The painting is the work of two Russian émigré artists – Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. More precisely, the paint was applied by the two artists but the content of the painting was decided in a very interesting and controversial way.
Komar and Melamid commissioned a professional survey company to undertake a scientific nationwide inquiry into “what Americans want in art.” A thousand adult Americans representing both sexes and a variety of geographic, ethnic, and income groups were asked in a telephone survey about their preferences for colours, size, subject matter, and treatment used in paintings. The questions were wide-ranging and probed details, e.g.,
“If you had to name one colour as your favourite colour — the colour you would like to see stand out in a painting you would consider buying for your home, for example — which colour would it be?” On the whole, would you say that you prefer seeing paintings of wild animals, like lions, giraffes, or deer, or that you prefer paintings of domestic animals?”
When the results were in and the numbers crunched, Komar and Melamid found such strong agreement that it was possible to capture all of the most liked features in a single painting – the painting above, in fact, complete with the yawning hippopotamus (Can you spot it?).
Similar surveys carried out in nine other countries — Russia, Ukraine, France, Kenya, Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Turkey, and China — revealed surprisingly similar preferences. Komar and Melamid made paintings using the most wanted features, presenting them in an exhibition and eventually a book. The pictures differed only in small details (e.g., a large hippopotamus and Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya, a water buffalo and rice paddies in China, and groups of playing children in Turkey). Everywhere the preferred setting was an idealized blue landscape like the one illustrated.
Komar and Melamid’s attempt to describe what Americans (and people from other cultures) want in art received a mixed reception to say the least. Some commentators even thought that the two artists were “having a joke”.
Whether they were or not, there is something very intriguing about their paintings. The preferences they embody match very closely those that show up constantly in more conventional studies of people’s responses to natural scenery – preferences for naturalness, blueness, vegetation, water and so forth.
In fact, you could use “America’s most wanted painting” as a guide to choosing and understanding the kind of natural scenery that will almost certainly give you pleasure and other psychological benefits.
But for a more detailed guide, I suggest you use the following list of features. The list is based mainly on the extensive research work of Dr Andrew Lothian of Scenic Solutions, based in Adelaide.
Naturalness – having the appearance of unspoiled nature in
- naturally occurring landscapes, e.g., coasts, mountains, lakes, bushlands of native trees and vegetation
- created park like landscapes
- still, especially in expansive open forms, such as lakes, bays, lagoons, with long natural scenic edges and free of discolouration and pollution (Swamps and wetlands are unlikely to be as appealing)
- moving in the form of waterfalls, cascades and smaller (rather than immense and thundering) rapids
- with reflections
- steep and high mountains (apart perhaps from those associated with aridity and roughness)
- rolling and/or receding hills
- undeveloped coastal headlands, cliffs, beaches and bays
- lines of high cliffs
- substantial, tall, thick, healthy, aged, crooked trunks and growing naturally (not changed by pruning or cropping)
- broad canopy
- of moderate density with spaciousness of openings and plenty of visible groundcover
- with a mixture of species
- free of any signs of cutting, clearing, slashing and other evidence of economic management
- water forms
- vegetation (species, colours and textures)
- moving water
Wildlife – native especially
Mystery – the sense of there being interesting things to discover, induced by such things as
- a path or stream disappearing around a bend
- the suggestion of hidden spaces in a garden, among rocks, or in a copse of trees for example.
The sky under various conditions (its “blueness” in particular) and clouds could be added to the list but they seem to function as a backdrop to the landscape rather than being part of it.
Why not use the list to seek out natural and created scenic spots within visiting distance of your place? This is another practical and valuable connecting-with-nature strategy.