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