Prankster Art

November 3, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
Two playful Russians challenge the art world. Paul Solman of WGBH-Boston reports.

PAUL SOLMAN: Crowds flock to museums as never before these days to experience high art with a capital “A”: Something that’s special, something that some get and the rest don’t, something that, however hard it is to define, must appeal to our higher human faculties.

Or must it? Not according to this Russian émigré painter, here speaking to a group of Columbia University art students. They say they believe in art as a way of life. His way of life is challenging the idea that there’s anything to believe in.

ALEX MELAMID: Is there any of you who don’t believe in God and who think that God doesn’t exist? Tell me.

PAUL SOLMAN: Alex Melamid’s ready for his punch line.

ALEX MELAMID: Even God fell, but art cannot fall.

PAUL SOLMAN: God fell; art cannot fall or fail. However he’s saying it, Melamid’s trying to shock his audience. Art isn’t worthy of worship, veneration or any special honor at all.

ALEX MELAMID: Of course, it’s nonsense, you know. Art is total nonsense.

PAUL SOLMAN: And just to drive everyone nuts, this well-known artist says he’s no artist at all.

ALEX MELAMID: I am not an artist. I just printed my business cards. I can give it to you. I’m an aertist.



PAUL SOLMAN: What is that?

ALEX MELAMID: That’s not clear yet.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, why a-e-r?

ALEX MELAMID: That’s not clear yet, but I’m not an artist.

PAUL SOLMAN: OK, aertist Alex Melamid is a wise guy provocateur from way back when. He’s been working with fellow aertist Vitaly Komar since they met in a Moscow morgue in the mid-1960s as part of an academic art anatomy class. By the early ’70s, they joined one of the key art traditions of the 20th century, conceptual art, that began with Marcel DuChamp’s “found art” experiments, like this bottle rack, which question the very definition of art.

ALEX MELAMID: We started what is called — later, we didn’t know the word — it’s conceptual art. We just were playing with ideas and using different mediums to make this idea real.

PAUL SOLMAN: So what was an early work like?

VITALY KOMAR: For example, we depict ourselves as Lenin and Stalin in the style of official art. It was a clash between very personal subjects, self-portrait and style, style of political posters which belong to masses.

PAUL SOLMAN: It also irritated people, yeah?

VITALY KOMAR: Yes, it irritated people, surely.

PAUL SOLMAN: Tongues firmly in cheeks, Komar and Melamid became master pranksters of Soviet realism, mocking every hero in sight. It earned them their exit from the Soviet Union in 1977 and a warm reception in New York’s burgeoning conceptual art world. By the late ’80s, they were still poking fun at almost everything in sight, and as usual, themselves.

ALEX MELAMID: We’re serious artists. We’re serious artists!

PAUL SOLMAN: But after a decade, the United States, too, had gotten under their skin, and American icons became objects of their disaffection.

ALEX MELAMID: We’re trying to bring our, as we said, our Russian experience to the American reality. And here we did this series of posters, and this one is “Onward to the Final Victory of Capitalism.” “Glory to the American Worker.” (Laughter.)

VITALY KOMAR: It was our idea to visualize this view of the new kind of dictator, because we grow up in a condition of dictatorship, Lenin, Stalin, et cetera. And when we came to United States, we recognized that another dictator here is the so-called majority.

ALEX MELAMID: Our project for the American flag.

VITALY KOMAR: “A Little More Stars for Everybody.”

PAUL SOLMAN: The tyranny of democracy. That concept pushed the pair a step further on the road to debunking art itself. Since the majority rules, why shouldn’t the majority decide what art actually is? So by the mid-’90s, the pair had turned to that great tool of modern-day politics, the focus group. Such as this one, which they held in a Ridgefield, Conn., church.

WOMAN: I would prefer to be shocked, shocked into such a way that it makes me think.

ALEX MELAMID: So you’re shocked once, then what? Then you have to be shocked again or one shock is enough?

PAUL SOLMAN: They were looking for instructions on how to create the perfect painting.

MAN: I would like a scratch-and-sniff landscape to remind me of the spring. (Laughter.)

WOMAN: It’s a church-oriented community.

WOMAN: Maybe a corgi would be lovely.

MAN: Got to have an oak tree.

PAUL SOLMAN: The citizens proposed; the pair painted Ridgefield, Connecticut’s most wanted picture. But why stop there? As Melamid explained to the art students at Columbia, the pair pulled another political trick out of their hats, commissioning a professional poll of 1,001 Americans.

ALEX MELAMID: One of the results we painted, it’s a huge painting actually, an acrylic, and it’s the all-American color wheel as the preference of colors here in the United States. You see the blue is by far the dominant, the most preferred color.

PAUL SOLMAN: Komar and Melamid also asked people about size, style, how abstract or realistic, about what elements to include. Data in hand, they went back to the drawling board and, voila, their attempt to render Americans’ most wanted painting: A predominantly blue landscape.

ALEX MELAMID: Wild animals, they prefer autumn, fully dressed people, George Washington, water and so on and so on. A lot of blue. (Laughter.)

PAUL SOLMAN: Of course, the actual imagery is the work of Komar and Melamid, as is their rendition of America’s least wanted painting.

ALEX MELAMID: People don’t like texture. They don’t like the pink, the orange, gold, and they don’t like sharp angles.

PAUL SOLMAN: OK, most Americans, in this sample, at any rate, seem to prefer hokey blue landscapes to abstract art. But believing in truly universal suffrage, Komar and Melamid commissioned the same poll all over the world.

ALEX MELAMID: This is the most favorite Russian painting, which people like fully dressed people at work, children working, as opposed to the American, which prefers families at leisure. So this is the least wanted Russian painting, which is the size of a refrigerator door. So here is the most-liked French painting. The little mouse people like children and women half dressed. (Laughter.)

PAUL SOLMAN: And so on all across the globe, from Turkey, where they love children fully dressed; to China, where national heroes are big; from Iceland to Kenya, blue landscapes everywhere you go. Now, really, this should come as no surprise, says habitat researcher Judith Heerwagen. Plumb people’s most basic aesthetic preferences and you’re just tapping into deep human instincts born of evolution.

JUDITH HEERWAGEN, Habitat Psychologist: If you look at the kinds of landscapes we like, they generally have safety features in them, whether they’re trees or some place where we can get to relatively quickly and be safe. Animals are another thing, particular kinds of animals, we found, are very positive. We respond positively to these. These tend to be large grazing mammals versus — and some animals we respond very negatively to, like snakes and spiders, things that have been dangerous in the past.

PAUL SOLMAN: By this reasoning, our most primitive ancestors would have been those with a genetic preference for steaks over snakes, say; for blue landscapes over brown ones. After all, says Heerwagen, human beings evolved on the African savannah, big sky country, very blue.

JUDITH HEERWAGEN: And then if you look at sort of why blue in terms of water, water is frequently blue, at least preferred water is often blue because it reflects the sky and the water is purer. So a blue landscape has lots of blue sky and blue water.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, to some scientists, this is pop biology at best, but, say Komar and Melamid, it makes at least as much sense as those highfalutin higher human faculties that some think art is all about. And as if to literally test the Savannah hypothesis, they now have a new collaborator, straight from the Savannah itself.

ALEX MELAMID: Here is one of our paintings which we did together. This is another one. Quite astonishing, isn’t it? Another one — this is a huge painting, really big. This is her footprint.

PAUL SOLMAN: The dynamic duo’s latest project, you see, is painting with a pachyderm.

ALEX MELAMID: It’s at least 30 elephants in North America who paint in the zoos around the country. And we met one absolutely astonishing African American elephant in the Toledo Zoo who is absolutely marvelous painter.

PAUL SOLMAN: Komar and Melamid’s collaboration with Renee was chronicled on the CBS program “Sunday Morning.”

ALEX MELAMID: Take the brush. Take it. Take it.

VITALY KOMAR: Paint it, paint it! Very good, very good.

ALEX MELAMID: Paint it, paint it, very good.

VITALY KOMAR: Good, good.

PAUL SOLMAN: Alex Melamid has begun to trumpet Renee’s genius.

ALEX MELAMID: She was better than us and she felt it.

PAUL SOLMAN: But by now, some Columbia students had had enough.

STUDENT: I mean, please.

STUDENT: And also it’s amazing, because, you know, the television is here and sort of sitting here having this fantasy projection about like what this piece is going to be like, seeing this piece about elephants could paint as good as human beings and art is not like a thought-out process, it’s something that’s totally a joke.

PAUL SOLMAN: But Alex Melamid claims art is a joke, and that much of the fuss people make about art is just silly self-importance.

ALEX MELAMID: Let’s take all this nonsense about art. Come on, guys. They can say terrible things about God, but they cannot say anything about art. It’s like the holiest of the holies. And believe me, I’m an atheist in both ways. Art is nonsense.

PAUL SOLMAN: Is there anybody here who buys the notion that art is essentially nonsense, that it’s not a higher calling?

STUDENT: We wouldn’t be spending $50,000 to be here if we thought it was bull (bleep).

STUDENT: He wouldn’t call himself an artist if he thought it was all bull (bleep).

PAUL SOLMAN: But of course Alex Melamid calls himself something different, an aertist, not an artist. The masterpieces most of us think of when most of us think of art, Michelangelos or Matisses, Rembrandts or Roscoes, Vermeers or Van Goghs, according to Komar and Melamid, so many false idols, no more worthy of esteem than say the latest elephant abstraction or a blue pastoral from Portugal. So are they usefully pricking our pretensions? Well, Aertist Alex Melamid wouldn’t be a bad guy to let out some of the air. Then again, he could be just the latest smart aleck who is full of hot “aert” himself.