Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Trouble With Prodigies: Marla Olmstead and the Cult of Innocence

Joshua Gibson is back with his second piece of criticism for Think In Pictures.

Marla Olmstead, "Ode To Pollock II"

I haven't seen Amir Bar-Lev's documentary My Kid Could Paint That (it premiered at Sundance, and was snapped up by Sony Pictures Classics for distribution) but Marla Olmstead, the four-year-old abstract painter profiled in Bar-Lev's film, has generated a lot of interest - first as a media darling and then as an object of suspicion, hitting a high (or low) note with Charlie Rose accusing her father, an amateur painter and night-shift manager at a Frito-Lay factory, of assisting her in her work. But the drama raises some interesting questions about the nature of art and the values of the artistic marketplace, questions the media circus leaves largely unexamined.

Neither Bar-Lev nor any of the other independent persons who have looked into the Olmstead case seem to know whether or not she actually painted these works. But the question of their authenticity is only interesting insofar as their provenance is a successful marketing technique. We then have to ask ourselves, even if the girl painted the pictures, is it reasonable that they should sell for high prices? Are they real art?

Imagine her father had painted the pictures, as many believe. Would they have sold? If the answer is no, then they aren't art. People are not buying the images on the canvas; they are buying the image of a little girl painting pictures. While art critics may fume over the manipulation of an "innocent little girl" in order to sell her father's paintings, perhaps we should turn our eye on those same critics, who promoted the work not because it was virtuosic but merely because an innocent little girl had painted them.

Much of modern art is predicated on the merger of the image of the artist with his work. In breaking down the strictly technical criteria for aesthetic greatness, modernists established a different kind of criterion: art as extension of a Great Artist. Nonetheless, those Great Artists found themselves exploring aesthetic fields that previous masters hadn't known existed. Yes, a kid could paint like Jackson Pollock, and that's part of Pollock's point. What makes Pollock paintings great (his 1950 "Lavender Mist" is pictured at left) is that they manage to turn simple, childish techniques into a kind of dense, rich, articulate painting. His best works explode out of the canvas, disoriented and assaulting the audience with a kind of fury practically unseen before he began splattering paint around his studio.

A child, no matter how technically prodigious, can't do that. So that a prodigy like that latter-day Marla Olmstead, Akiane, can produce works that technically move beyond Pollock, but don't measure up in terms of depth and richness of aesthetic experience. And this isn't just a problem with these blond angels of the art world; it is a problem with virtually all prodigies. As an audience of a prodigious violinist, we are not expected to point out how emotionless, mechanical and precise his playing is. We are expected to be in awe of a child doing it at all. It's not art. It's a circus trick. A dog playing the piano would be as riveting.

But the children and their promoters have to treat them as "real artists" in order for the trick to work. Which is why I believe that we should, as critics and viewers, engage their work as we would any painter who appears on Oprah and sell paintings for many thousands of dollars.

The only relevant question is: Is it any good?

Forget that Mattie Stepanek was a child. Forget that he had muscular dystrophy. Forget that he died a senseless death at the age of thirteen because of this terrible disease. Was he a talented poet? If he was a forty-year-old with an MFA in poetry, we'd be attacking the shallowness of an artistic culture that promoted him to bestseller status. But because he was a crippled child, we aren't allowed to criticize his work without being seen as "bitter" or "nasty." We allow artistic promoters, parents and talk-show hosts to use children (legitimate prodigies or otherwise) to sell art that otherwise would not sell.

So, what does this say about our artistic culture? That's a question I can't properly answer here. But I can tell you this: It isn't good.

Read all about My Kid Could Paint That and Marla Olmstead at the New York Times website.


Anonymous said...

There are several ways that critics look at a work, whether it's visual art or literature. There's reader's response perspective (which examines the art from how readers interpret it), formal criticism (which looks at the work as independent from the artist), and social criticism (which connects the art to the social background of the artist, historical context of its creation, and cultural significance of the work). So I see the point you're making, but it's only part of the picture. Nothing in our culture would stand as it is if not for the persons and time-space connected with it.

Anonymous said...

What makes Marla Olmstead's paintings so successful has everything and nothing to do with her age. It is true that her age is much of the reason that her art commands such a high price. The irony is that if she were in her mid-forties - it would be because she is just that good.

Her earliest paintings have the ability to explain Jackson Pollock (and all good abstract art) in a way that art critics never have and never would. Abstract expressionism at its core is intuitive, spontaneous and nonrepresentational. Pollock often painted while completely inebriated. In other words, Pollock would get blind drunk in order to paint as if he had never been shown how. Marla's early paintings are so good because she didn't have a filter in her brain telling her what to do or what not to do.

When you were a child you painted a tree and it looked like a tree because you tried really hard to make it look like a tree. It might have been purple and hot pink, but it was still probably in the general shape of tree. You did this because, the more it resembled the tree in your backyard, the more impressive it seemed to your mom & dad & grandparents. Once you finally did manage to paint a brown tree with green leaves there could be no going back. If you tried to paint it again, but with blue leaves, it probably wouldn't even have made it to the refrigerator before someone told you it was wrong.
Marla's parents, at least from what was shown in the film early on, allowed her to paint however she wanted. According to her dad, his only instructions were to pull the brush not push it. This would seem to explain a lot. She was never told what to paint, or how to paint, she was just allowed to smear paint around and they praised her the same way that my mom did when I painted a perfect tree. The idea behind abstract impressionism was to paint as if:
1.) You didn't know how.
2.) You had never seen the subject you were painting

A good example would be if I gave you 10 colors and told you to paint your name. (keep in mind that you have never seen letters, nor have you been told which colors to use) You have only the sound of you name to go on. - Paint that.

The older you are - the harder this exercise becomes.

If Marla was in her mid-forties, I seriously doubt that she could paint the way she does, or at least did. In Many of her more recent paintings we can see that she is losing her ability to paint without logical constraints. She is beginning to paint faces and suns and other conscious objects - the same way we all did when we were in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade. This is sad from the perspective of an art lover because her art was abstract perfection.

Jackson Pollock was one of only a handful of adults that could ever have come close to the kind of spontaneous, unintentional, exuberance on display in Marla's earliest paintings.
The way a child sees the world for the first time, every time - the kind of awe that adults can only experience for fleeting moments in the presence of something clearly greater than themselves, is the way that abstract expressionism, in its purest form, attempts to explain the world - not through the "perfect tree" that we all tried to get our mothers to hang on the fridge - but through an explanation that is as intricate as it is irrational and as incoherent as can be understood.
Abstract expressionism is awe on fire. When done right you see nothing yet feel something. When done wrong, you see something but feel nothing. This is why two people can look at the same mountain and feel two completely different things.
I agree that Marla's paintings are not art, at least not for Marla. When they become art for her, they won't be for us.
You can't be an abstract expressionist child prodigy. As was pointed out in the article - child prodigies can't express themselves. The truth is that her only real gift came from the fact that her parents never forced her to paint anything. Until her paintings began to sell. You can see evidence of this prodding in her more recent paintings, which often appear more structured and now even include childish shapes and caricatures. The truly disappointing thing is that as she gets older it will get harder and harder to detach herself from thinking about what she's painting. The gift that everyone keeps telling her parents that she has will gradually disappear with age, just like imaginary friends, closet monsters,and the tooth fairy.
It is already apparent in much of her currently available work (See: Everyone's House)

Pollock needed to get fall down drunk in order find a place where his mind wouldn't get in the way of his art. Marla just needs to find a way to never grow up.

...Calling Peter Pan...

- Graham M.