fruits of communism and democracy while exhibiting little evidence of either ideal. The languages and roles of both the old Soviet Union’s “dissident artist” and its “artist in the service of the people” can easily be transposed to a system maintained by the statistical toolbox of corporate capitalism. Indeed, in the media flak generated by “The People’s Choice” the artists cast themselves as populists crusading on behalf of the American public, ventriloquizing the tabloids’ vox populi contempt for the elitist art-world establishment. Evincing a deadpan respect for the pollsters’ democratic science, they appeared as enthusiastic participants in a national exercise of statistical quality control. They even posed for the tabloid Daily News as over-the-top patriots, taking the Pledge of Allegiance with one hand and bearing Old Glory in the other, like anticommunist exiles proselytizing for the free world.

The point, of course, was to expose the knavery of a data-management system that delivers presidents and elections as fluently as it delivers customers for Honey Nut Cheerios. Diagnosing the poll’s disappointing results for the Daily News, Komar & Melamid pointed out, “Maybe everyone is wrong in this country. We are not wrong because we are the artist. But we are wrong like the whole country is wrong. Products, politics, art created from polls is wrong. If using polls for art is wrong, then everyone is wrong. We are as wrong as Clinton is.”2

Of course this kind of argument is journalism’s bread and butter. The press, after all, is in one sense in competition with the pollsters: while its chief commodity—the circulation of opinion—is often shaped by market research, it nonetheless depends on the belief that market shares, demographics, and percentage points are not the whole story. In addition, the industries of public opinion are largely concerned with their own self-promotion. It’s no surprise, for example, that those who talk most about the media’s social dominance are media professionals themselves. The PR industry probably does sometimes deliver elections, and its awesome psychographic databases probably are responsible for much of the way public opinion is put together and disseminated as a done deal. It does no good, however, to allow pollsters’ self-serving claims about their already powerful dominion to further reduce the complex life of civil society. How people respond to a slate of surgically prepped questions tells us virtually nothing about the opinions they might find they held in common if the conditions of a properly modern democracy permitted them to do so.

Their wicked humor aside, Komar & Melamid are nonetheless acute in making statistics the esthetic medium of an intervention into “the national question.” Statistics are a crucial technology of power in modern states everywhere (the word “statistics” derives from the German for “state,” and the origins of this “science” are inseparable from the rise of nation-states), but the fetishism of numbers has above all played a role in the U.S. Under the system of proportional representation mandated by the Constitution, census-taking became an essential part of government. Census information is the basis for political uses of population demographics. Besides making race a principal element of state formation, this has generated a social logic of quantitative rationality that has come to touch every aspect of our daily lives.

Figures that set the norms in the national inventory of facts, and therefore also in the diagnosis of deviancy, include the statistics of risk that underpin the insurance industry and the corporate-health state; the numbers games deployed in the mass-psychology calculations of the advertising industry; the Taylorization of labor processes; market research and the concept of the average man, woman, and family; cost-benefit accounting; the statistical quality-control that defines minimum standards at minimum cost as the production principle of U.S. manufacturing; mental testing in educational and eugenic selection; TV ratings, baseball stats, and the supreme authority of the Gross National Product—virtually everything except, until Komar & Melamid, the making of art.3 Though the sources of many of these revolutions in social and cultural behavior lie elsewhere, they are all historically related to a process of national self-definition that has come to be seen as distinctively American.

Many modern polling practices are an offshoot of cold war computer war-games developed to simulate battle scenarios in accordance with shifting variables.4 Just as advertising had been touted as a consumer society’s bulwark against communist and fascist perversions of mass psychology, so the marketprobability research that emerged from anticommunist war-gaming came to be seen as a way of keeping the free world one future ahead of the evil empire. The depth attitudinal polling that has led to today’s virtually daily tracking of neighborhood psychographies is the very essence of cold war democracy. New management, corporate symbolism, spin surgery, deep agenda-setting—these are the PR tools that helped to preserve our sacred liberties in the struggle against totalitarianism.

Other than the pleasure derived from their horseplay, what are the consequences of Komar & Melamid’s Swiftian modest proposal that art can be made Hollywood-style from the decision-making processes of focus groups and exit polls? Perhaps the project’s sharpest contradictions arise from a moment in which the bankruptcy of the avant-garde idea has been all but officially recognized, yet where vanguardism is reborn precisely in a knowing rejection of the privileges of the historical avant-garde. Pour épater la bourgeoisie today, Komar & Melamid approach esthetic value as a matter of Western-style scientific truth rather than of cultural taste. If polls tell the truth, or what passes for official truth in late capitalism, then polling is a more appropriate tastemaker than the avant-garde artist—even if the result is not some progressive, proletkult chunk of the future but a schmaltzy return of art history’s repressed. America’s Most Wanted, a 19th-century-ish narrative landscape, carries much the same political meaning for progressive art today as did the picturesque Regionalism of ’30s painters like Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry, all of them reviled as reactionaries by the people’s artists of the day.

Things were a little different in Moscow, which I visited shortly after the Russian version of “The People’s Choice” was exhibited there. In Moscow the project helped reanimate the powerful legacy of the ’70s conceptualist circle to which Komar & Melamid belonged before emigrating to the U.S. Ilya Kabakov’s dusty, garretlike studio, informally bequeathed to the Moscow avant-garde, still hosts remnants of this circle. (The space’s allegorical centerpiece is an uneven pool table with pockets so tight that it is virtually impossible to pot a ball.) The floors below are being renovated into million-dollar apartments for the “New Russians,” those buccaneer beneficiaries of Boris Yeltsin’s sacking of the state treasury. Now that Russia finally has a bourgeoisie for the avant-garde to shock, in-your- face body-based performance art has flourished. In the meantime, everyone, the art world included, is learning the crude Western arts of individualism—from customized self-fashioning to blatant careerism. The stores, filled with expensive European goods, evince the current leaders’ wisdom: let them eat cake.

The dark wit of Russian conceptualism in its heyday was directed at the institutional symbolism of the state, just as its Western counterpart critiqued the institutions of the gallery and the art market. The relevant institutions today are media oriented. Indeed Komar & Melamid’s Moscow show received media attention unprecedented for artists there, beginning when they brandished the results of “The People’s Choice” to TV cameras on their arrival at the airport. (This was seen as a parody of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s return to Moscow as Rip van Tolstoy, waving his notebook of conversations with people he had met on his long train journey, and challenging the government to bend to the popular will contained therein. To this day, no one from Yeltsin’s crowd has called him.) A press conference followed in Pushkin Square, Moscow’s Fleet Street. Subsequently, national TV quizzed public personalities on their reactions to Komar & Melamid’s Most Wanted painting. A regional commander in the army gave it the thumbs up. A nationalist leader said nyet.

In a time of anxiety within Russia over the national question, art critics were defensive, discerning more than a soupçon of antinational sentiment in Komar & Melamid’s expatriate approach to the current crisis of taste. For the intelligentsia, “The People’s Choice” evoked, among other things, the pledges of their 19th-century forebears to kneel before the wisdom of the narod, the people. This was bad enough; to wheel in capitalism’s heavy statistical artillery on top of it was to rub their faces in a frightening future. Others saw a different nationalist specter in attendance: with the triumph over Socialist Realism, and its workers and peasants, still fresh in the cultural memory, Komar & Melamid’s Russian Most Wanted suggested that a restoration of prerevolutionary meshchanstvo or kitsch taste may be a new force to contend with. In the meantime, in Moscow street locations where popular painting is habitually sold, all the modern art styles except Socialist Realism could be found, but landscapes like Most Wanted were still in the majority. The joke, as always, was on “the people”—the people who buy these paintings.

Outside its local impact in the U.S. and Russia, the most flagrant outrage of “The People’s Choice” lies in its resurrection of ideas about the universality of art. As Komar & Melamid conduct polls in each country, they are coming up with similar results and similar paintings. They are beginning to believe “experts” who say that there may be a genetic component to all this. In an age of multiculturalism and antiuniversalism, nothing could be more seditious.

Also emergent are ideas about the state of citizenship today, when the weakest forms of democracy are trumpeted as the fulfillment of the liberal political tradition. Polling is the strong arm of a feeble faith in citizens’ capacity to have a competent opinion. A discussion of taste of the sort generated by “The People’s Choice” may seem to have a limited bearing upon the future of citizenship, but taste, in a consumer society, is a major instrument of enfranchisement and exclusion. Many people feel contests over cultural authority and power far more directly and intimately than they do contests over politics.

The site of these cultural contests, though, is not the museum, for many the obligatory tourist trap that they visit only every so often. They go to art church as if to the confessional box, seeking out interiority under the pressure of some class-induced guilt. Yet hardly a week goes by in any large town without some crowded art fair spilling over the sidewalks and parking lots. These are the places where the public shops for art, where people feel not only that their tastes are catered to but also that the art on offer includes them in some way.

With few exceptions, art critics have shown about as much interest in the popular art circuit as nuclear physicists have. In other arts (literature, music), elite and popular forms to some extent share institutional channels (distribution, reviewing, display, modes of consumption). In the visual arts, temporary aberrations aside, an ocean of indifference separates both the official and the alternative art worlds from the street fair, or even from visual forms like the comic book, or graffiti and the street mural. There is no fine-arts equivalent of the detective novel, the TV sitcom, the 12-bar blues, or the horror film. Critics trying to cross the divide tend to end up playing the smirking game of kitsch-worship—reciting the rosary of the black-velvet Elvis, joining the sectarian order of Jeff Koons.

Like the Star Trek transporter, post-Pop art continues to beam up fragments of commercial culture, and every so often an event like Jim Shaw’s “Thrift Store Show,” an exhibition of cheap found paintings, transplants a heavily edited slice of life from the discard pile of domestic art furniture. But few critics seem seriously interested in the role art plays in people’s daily environments. For attention to teenagers’ decoration of their bedrooms—a curatorial task comparable to hanging a gallery show, and often, arguably, a more ingenious expression of taste—one turns to cultural studies scholars. How people customize their own daily appearance and living spaces—these are the real public arts. But they have nothing much to do with official conceptions of public art, which, despite good intentions, often feels like an imposition of taste.5

The continuing brouhaha in the U.S. over public funding of the arts might have provided an occasion to rethink this elitist configuration. Never mind that this ruckus is the result of media grandstanding by politicians, or that its immediate targets are radical artists: its vehicle-the principle, however hackneyed, of artists’ public accountability-might have generated some art-world self-scrutiny. But artists’ communities have tended to close ranks, retreating behind the veil of “artistic freedom.” And art-world institutions have appealed cynically to evidence of the decline of public culture in order to reaffirm their own privileges. Though the response from many of the alternative art spaces—which have generally kept on with their explorations of sexual politics and their public advocacy—has been gutsy and admirable, the overall result has been to strengthen the feudal structure of the gallery system and the conservative tendencies of the museums.

The Depression saw an alleged golden age of publicly funded art in the U.S. under various federal arts projects such as the Work Progress Administration (WPA). In the ensuing dialogue, however naive, between professional artists and the public, the artists who took to the regional roads actually felt they were in a position to compete with Hearst and Disney in the battle for the nation’s cultural soul. Today, as the future of public funding lies in doubt, there is no contest at all: in the fifty years since the demise of the WPA, the cultural marketplace has released virtually all the important social energies and provided virtually all the significant cultural resources that people use in their daily lives. The circulation and interpretation of cultural commodities, whether formal or informal, is really the only powerful esthetic catalyst in advanced capitalist societies. You don’t have to be an advocate of free-marketeering to recognize this manifest fact.

By contrast, the official arts have stuck to their hierarchies of exclusion, jealously guarding their access to institutional protection and public subsidy. They have donned the cloak of immunity provided by artistic freedom. The alternative art world has become the potentially excluded middle, contracting and expanding in response to a mutating social climate.

Komar & Melamid’s approach to this impasse is both satirical and sanguine. “The People’s Choice” is clearly an onslaught on the stronghold of esthetic “taste,” once a heavily fortified milieu of the fine arts. At the same time, Komar & Melamid seem serious about learning from people’s opinions and prejudices: sitting in on focus groups and conducting polls have been part of what could be called their reeducation. Beyond their spirit of mischief, they seem committed to finding channels of communication for artists beyond the gallery, the museum, the site, and MTV. The public’s interest in this artistic reeducation is another question altogether. One result of the NEA flap is a given wisdom that parodies the rallying cry of the American Revolution: no representation, no taxation. The true vox populi on this matter as on others is likely to remain as elusive as ever, an ectoplasmic spirit of the night to conjure up whenever the need arises.

Currently we live in a vacuum of political authority: the liberal state is embarrassed and racked with guilt, the socialized state has provided one too many bad examples in this century. Nature, we are told, abhors a vacuum, and will rush in. It is no surprise that the people’s choice in both America and Russia was a landscape, or that our artists look, however tongue-in-cheek, to genetics for an explanatory guide. After keeping the authority of nature at bay for much of this century, we are currently witnessing a major revival of biologism. It may be a little too risky to place our faith in some dialectical claim that this is not what the people want.

Andrew Ross is a professor and director of the American Studies program at New York University. His latest book is The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature’s Debt to Society (Verso).


1. In the U.S. the poll was sponsored by the Nation Institute and conducted by the Boston market-research firm of Marttila and Kiley. In Russia it was sponsored by New Found Quality and carried out by ULTEX Services. The Alternative Museum in New York and the Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow exhibited the respective results.

2. Vitaly Komar, quoted in Joseph Steur, “There’s No Accounting for Taste,” Daily News, 16 March 1994.

3. See Daniel J. Boorstin, “Statistical Communities,” The Americans: The Democratic Experience, New York: Random House, 1973, pp. 165–244.

4. See Joyce Nelson, Sultans of Sleaze: Public Relations and the Media, Toronto: Between the Lines Press, 1989, p. 74; and Roland Perry, Hidden Power, New York: Beaufort Books, 1984.

5. See Paul E. Willis, Common Culture: Symbolic Work at Play in the Everyday Cultures of the Young, Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1990.