Thursday, April 17, 2008

Art by Poll

Via Andrew Sullivan (and from there Arts Journal) comes a series of links to a pair of quite fascinating projects: attempts (no relation) to make the most -- and least -- appealing of all possible art, based on polls of what people say they want.

These come in two varieties (that I've seen so far, anyway): music and art.

Dave Soldier's "The Most Unwanted Song" (mp3 link) is described as follows:
The most unwanted music is over 25 minutes long, veers wildly between loud and quiet sections, between fast and slow tempos, and features timbres of extremely high and low pitch, with each dichotomy presented in abrupt transition. The most unwanted orchestra was determined to be large, and features the accordion and bagpipe (which tie at 13% as the most unwanted instrument), banjo, flute, tuba, harp, organ, synthesizer (the only instrument that appears in both the most wanted and most unwanted ensembles). An operatic soprano raps and sings atonal music, advertising jingles, political slogans, and "elevator" music, and a children's choir sings jingles and holiday songs. The most unwanted subjects for lyrics are cowboys and holidays, and the most unwanted listening circumstances are involuntary exposure to commercials and elevator music. Therefore, it can be shown that if there is no covariance--someone who dislikes bagpipes is as likely to hate elevator music as someone who despises the organ, for example--fewer than 200 individuals of the world's total population would enjoy this piece.
-- But, of course (and this is one of the points, I presume) putting all these things together make not only a truly bizarre piece of music, but also change the nature of the undesired elements in lots of ways -- including removing the characteristics that make them undesirable. Holiday songs are one thing; snatches of chorus about labor day (that was the part that had me literally laughing outloud) and Halloween in an otherwise bizarre mix of strange styles of music are something else again.

I listened to the entire piece, straight through -- yes, all 25+ minutes of it -- and actually liked it quite a bit. Oh, it's not a song I'm going to play over and over; but it is definitely worth listening to. It's a mix of lots of different things -- a funny and strange musical collage. The listening experience it reminded me of most closely was the Beatles "Revolution 9", although this probably says more about my limited cultural horizons than anything. (Still, I suspect that that's the piece of collage music (which probably has some standard, official name I don't even know) which the largest number of people are familiar with, since it is, after all, by the Beatles.)

But again: the assemblage is not the sum of its separable parts. The fact that I liked it doesn't make me one of a select 200 world-wide; it (as, I presume, intended) makes the point that this music is, in fact, better than it polls.

On the other hand, I could barely get through Soldier's "The Most Wanted Song" (mp3 link); it was too irritating and insipid. Now that's crappy music. Even though it was far, far briefer than its supposedly undesirable cousin.

I recommend the Unwanted Song. Really.

Soldier's music seems to have been inspired by a visual arts project by the artistic team Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, who did a series of polls to determine the most wanted and least wanted elements in painting.

You can see all the various most wanted and least wanted paintings here; they did different ones for a whole series of countries, plus a pair for "the Web".

Here are the ones for the U.S. The U.S. painting, as this blog post summarizes, "has it all: an autumnal landscape with wild animals, a family enjoying the outdoors, the color blue, and George Washington."

The U.S.'s most wanted painting:

...and least wanted painting:

(I think the divergent sizes are part of the polling, incidentally).

Again, I prefer the least wanted -- although the most wanted painting isn't nearly as bad as the most wanted music, while the least-wanted panting isn't nearly as good as the least-wanted music; funny, that. Does this say something about the artists, or the mediums, or is it just a personal reaction on my part? I'm not sure.

But as before, smashing high-polling elements together robs them of what people like about them, but redeems poorly-polled elements through juxtaposition.

Now, who's going to do the narrative versions? Any takers?

...This, of course, has been a post about politics: the most wanted/least wanted experiment has been done far, far, far more often with politicians than with art or music; but with nearly identical results. A lesson for those who would heed it.

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