If democracy's so great for society at large, why shouldn't it work for the art world?
A preposterous question, perhaps, but one that Russian emigre artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid ponder with their tongue-in-cheek installation, "Komar & Melamid: People's Choice: The Polling of America," now at the Huntington Beach Art Center.
Arriving in the United States in 1978, the longtime collaborators "discovered that America is a much better and more comfortable place to live than the Soviet Union," Melamid said recently, "and that [democracy] is better than any other system we know about."
Conversely, they found that the Western art world runs on a "medieval idea of aristocracy," Melamid said, in which a small group of gallery owners, curators and artists, ostensibly superior by "genetics or education," decides what's good or bad, marketable or passe.
Clearly, that's not majority rules. So the artists commissioned a poll to determine what Americans most want in their art.
"If the Democratic system is so good and based on the idea of the majority making decisions," Melamid said with more than a touch of irony, "then maybe the same idea applied to other spheres of human activity will make them work better as well."
They enlisted the Boston-based research firm Marttila & Kiley to poll 1,001 people. What color do most Americans prefer? Blue. Do they favor tame or wild animals? Wild. Outdoor or indoor scenes? Outdoor. Traditional or modern art? Traditional. Famous or anonymous people? The people like both.
Armed with this information, Komar and Melamid created "America's Most Wanted," a bucolic, 19th-Century-style landscape dominated by a big blue sky and blue lake (Melamid calls it a blue landscape). It's populated by George Washington, three unknown people, a hippopotamus and two deer.
The traveling exhibit also illustrates the poll's hard data with colorful pie charts and bar graphs, some in sculptural, three-dimensional form, and contains "America's Most Unwanted," a small geometric abstract.
Komar, 52, and Melamid, 50, are well known for work that satirizes the former Soviet Union's creatively stifling, state-enforced Socialist Realism.
During a phone interview from his New York studio, Melamid wouldn't come right out and say whether "Most Wanted" proves or disproves that a democratic process produces good art. His response, however, like the wretched landscape, made the answer clear.
"A majority of Americans told what they wanted. Maybe no one in particular likes it, but the majority likes it."
But don't polls lie?
"Regardless of what you think of polls," he said, "they are the only tool in our democratic society, and in any society, to communicate with the people and find out what the people want and to [enable] communication between the higher and lower classes. So if this is not democracy, what is?"
Indeed, he pointed out, the idea of statistical determination harks back to democracy's forefathers, the ancient Greeks.
"They worshiped numbers in a way, and in order to make a sculpture of the ideal human body, they measured the most beautiful people of their time and made an approximation. So all these beautiful Venuses are based on some statistical data. Numbers are pure, beautiful, and maybe it's idealistic, but if there's any truth, I think it's in numbers and statistical approximation."
Surely the creative process is more subjective than that, isn't it?
"It's not true," Melamid said, "and where did you get that idea? Who wrote that? Who put forward this idea of subjectivity of art? Is the source known? Was it given by God, written in the Bible? Many people tell me this, but I never get an answer."
"People's Choice," organized by New York's Alternative Museum, also contains "Russia's Most Wanted." That lakeside landscape is similar to America's favorite painting with the added elements of Jesus Christ, children and a bear.
Next year, the artists plan to exhibit in Cologne, Germany, most wanted and most unwanted paintings from at least 15 other countries including Kenya, China, Finland and Turkey.
By the year 2001, they hope to have combined these countries' preferences for the world's most wanted. It might look familiar, Melamid said.
"Most of the people," he said, "like blue landscapes, period."
* "Komar & Melamid: The People's Choice: The Polling of America" continues through Nov. 12 at the Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St., Huntington Beach. Hours are Tuesday through Thursday, noon to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Admission is $3, students and seniors $2. (714) 374-1650.