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Seek Beauty

​In 1994, Soviet-born artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Malamid began an audacious project. They partnered with marketing firms to conduct a scientifically valid poll to study the artistic preferences of people living in 10 countries: China, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Kenya, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United States. The polls, along with town hall meetings and in-person focus groups, were designed to determine what the world’s people find aesthetically pleasing about art.

The artists then created the paintings that people in each country found most and least pleasing. The artists hoped that the research would expose a modern concept of art that would reflect each country’s evolving vision of what is beautiful. What they uncovered was something else entirely. 

Fascinating commonalities emerged. Diverse people from locales as different as Kenya and Iceland preferred a remarkably similar portrait: a green and lush landscape that includes some trees, a little open space, water, people, and animals. (The entire gallery of the paintings​ can be found via the online version of this article.)

Some argued that the study meant nothing at all, that it merely reflected a preconceived notion of art. The survey indicated not what images people prefer but what images they think indicate great art. 

Other experts contended that the study had uncovered something profound. Denis Dutton, professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, wrote in his 2010 book, The Art Instinct, that the survey was just the latest study indicating that our view of art is not learned or cultivated, but instead quite primal. 

The ideal visual image for most people includes the presence of water or the evidence of water nearby, an unimpeded view to the horizon, grasses and trees in thickets with open spaces between, evidence of animal life, and a diversity of flowering plants. “These preferences turn out to be more than just vague, general attractions toward generic scenes: they are notably specific,” Dutton told an interviewer. “African savannas are not only the probable scene of a significant portion of human evolution, they are to an extent the habitat meat-eating hominids evolved for.”

Further research indicates that the most attractive vistas are viewed from a slight incline, affording viewers “a prospect from which they can survey a landscape, and at the same time enjoy a sense of refuge.”

Security professionals won’t be surprised to learn that at the core of most human endeavors, including art, there is a yearning for safety. We are happiest and most comfortable when we feel secure.

Art preferences reflect the desire to be safe, and this month’s cover story explores the efforts required to keep the art itself safe. Assistant Editor Megan Gates discusses the program at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Security managers there understand the profound importance of protecting both the art and the patrons who enjoy it.