BBC Favourite Painting Poll

Alison Kidd, The Prospectory, 2005

In August 2005, the BBC Radio 4 Today programme ran a poll to discover ‘Britain’s Favourite Painting’.

The Prospectory took the 1600 nominations generated by the initial BBC poll and analysed the paintings nominated and the reasons people gave. We employed linguistic techniques to categorise patterns in the language people used to explain their choices including simple word counts.

The analysis suggests that the majority interpreted the BBC poll as being for the nation’s favourite painting rather than the nation’s greatest painting so nominated their personal favourite. From my point of view as a consumer psychologist, this made the data a lot more interesting!

2     Results of analysis

The public taste is actually remarkably varied

Based on the BBC’s shortlist, newspapers commented on the ‘narrowness’ and ‘dull predictability’ of the public’s taste in art. This is certainly not the case. 82% of the public didn’t nominate any of the 10 short listed paintings!

Between them, 1600 of the public actually nominated 479 different paintings and 2/3rd of these only got 1 vote! The list of 479 was enormously varied including 266 different artists: Rothko, Stubbs, Klein, Uccello, Lichtenstein, Velasquez, Joseph Wright, Vettriano and Warhol, to name a few.  In fact, 36% of the 266 artists were from the 20th century.

These days you can buy almost any art print you wish on the web, and low price stores such as Costco in the U.S. are selling Picasso originals alongside unknown artists for $39,999.99.  This shows that the public are feeling freer to express their own choice of ‘great art’ without worrying about what the establishment tells them is great. We see this in the Vettriano phenomenon or in Ikea where consumers happily pick up a blue Rothko to match their sofa – and why shouldn’t they? – how do we know that the rich reds and greens in The Arnolfini Portrait weren’t carefully requested to match the patron’s décor?!

In categorising the language people used to explain their nominations, we found that 3 things stood out:-

People love paintings which have immediate sensory impact

(Dicksee, LaBelle Dame sans Merci) “The colour, the luminosity of the paint, hit me with a force that few pictures have ever done since. Its freshness, simply, filled the room. I felt transported. Even now I can see it; it is seared on my memory. I love the play of dark and light, the way spots of colour radiate against that gorgeous dark sea.”

(Klein, IKB79) “This painting hooked me from two or three galleries away. It sat in the distance whispering ‘I am blue’. Standing in the same room, that had become a roar of ‘I AM BLUE!!!’. Luckily, I like blue.

(Caravaggio, Entrance to the Cannaregio) “When I see it, it takes my breath away and I feel I’m standing there looking out onto the whole of Venice, hearing the water and the sounds of Venice, smelling the water and the people of Venice. It carries me to another world and leaves me feeling dizzy with excitement.

People love paintings which immediately grab their emotions in a moment of human drama.

(Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne) “Fab story brought spectacularly to life (who would not want to be turned into a star or two by the god of wine after being abandoned by a sex driven bloke who reckons he is the son of a god, is this the Bridget Jones of the 16th century?)

(Wright, Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump) “It’s big. It’s brutal. It grabs your attention across the room with the bright candle in the darkened space. I love the variety of reactions to the bird’s death from the assembled cast but best of all is the look from the scientist bringing the viewer into the assembled group.

(Dali, Christ of St John of the Cross) “Then unexpectedly the painting that bowled me over was Salvador Dali’s “Christ of St John of the Cross”: intensely moving, beautifully executed and clearly showing a great artist’s heartfelt horror at Hiroshima

But, people want paintings which elude immediate explanation or interpretation

(Manet, The Bar at the Folies Bergere) “I never get to the end of this painting. There is the enigmatic look on the girl’s face; the multiplicity of,flowers, fruit,marble,metal,hair, skin,material; the reflections in the mirror.

(Yeames, And when did you last see your Father?) “A moment captured in the civil war, with all the emotion of a country in turmoil, and a question unanswered; leaving the viewer to decide on the outcome

(Sinnott, Running away with the Hairdresser) “The obvious question “who is the hairdresser?” raised by this intimate snapshot of life in the Welsh valleys encapsulates the wonderful ambiguity of the previously fixed stereotypes of the mid 20th century. The painting is challenging, generous and absorbing“.

And they prefer enigma to symbolism

What people seem to love is when a painting leaves unanswered questions – meaning, stories, endings, relationships which they can guess at and connect with their own experiences and life stories (“who is she? what is she thinking about?“, “why has the man sitting against the rock thrown away his crutches?“, “where does the road go?“).

Whilst they clearly admire and respect paintings which exhibit obvious or even obscure symbolism, people’s language suggests that they are actually less engaged, less fascinated by these. This may be because they feel that symbols have a ‘correct’ interpretation which they, as ordinary viewers, may or may not be party to – the symbols pose a test rather than a mystery. Symbols don’t provide the same space for them as individuals to contribute uniquely to the meaning of the painting – they want a direct dialogue with artist, not one necessarily mediated by the language of the experts!

The reasons for nominating ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ read like the answers in an A Level art exam!

The swathe of reasons for nominating ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ all sound remarkably uniform – cataloguing the innovativeness of Turner’s technique and a ‘standard’ explanation of the symbols employed in an exam answer format (“the dirty smoking tug is a statement of a change to an industrial age and contrasts with the stately wooden warship it is towing“).

The experience of those nominating this painting all look disappointingly similar – especially compared to many of the other elected paintings where people’s interpretations and emotional responses are so hugely varied because they are talking about what the painting means to them rather than what it is meant to mean!

For example, here is one voter talking about her choice of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne – “Aside from the spectacular painting and the luscious blues, this painting is my favourite because it offers a happy ending to a typical dilemma of the single woman (or man)–being abandoned. Ariadne, in distress because her lover has dumped her on the island from which he beats a hasty retreat, finds herself rescued (and loved) by a superman who leaps through the air to her side. It is Bacchus! Yes, his friends are rather disgusting, but what new boyfriend doesn’t come with some unwanted baggage?“.

People want freedom to find their own interpretation

In the same way as the public want to freely choose their own best art, maybe they prefer it when the meanings in art are equally open to anyone’s guesses or interpretations rather than being symbol systems which need to be (or worse still have already been!) disambiguated by the experts. “I have a copy of this (painting) in my front room and visitors always come up with a different idea as to what it could be“.

I’m encouraged that some contemporary artists seem increasingly keen to break out from the narrow context of the art world and expose their work to public (i.e. uncontrolled) interpretations in multiple contexts. They claim that it’s ordinary people’s experiences and interpretations which make ordinary things extraordinary rather than the other way around. Certainly, if the BBC poll data are anything to go by, then the resultant dialogue is likely to be fresher and richer.

People’s favourite ‘gallery’ paintings are not the ones they hang on their walls

Only 25% of the population visit art galleries and museums (primarily the subject of this poll) but 80-90% have art of one sort or another hanging in their homes and consumers are spending an increasing amount on buying new art (originals, limited editions and prints) for their walls.

So, how do the two differ?

Portraits, along with religious, mythological and historical narratives, dominated the BBC favourites list whereas our previous research shows that contemporary landscapes, brightly coloured modern abstracts and mood-evoking figures are currently the most popular art being bought for the home. In contrast to galleries, at home most people buy art:-

To decorate their walls in attractive (and fashionable) colours and styles.

To create a (predominantly) gentle relaxing mood which allows them to escape the stresses of everyday life.

To make a unique statement about themselves.

Home is for escaping or recovering from life’s dramas – not inducing them!

Most people don’t want the kind of paintings in their homes which deliver a huge sensory or emotional jolt every time you see them – home is the place to escape life’s tensions, horrors and dramas – not induce them! Indeed, when I studied where people hung different paintings in their homes, I found that, if they had challenging, haunting or disturbing images, these tended to be hung away from the main living areas – in the dark corners of halls, on landings or even in bathrooms. Living rooms and bedrooms tended to be restricted to relaxing, calming or gentle mood-evoking images or, in a few cases, deliberate provocative talking points for visitors to the house.

Modern art matches modern décor

The leading commercial art site,  kindly provided me with their top 100 best-selling artists this year. Inevitably perhaps, Vettriano tops the list but Klimt, Matisse, Picasso, Dali, Lowry, Hopper and Rothko all feature at or near the top. Constable just makes it in the list at 80 but Van Eyck and della Franscesca, for example, don’t make the cut.

The simplest explanation is that the lines, shapes and colours of modern art fit modern houses and modern minimalist décor in a way that the rich detail of the Van Eycks and della Franscescas struggle to do! It is not that the latter are outside of fashion – rather that they reflect the fashions and tastes of a different age.

Men talk about the painting whilst women talk about their experience of it

Slightly more men than women entered the BBC poll. Our language analysis showed that the women talked significantly more than the men about their personal responses to the paintings, the feelings they evoked and the way they interpreted the meanings. The men used such subjective language much more rarely – concentrating more on describing the artist’s technique, the historical or national interest, the composition of the work and the meaning of the symbols. Where men talked about emotions, they were more likely to favour disturbing, challenging or erotic art whilst women favoured either calming pictures or ones depicting human tragedy or sadness.

Not surprisingly maybe, The Fighting Temeraire was dominated by the male vote whereas Rembrandt’s ‘Girl at a Window’, The Arnolfini Portrait, Stubbs’ Whistlejacket and Dali’s Crucifixion topped the women’s votes. Unfortunately, only one of the latter made the experts’ shortlist.

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