The Search for a People's Art: Painting by the Numbers

By Meyer, E. Y.; Navasky, Victor S. et al. | The Nation, March 14, 1994 | Go to article overview

The Search for a People's Art: Painting by the Numbers


Meyer, E. Y., Navasky, Victor S., vanden Heuvel, Katrina, Wypijewski, JoAnn, The Nation


A few weeks ago Alexl Melamid stopped by our offices to talk about this first scientific nationwide poll of what Americans want in art. His partner, Vitaly Komar, was away in Germany at the time, one of several countries where the Russian emigre art team is making plans for more such polls. Representing The Nation and Nation Institute in the following conversation were Peter Meyer, Victor Navasky, Katrina vanden Heuvel and JoAnn Wypijewski.

N: How did the idea for this poll start?

AM: It was a continuation of our works for the last number of years, which was to get in touch with the people of the United States of America: somehow to penetrate their brains, to understand their wishes--to be a real part of this society, of which we're partially part, partially not. For a couple of years we were working in Bayonne, New Jersey, visiting Bayonne, New Jersey, homes and talking to the Bayonne, New Jersey, people. And I realized there that people really want art, but they don't have it because we, the elite artists, we don't serve them. You know, there was only one store in Bayonne where people could buy pictures. It was owned by Arabs and they sold these Korean landscapes--really inferior, terrible art. I've been to many stores like this--there are millions of them in New York but only one in Bayonne, unfortunately--and it's interesting that most of the stores that sell art for people are owned by foreigners. There must be something to that, which is why we're working as foreigners too.

And people buy these terrible pictures, but do they like them, or is it just all they have? Maybe if we ask them, they will give the answer. Because we worked in this studio in Bayonne which was adjacent to a carpet warehouse. And people coming in there--you know, truck drivers, delivery men, people buying rugs--could see us working. And they would say, Listen, we want to buy this. One guy--a young guy--said, "I will pay you $1,000 for this picture." One thousand dollars--that's a lot! And it was not a kitschy painting. It was a normal, elite painting. So there was a scent of something, but we couldn't grasp it. There were not enough people.

N: So yhou had this though that you needed science and scientific consumer research--

AM: I just was thinking about how this society works, and how the rulers in this society get in touch with the people, with real American people. How producers get in touch with consumers. In real life they take polls. Only recently I discovered that the President has his own pollsters, who work on polls every minute. It's a constant poll of the people. I understand the President very well, because he wants to know as much as me, I suppose, even more. But how to ask? Where are these people? It's a very clumsy tool, this poll, but there's no other tool.

N: But in political life the poll functions as a sort of escape from ever having to really understand what people want, what they think. You get their truncated opinion on things which then by virtue of Science is transformed into absolute opinion, and from there is exploited for whatever cynical purpose.

AM: Sure I undertand, but whether it's the President or the artist, there's a border between us and the people. There are some channels for communication between the classes but very few, because socially people are almost totally separate. The rulers base their opinion on statistics, and for the simple people there are society columns, Vanity Fair. In fact, even the lower classes get most of their information from statistics, so polls are maybe one of the only means of communication between the upper classes and the lower classes. And what the poll tells, supposedly, is majority opinion. It might be manipulated or there might be perversions, of course, but still this idea of what is majority opinion is very powerful. This populist idea it really important. And in art, we--my partner and I--were brought up with the idea that art belongs to the people, and believe me or not, I still believe in this. …

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