The Art Instinct

NOTE: This blog entry originally appeared in May of 2009. Denis Dutton died in 2010 of cancer at the age of 66.

America’s “Most Wanted Painting” = George Washington, a hippo and some water.


In 1993, a worldwide poll was conducted to determine the artistic preferences of people in different countries. Participants were asked all kinds of questions to figure out what they liked to see in a painting and what they didn’t. Turns out that Americans like landscapes, the color blue, historical figures, clean-cut children and water. The poll was created by two Russian artists living in the United States, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. The two extrapolated the data from their polls and then used it to create a series of paintings for every country in the study – the “most-wanted” and “least-wanted” paintings. What you see above is the America’s Most Wanted painting. Today’s guest, Denis Dutton, writes about the “Painting By Numbers” project in the first chapter of his book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution. Dutton notes: “To consider the survey seriously and then turn to Komar and Melamid’s painted results is to realize you’ve been conned. It is as though the Nation Institute had been persuaded by two clever chefs to commission an expensive poll to determine America’s most-wanted food. The chefs study the resulting statistical preferences — a highly varied list that is nevertheless topped by ice cream, pizza, hamburgers, and chocolate — and then come up with America’s most-wanted food: hamburger-flavored ice cream with chocolate-coated pizza nuggets. Just because people like George Washington, African game, and children in their pictures, it doesn’t follow that they want them all in the same one. It would be wrong, however, to write off the People’s Choice project as worthless, for it did reveal one stunning fact. People in very different cultures around the world gravitate toward the same general type of pictorial representation: a landscape with trees and open areas, water, human figures, and animals.” Dutton is a philosopher of art and his book debunks a century of art criticism and scholarship. He makes the argument that human tastes in the arts are not determined by local culture or social constructs but are instead inborn and universal. Dutton is also the co-founder of Arts & Letters Daily which is a great website that you should bookmark right now.

You can see more “most wanted” and “least wanted” paintings from Komar and Melamid’s study here.

For a sample video of Hong the elephant painting a self-portrait, click here.