What is art, and who defines it? "The People's Choice," a project by Russian-born American artists Komar & Melamid, addresses these two controversy-packed questions in a perversely literal yet profoundly revealing analysis.

          As immigrants to this country, Vitaly Komar (b. 1943) and Alexander Melamid (b. 1945) were intrigued by the idea of the consumer poll as an outgrowth of American democracy. In 1994, they commissioned a consumer market-research firm to conduct "People's Choice," the first poll on artistic taste in the United States. Through the polls, the artists wanted to "initiate a conversation with the American people [ . . . ] like the President of the United States." Using the data collected in the survey, they painted a pair of canvases of classic proportions ("the size of a dishwasher," which was the preferred choice according to the poll) and called them America's Most Wanted and America's Most Unwanted, including in each painting what the respondents said they wanted or did not want in a painting.

        Over the past four years, Komar & Melamid have extended the polls to the World Wide Web and to thirteen other countries: China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Kenya, Holland, Portugal, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine. Based on the results, the artists created a Most Wanted and a Most Unwanted painting for each country and the Web. The exhibition here presents the entire "People's Choice" project. Komar & Melamid began their careers by twisting conventional ideas and mocking the authorities in their native Russia during the early 1970s, initially taking on state-approved Socialist Realism as a target and establishing themselves as prominent artist-dissidents in the process. They later immigrated to Israel and, in 1978, moved to the United States and are now U.S. citizens. With their series of Most Wanted paintings, they have now appointed themselves the instruments of the establishment, taking as their patron not a monarch, a church leader, or a wealthy merchant, as most artists used to do (and some still do), but the people of an entire country. However, like a court jester slyly poking fun at his master, they present us with an image of ourselves that may not necessarily please us.

       All the paintings consist of elements that received the highest percentage of votes, with the size of each element (and the colors used) in proportion to that percentage. Thus, America's Most Wanted features a small historical figure (6 percent of the composition), a wild animal in the near distance (3 percent), a significant amount of green forest and other trees (34 percent), and, over 40 percent of its surface, blue water and sky. While undoubtedly many people like images of historical figures and equally many like those of wild animals, few would want a picture that shows George Washington in the company of a hippopotamus. By loading a single canvas with a literal interpretation of unrelated "most wanted" items, the artists have produced an obviously absurd work of art.

       "The People's Choice" has thus become a critical commentary on the notion that art should be judged democratically. By applying democratic standards to the choices involved in making these paintings-which resulted in each individual painting failing to deliver the kind of satisfaction and stimulation sought in art-Komar & Melamid have clearly demonstrated why art cannot be produced or evaluated according to such standards. This failure also serves as a reminder that "The People's Choice" is a comprehensive project of social and conceptual nature that far exceeds the narrow parameters of the polls as well as the narrow frames of the canvases. In all their works, Komar & Melamid have never considered art as an isolated phenomenon but as the product of its cultural and material context.

        "The People's Choice" has been organized and circulated by Independent Curators International, New York (ICI), and produced in cooperation with the Komar & Melamid studio. ICI is a non-profit traveling exhibition service that specializes in innovative exhibitions of contemporary art. The exhibition, tour, and accompanying free brochure have been made possible, in part, by a grant from the Foundation-To-Life, Inc. and ICI's International Associates.