Landing : Athabascau University

Komar and Melamid: Most Wanted and Least Wanted Paintings

I don't know why it took me so long to find this, but I'm very glad I did. This is a wonderful art project dating back to the mid 90s in which Vitaly Komar and alex Melamid asked people about their aesthetic preferences and taste in painting in order to discover what 'people's art' would look like, and then they painted it. They did this for several populations around the world. The paintings, at, are remarkable and fascinating, but they are not the art work here. The project challenges analytic approaches to design at a fundamental and quite unsettling level.

The lessons are important to any creative endeavour, including to big ones that matter to me personally and professionally like teaching and education, and computer system and interaction design. They matter every time we base our designs and creative activities on feedback, opinion polls, course evaluations, learning styles, analytics information and similar quantification or classification techniques. The problem is not in finding out such things - that is always interesting. The problem is interpreting and using them to drive design and method, without reflection or critique, especially when we lie to ourselves that our interpretation is therefore in some way objective. But the paintings articulate this and the complex loops of meaning that emerge far more clearly than words ever could. The words are good though, and are as much a part of the artwork as the paintings themselves. As Melamid puts it, provocatively:

"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."


  • Mary Pringle August 29, 2014 - 2:06pm

    I've been listening to Malcolm Gladwell read The Tipping Point—what I'm getting from it is that apparently trivial design changes can make a huge difference with respect to audience reception—it's not really predictable although we can make educated guesses. Important that we get better at interpreting and responding to learner feedback in our courses; keep tweaking until the response is as good as we want it to be, or better.

  • Jon Dron August 29, 2014 - 4:08pm

    I had a formative moment early in my teaching career when I was running a masters class with about 40 students that was going wrong - the dynamics were shaky, and quite a few students were confused, frustrated and felt they were not learning enough. They made this known. And so, as a snap decision on my part, we spent a lesson talking about it, discussing ways to make it better. It was one of the best things I have ever done in my teaching career, though it was a bit traumatic for me at the time. Some students let rip with criticism that cut to the bone though, interestingly, at least as many others, who were actually very pleased with how things were going, kept quiet then but came to talk with me afterwards about how and why they disagreed with them. Good or bad, the most important thing was that we talked about it. By the end of the course, it was almost universally agreed that it was one of the best courses they had ever taken - I was pleased and so were they.

    The interesting part is that the changes that occurred as a result were extremely small from a process point of view -  almost nothing in process terms altered apart from a little bit of summary at the end of each lesson and a small advanced organizer at the start. But it wasn't process that mattered here. I am almost certain that the success of the course was far more to do with that critical moment of discussion than with the deliberate actions taken afterwards, and about the ways our relationships changed as a result. In the first place, the students felt greater ownership and control, and so felt more motivated. More subtly, we all changed a little in the ways that we related to one another in ways that would have been hard to pin down and record but that made all the difference. We became closer, part of a shared team doing things together just a little differently than before, in attitude more than action. My teaching subtly altered, but not in any ways that could have been pinned down to a category on a form. Finally, in exposing myself to the class I had also revealed quite a bit about what I was doing and why - the metacognitive stuff that came out no doubt helped too, letting students see the bigger picture. It was a two-way thing.

    After that I nearly always made space for a time on any course where we could deliberately do that. At first it would just be a single session half-way through where we would do a bit of mind mapping and use that as a centrepiece for conversation and reflection. Nowadays, I normally try to embed it throughout as a natural part of the process because this kind of reflection and discussion matters all the time, not just occasionally. But the principle is the same - talking makes all the difference, not analyzing numbers or dissecting feedback. Design of something that is essentially performance-oriented (and that is true even when we make static learning objects) is not made better by feedback - it's made better by conversation.