“Taste” in Art (jane dávila)

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) has studied taste in relation to socio-economic class and education. His aim was to give “a scientific answer to the old quesions of Kant’s critique of judgement, by seeking in the structure of the social classes the basis of the systems of classification which designate the objects of aesthetic enjoyment.” One of his books, Distinction: A Cultural Critique of the Judgement of Taste, uncovers clear links between class and preferences in art, music, film and theater. His empirical results “show that despite the apparent freedom of choice in the arts, people’s artistic preferences (e.g. classical music, rock, traditional music) strongly correlate with their social position.” (wikipedia) Many artists have successfully marketed to what Bourdieu calls “low taste” and Clement Greenberg called “kitsch”, artists like Norman Rockwell and Thomas Kinkade.

Artistic taste has also been studied by artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. They surveyed thousands of people from all over the world and, with great irony, created a collection of the Most Wanted Paintings and Least Wanted Paintings by country. Komar and Melamid ask “What would art look like if it were to please the greatest number of people?” Their research shows surprising global similarities, a dislike for the color chartreuse and abstract art, and a strong preference for the color blue and representational landscapes. The survey results were used to create paintings to represent the likes and dislikes of the majority of respondents. For example, what most Americans want in a painting is a landscape with water and mountains, predominantly blue, with a wild animal and a historical subject. The result is a peaceful landscape with George Washington near a river with deer wandering by.

United States Most Wanted
America’s Most Wanted Painting

From the survey notes of Americans:

Americans who take a more active interest in the visual arts tend to be less definitive in matters of taste, and to welcome a greater diversity of artistic styles. As a general rule, Americans who might be expected to have a more detailed knowledge of art – those who visit an art museum with some regularity, as well as those with a higher level of academic attainment and those who are more affluent – appear to be less set in their views about what consitutes “good art.” These Americans are, for instance, noticeably less likely to express a firm preference for a particular type of painting or school of art, and more likely to say that their opinion of a given artwork depends on more than one given factor.

China’s Most Wanted Painting

Survey highlights from China:

Art plays a very important role in the lives of the Chinese people. Six in ten respondents say that they are frequently willing to spend a little more money for an item of their preferred designs than an equally functional counterpart. An overwhelming majority of the Chinese people give serious thought to color and style when purchasing a commodity. Most of those interviewed think that the way they dress and decorate their homes are important to them. And nearly seven in ten Chinese households (67%) have works of art displayed.

From further interviewing the 67% of the respondents, two important characteristics of the public’s general art preferences surfaced: 1. Chinese people give much more weight to the harmony of artworks displayed in their homes than their personal preferences when selecting artworks, and 2. Most Chinese prefer newer objects as collectibles, and like arts of modern styles better than those of traditional styles.

Though art plays an important part in the lives of the Chinese people, their actual participation in making art in its conventional sense remains very low. Only 2% of the total respondents say that they frequently spend their leisure time in painting, drawing, or doing graphic arts.

Oddly, Italy’s least wanted painting includes the face of Elvis. Or maybe not oddly…

Holland has the distinction of having an abstract painting be its composite preference.

Holland’s Most Wanted Painting

A link to the gallery of Most and Least Wanted Paintings:

What a fascinating project this is, not that any of this would cause any of us to create art specifically to appeal to the masses. I wonder what would happen if they broke the surveys down by educational, professional or economic status and painted the results.

17 Responses to ““Taste” in Art (jane dávila)”

  1. 1 eileen doughty July 14, 2007 at 10:33 am

    This survey and the responses just makes my head spin in many little circles and I hardly know where to start. It seems to me to open up sociological questions rather than artistic ones; did the Chinese responses come from their new economic status and loosening of the Communist strictures, rather than their long cultural traditions of art?

    I sense a bias among many artists, and in the responses posted to this survey, against landscape in favor of abstract being automatically “better” and “more educated”; that landscape is kitsch. However, abstract only came along in the last 100 years or so. We can’t ignore the art of the millennia before that. Landscapes/pictorial art can and have been very symbolic, and most people today have lost the ability to “read” them. (Reference Jan van Eyck’s “Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride”, 1434, for a whole raft of symbolism.) Don’t generalize landscapes any more than you would generalize all abstract painters. Perhaps that is what bugs me most about the survey, of course it has to be all generalized questions and generalized responses. (truth in advertising: i primarily make landscape and pictorial quilts and no doubt this sensitizes me.)

    Numbers may not lie, but statistics can be interpreted in many ways. I disdain the polls voting for “woman of the year” sort of thing; of course it is just name recognition. If 10 million people vote for their own mother and just 100 people vote for the First Lady, the First Lady would therefore receive the most votes.

    What does a question like “Prefer more serious or more festive?” mean to different cultures? A Day of the Dead painting may be quite festive in some cultures and abhorrent in another. And looking at some of the statistics, in some countries a significant number of people responded “it depends”. Did that skew the results?

    Comparing the age groups of the responses to the education level, it became even more meaningless, not being able to draw direct connections between the two. Someone “under 25” with a grade school education is much different than someone “60 to 64”.

    It all falls apart as a scientific study, but it is amusing if not taken too seriously.

    I was amused by the Italians’ least preferred painting. I understand it to mean they are tired of old paintings of martyrs that must be scattered through museums and churches all over their country; they have to leave them there for the tourists, especially those Elvis fans.

  2. 2 terry grant July 13, 2007 at 10:33 pm

    Woo woo! Jane, you have pushed buttons I see.

    I have to say, that even if this study was not meant to be funny, it does make me smile. Mostly because of the cliche of the whole thing. The results do not surprise me in the least. The preferred art is what I think of as “background art”–art for Dr.’s offices and hallways and furniture store displays. It is the art most people have the most experience with and is the least threatening. It is comparable in my mind to elevator music. For most it exists as a pleasant alternative to a blank wall (or to silence in the case of elavator music) requiring no thought or judgement.

    I’m not even sure that education is a requirement for “taste”–that is, a preference for art that is more meaningful. I know plenty of highly educated people (OK, engineers and computer geeks) who will take the bland art over something with some guts any day. I believe it is a matter of having your consciousness raised. (Which, I suppose qualifies as a kind of education) I may have enjoyed Enya (who seems to enjoy a large elevator following) had I not married a musician who is passionate about jazz. He might have thought the big photo of the Tetons on his parent’s living room wall was fine art had I not dragged him through the Louvre and the Prado and the other great museums when he was still impressionable (snort).

    And June, while I cannot abide background music or background art, I am quite accepting of background grocery bags. I suppose there is potential there for having my grocery bag consiousness raised!

  3. 3 Sandy July 13, 2007 at 6:20 pm

    In reading the post and checking out the website – I like the least wanted art except for 3 of them. I prefer the abstract to many of the landscapes.

    I did not come from a art family(except my dad could draw) no art in the house, nor grandparents. I don’t know where I get the drive for fabric or art but I do know what I like and don’t. My husband and I did a lot of the galleries, theater and art films in Southern CA but when we moved (1969)to a small county in Northern CA up in the mountains the big thing is how many fishing poles and rifles can you get on the gunrack in the pick up. How far is the spit can and country rock music (not that counrty rock is bad). My kids had a shock from what they were used to.

    We now have a thriving art community – many galleries – in looking at the art work by the local artists they seem to paint mostly landscapes of the area that we live in – have no idea if they sell or not – we have become a tourist area. Our arts council does a yearly art camp for a 2 session camp in the summer to introduce art into the kids lives.

    Unfortunely we have had in the past a large class and education void – then from the rednecks and now to the seniors who vote not to fund.

    Don’t know if all this rambling makes any sense or not but I do believe after moving up north that lack of education (as June said not necessarily formal education) does make a different class of people.

  4. 4 June July 12, 2007 at 5:59 pm


    I think it’s important to distinguish between “taste” and “class.” My taste in cars is pathetic — I just want whatever gets me here and there reasonably. And my taste in baseball isn’t much better, although I do like Ichiro. So it’s _what_ you are educated in that gives you the broadest vision, not what money you have. Some of the most sophisticated people I know, who have the greatest appreciation for subtleties and workmanship in certain areas, are of the lower economic class.

    Now it’s true that certain endeavors might gain higher status among the economic elite, perhaps because they can only be vocations if you have a certain amount of money (or extreme youth). But “taste” is allied more fully with understanding (which comes from education and experience and culture) than with money itself.

    Or so I am claiming this evening. But I could be wrong. It is unmercifully hot here and my brain may only be functioning on low to medium efficiency.

    I think that “class” is an economic indicator. Other things get casually associated with it, but not basically associated as in breadth or diversity etc. Think of the Victorian “taste” in furniture or theater — definitely bad, and definitely associated with a certain class. It’s true that generally speaking with more money you might have more leisure to expand your understanding of rap music or Mozart for that matter. Or you might hire someone to buy you “taste.” But for a breadth of appreciation of the landscape of my home town, I’m mostly in debt to one of the town drunkards, taken care of by his factory worker wife…… Or so one tale goes.

  5. 5 Jane Davila July 12, 2007 at 5:16 pm

    More about Bourdieu’s research, he uncovered clear links between class and preferences in art, music, film and theater. “For instance, people from a lower class background preferred fewer classical composers than people in the higher economic, professional and educational brackets. These same patterns are repeated in studies about people’s preferences for avant-garde theater or independent art films. Bourdieu sums up: ‘Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier’.”

    I think class background in this case can absolutely equate with education in a genre. Awareness and knowledge allows a broader appreciation for diverse expressions within a medium. This holds true with all of the arts – literature, music, theater, dance, fine art. It would also hold true for whatever it is you choose to educate yourself about – engines if you must.

  6. 6 June July 12, 2007 at 4:45 pm

    One of the questions that I had to look at was what was the most money you would spend on art you really liked.

    In the US, 75% of the respondents said $500 or less. In fact, 20% wouldn’t spend over $50. Oh dear.

    This is why textile postcards are so popular!

  7. 7 Kathy N July 12, 2007 at 4:32 pm

    One comment the surveyers/artists made about the US is that the more involved an American was in the visual arts, the more diverse their answers were. I didn’t go into any of the other country surveys to check that, but it makes sense that the more educated someone is about something, the more variety they might enjoy of that something. Hence, the mechanic (very educated about engines) has a wider range of enjoyment from engines, whereas I might just think they all looked dirty and smelly and expensive :-).

    So the solution is to educate…then the norms will enlarge, broaden, diversify. Of course, this is said at a time when art classes are the first to be pulled from public schools when there are money or academic issues (NCLB). If a parent doesn’t provide access to art education some other way, then this generation (and the few before it) is growing up art ignorant and much more likely to go for a blue landscape with a deer standing in it. What was up with the ballerinas in the…was it the Danish landscape? Ballerinas wandering through the wilderness…now there is an image I can work with.

  8. 8 June July 12, 2007 at 3:41 pm

    Kristin and all,

    Kristin, unless you want us to remove your comments, I prefer that they stand. One of the joys of Ragged Cloth is that we are allowed to say things that others might disagree with and that that disagreement could make us all wiser. So unless you feel you want your comments removed, I want them to stay.

    No one has said anything out of line here, although as we who have been around Petra know, she is not one to hide her opinions. I suspect that Kristim might be one of the same sort. As I am. So let’s continue the discussion, keeping it civil. It is, after all, very hot here on the northern hemisphere. More heat is definitely not called for.

    There’s plenty of material to chew on from all sides. I think that the complaints we hear from fellow textile artists about how their work is considered by family, guests, would-be customers, etc., is probably some, albeit uncounted, evidence that there are norms that exist and it’s interesting to see something of what they are. And why they are. The latter is more interesting to me, because I would like to broaden appreciation, to make the norms more diverse and interesting.

  9. 9 Kristin July 12, 2007 at 11:35 am

    I apologize for being insensitive and ignorant. It is true that I have never lived in Turkey; I have only vacationed there and have friends and aquaintences who are of Turkish descent currently living in Germany. And no, I have no published studies, polls or other facts to state the exact nature of specific conflicts between various ethnic groups in Germany. I tried to be careful and write “PERCEIVED intolerance” as it was merely my intention to point out how the paintings, in my own opinion, reflected one of the prejudices (there APPEAR to be many on both sides) that I have observed in the 11 years I have been living in Germany. I failed in communicating and therefore failed the readers of this blog. Jane, perhaps you would like to remove my shallow “contributions.” I defer to your greater wisdom. I apologize for my American arrogance in thinking that a decade of living in a country is justification for commenting about my observations of it.

  10. 10 June July 12, 2007 at 8:52 am

    I think a more interesting set of questions really revolves around visual experience and education.

    What strikes one culture or sub-culture (culture having everything to do with education and experience) as ordinary, even banal, will strike another as exotic, wonderful, thrilling, new. This was true of the Europeans who “discovered” African art which seemed to them to be totally new and unheard of. And we all know of teachers who have seen it all and who yawn their way through critiques. When we first saw watercolor quilts we thought they were wonderful. Now, we yawn a bit. But for those outside the rarified world of quilting, watercolor quilts can still make them exclaim with glee.

    The “glee” comes from various sources — most Americans respond to quilts, as we know, and most American admire the impressionists. The integrating of the two, for those who are visually and quilterly undereducated, is exciting.

    When I speak of education, I don’t so much mean high school, college, etc.; I am really referring to what we know about what we see. When a mechanic calls an engine “beautiful” or “elegant” I haven’t the slightest notion of what she is seeing to make such a judgment; I am mechanically undereducated. Probably the reason that many people prefer representational paintings is that there they “know” what they are seeing — the proportions seem right, the perspective clear, and so they feel they can make a judgment. It’s harder to understand abstract expressionism on the basis of what we know culturally, although it’s become more a part of our lives, probably because of advertising.

  11. 11 vyala July 12, 2007 at 5:37 am

    “What would art look like if it were to please the greatest number of people?” I don’t see how this would be prejudiced. ”

    1. Numbers are numbers and have nothing to do with the truth
    2. The prejudice already lies in the questioner who asks the people.

    Each statistic can be manipulated in that way that it exactly shows what you were expecting. I don’t believe in the “truth” of statistics.

  12. 12 Jane Davila July 12, 2007 at 3:14 am

    I don’t think the survey or the results are meant to be funny. It has shown itself to be fraught with irony (one definition of which is: “an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected”) since it may have been unexpected to find that there are quite a few “global” preferences in what “the people” like to see in art, crossing very varied cultures and histories.

    The truth is they did have a fairly large segment (enough to get a reasonable sampling) of a given population surveyed with the goal of “What would art look like if it were to please the greatest number of people?” I don’t see how this would be prejudiced. And it is ironic that the artists themselves took on this project are former members of the Soviet Union, a country designed “in the people’s interest”.

    Alex Melamid says of the project: “In a way it was a traditional idea, because a faith in numbers is fundamental to people, starting with Plato’s idea of a world which is based on numbers. In ancient Greece, when sculptors wanted to create an ideal human body they measured the most beautiful men and women and then made an average measurement, and that’s how they described the ideal of beauty and how the most beautiful sculpture was created. In a way, this is the same thing; in principle, it’s nothing new. It’s interesting: we believe in numbers, and numbers never lie. Numbers are innocent. It’s absolutely true data. It doesn’t say anything about personalities, but it says something more about ideals, and about how this world functions. That’s really the truth, as much as we can get to the truth. Truth is a number.”

    It might be helpful to know what percentage of a population is educated to know whether the surveys accurately reflect this percentage in the respondents. If the numbers are an inaccurate reflection of the societal percentage, it may just show that educated people are less likely to respond to surveys.

    I found it interesting (ironic) also that many of the “least wanted” abstract examples bear a resemblance to contemporary patchwork.

  13. 13 vyala July 12, 2007 at 12:12 am

    This “survey” is truely a joke and confirms all generalized prejudices. It is totally biased and not even funny and it adds to deepen the prejudices instead of showing the irony about them.
    When you look at the education level numbers and their percentage you will understand what I mean.
    And the comments that one of the “sticking points” between Turkish and German culture is the German intolerance towards children is making me sad. What can people really KNOW when they do not live in the country they are talking about? We all know how the news are biased, showing only one side and often proven to be wrong. This shows again how easily people make statements that are based on ignorance not on facts.

  14. 14 Kristin July 11, 2007 at 10:36 pm

    Thanks for the interesting look (tongue in cheek as it may be) at art for the masses. As an American living in Europe, I have to laugh at the similarities between the Most Wanteds, especially the American and French ones. It’s along the same lines as eating “Freedom Fries” and yet wanting a French Country style kitchen. Two other things struck me as well. First, the contrast between Turkey’s Most Wanted (populated with lots of children and families) and Germany’s (devoid of families). Germany’s percieved intollerance of children is one of the many sticking points between these two cultures which interact so closely due to Turkish “guest workers” in Germany and their descendents. I also got a kick out of Germany’s Least Wanted because it looks a lot like the work of Inge Hueber (http://www.ingehueber.de), a celebrated German quilt artist!

  15. 15 Jane Davila July 11, 2007 at 6:24 pm

    I grew up in a household with taste aesthetics very different from my friends’. I didn’t fully appreciate it until I was grown, but looking back my parents had phenomenal taste in furniture (modern classic – Eames, Noguchi, Miller), architecture (contemporary) and some but not much original art around – and they had books, 1000s of them! My friends’ homes had ruffly country furniture, were raised ranches and had P Buckley Moss-type “prints” on the walls. Or heavy plastic-covered Italianate furniture and thick gold-framed madonnas.

    Then I married into a family of artists. An extremely (for the most part) intellectual, high-brow, messy, Art with a capital A family. It raised my consciousness. I’d like to think that both influences helped develop my sense of taste. Money doesn’t buy taste but you’re right, education will (or can).

  16. 16 June July 11, 2007 at 5:51 pm

    And a PS — I think education finally substituted for my lack of taste. Back then, money wouldn’t do it.

  17. 17 June July 11, 2007 at 5:49 pm

    HA! Jane, I just chided Terry Grant http://www.andsewitgoes.blogspot.com/
    on her blog for having sewn up such “tasteful” grocery bags. her concept is great, but oh my dear, the bags are so understated. (It’s very unlike her, I must say (Insert snort))

    Having had a childhood in the fifties, the connection between class and taste is absolutely clear to me. I came from a family with no taste (and not much class, truth to say) and married into one in which class and tastefulness was paramount, if a continual struggle. My mother-in-law had the most subdued tasteful living room, with the most subdued tasteful window treatments, and the cleanest beige carpet I’d ever encountered. I just recently found the courage to have the tasteful, single string of pearls that she willed to me revamped as a hippie outrage.

    Alas, as she would have reluctantly admitted, I never really got it. I did books instead. Which the in-laws thought were something of a waste of money, since you could always go to the library.

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