Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Elusive 'Autumn'

Nick Tosches has a brilliant piece in Vanity Fair about a Microsoft Windows desktop background image:

I sit on the couch and stare at that rustic path and those big old maple trees. By now I know the name of this particular wallpaper or background or whatever it is: Autumn. Moving to the desk and gazing more closely, I see a vague, dark, summoning something at the end of the path. A cabin? A covered bridge? A barn? I want to be there, for real, on that path, under those maples, moving slowly toward that dark, summoning something. [Via|Link]

Urban Flora


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Announcing A Sister Wiki: Toyinstructions

I was assisting at a training all weekend, but I'd rather pin my silence at TiP on toyinstructions, a new wiki ZRecs has launched which deep-links to toy instructions online and is poised to be much more if we can find some passionate contributors. We're currently posting not only links to the exact pages where you'll find toy instructions on manufacturers' websites, but human-edited links to blog search (Technorati), photos (Flickr), user groups (Yahoo Groups), and DIY projects (Instructables and Make, with more sites to come). We also have a handy toy recall search tool and a couple of cool community features, with more planned for later.

Take a look and by all means let me know what you think; thanks to links this morning from Hackszine and the Make blog, we have a lot of folks stopping by; now all we need is for some folks to start editing pages, posting instructions to Flickr and tagging them "toyinstructions," and making suggestions for the site. [Link]

Friday, February 23, 2007

Jason Mecier's Portraits

San Francisco-based portrait artist Jason Mecier does make portraits out of dried beans, but some of his most amazing images are constructed of candy or trash. Most of them are of celebrities.

These two are a little odd, even for Jason. They are my two favorites pieces on his website, along with the candy portrait of Dolly Parton shown on Drawn! and a gorgeous, tiny mosaic image of Condoleeza Rice made of you-know-what.

"Little Timmy"

Patricia Highsmith

Lots more great stuff on his website.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Flipbook-Style "Small Multiples" For Instructional Design

Sixties City uses strips of flipbook-style images to demonstrate dance moves, which Signal vs. Noise points out is more efficient than video clips. This could be a great improvement on the step-by-step "videos" of AnimatedKnots - instead of tiny numbered steps, use the smallish images, perhaps lined up in multiple rows. The user could then allow it to flip through, watching the action, and focus on difficult transitions by rolling over the individual images.

A loop of two or three identical image strips would also make a great zoetrope project...

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Joyce Hatto, Fake Piano Prodigy

Visual waveforms comparing the purported piano-playing of the late and celebrated prodigy Joyce Hatto with that of a recording by Laszlo Simon.

Dehoax by Pristine Audio.

Read Gramophone's story here.

Head To Head

Seen this morning on Yahoo News. If only they were related:

Slate's Picks for "The World's Best Machinima"

I wrote about Linerider Machinima a while back.

[Link to the Slate slideshow, with commentary]

A New Tense

Troy Patterson on Ultimate Fighting in today's Slate:

In a clip, Shamrock, a veteran known as "the most dangerous man in the world," expressed his belief that Ortiz is a punk. Meanwhile, Ortiz, a punk, forwarded the notion that Shamrock is over the hill. Cut back to Shamrock: "Tito Ortiz is going to find out who Ken Shamrock is, was, and is now." The "is now" in that sentence wasn't really a redundancy. Shamrock was employing a new tense—the ultimate tense—to describe how he was about to be bringing it, how it was about to have been brung.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Two Photos By Zoe Strauss

Philadelphia-based documentary photographer Zoe Strauss takes such intense and wonderful photographs of people and their intimate urban environments that it seems almost criminal to represent her with pictures like these, which she took on a recent trip to Las Vegas. But they are very good and she said I could post them.


I absolve myself only by saying that you really need to go see more of her work on her blog. Now it's your responsibility, not mine.

Strauss is also tangled up in a very frustrating battle with the Department of Human Services over a teen-produced documentary about her life and work. You can read all about it on her blog.

Mapping and Shopping With BrowseGoods's intuitive interface "maps" available shoes from multiple sellers in a highly structured layout organized by style or brand within overarching departments. The "map" is navigated by dragging and zooming in and out. Hovering over a shoe provides basic pricing and availability details, and clicking on a shoe provides a larger box with more details and a link to buy it on Amazon. At first glance, a very natural way to shop.

The only oddity is the sizing. Individual sizes for the same shoe style are displayed as separate icons but are not clustered together. Fix it, code monkeys! [Via]

ASLC Educational Software of the Year

Book Cover
The American Library Association's goon squad, otherwise known as the Association for Library Services for Children, has released their list of the year's best (last year's best?) software for kids. Get your little friends hooked here.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The DNA of Atari Games

Graphical depictions of the code and behaviors in Atari 2600 games by Ben Fry. Above: Detail from Pitfall. Below: Pitfall's complete code rendered.

From his description of the "Distellamap" project:
Like any other game console, Atari 2600 cartridges contained executable code also commingled with data. This lists the code as columns of assembly language. Most of it is math or conditional statements (if x is true, go to y), so each time there's "go to" a curve is drawn from that point to its destination.
A detail from Pac-Man:

Fry's website includes renderings of the code from Adventure, Air Raid, Combat, and several other games, and more about his process. [Thanks, Matthew!]

Catching Up With Jeffrey Scher

Jeff Scher struck up a conversation via email when he noticed I'd posted his short film "Reasons To Be Glad" on this blog. He's said he doesn't post his own work to YouTube because his painted-film technique suffers from the low frame rate. He did send on a WMV file of his beautiful 2004 short "You Won't Remember This," a film of his infant son which was satisfyingly complete - a difficult effect to achieve with multiple short scenes using an experimental method, but one Scher accomplishes by tying his visuals intimately to well-chosen music, and working from a theme that is both recognizable and refreshing. The film also featured a short scene that was something I had never seen before - a pure black-and-white image of a tiny white face being revealed and obscured in a familiar pattern, along with the tiny shapes flickering by behind him in a defined frame. The highly abstract image almost instantly registered as the view in the back seat of a car at night, the child dazed but wakeful, quiet and alert - one of the many strange things he will not remember years from now. I loved it.

Scher also sent on a couple of images from his "new hobby," 3D photography. He writes:

If you cross your eyes you will see three images. If you can "merge" the two images that you are seeing in the middle you will suddenly see the image in 3d. You might have to rock your head slightly to even out the merge. If you look deep into it - and get used to the eye muscles in this odd position - you should be able to look around, changing focus from one plane to another.

Thanks, Jeff!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Too Much Information For InfoWorld: Ephriam Schwartz Roams The Foothills of User-Generated Content

Elitism has its place, and there are services which user-generated content just won't provide what centralized expertise can. That said, however, a recent InfoWorld article Troy Worman's Orbit Now pointed to recently is just embarassing.

The end reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite movies, Barcelona:

Ted: Maybe you'd like an analogy. Well, take... take these ants. In the U.S. view, a small group, or cadre, of fierce red ants have taken power and are oppressing the black ant majority. Now the stated U.S. policy is to aid those black ants opposing the red ants in hopes of restoring democracy, and to impede the red ants from assisting their red ant comrades in neighboring ant colonies.
Ramon: That is clearly the most disgusting description of U.S. policy I have ever heard. The Third World is just a lot of ants to you.
Jurgen: Those are people dying, not ants!
Ted: No, I... I don't think you understand. I was reducing everything to ant scale, the... the U.S. included. An ant White House, an ant CIA, an ant Congress, an ant Pentagon...
Ramon: Secret ant landing strips, illegally established on foreign soil.
Fred: Where are the red ants?
Ted: [pointing to an ant hill] There.
[Fred crushes the ants]

What Ephraim Schwartz is missing here is that users visiting such sites like Helium may show up to be heard, but they stay to discuss. Is the value of that act to those individuals really up for debate? Talk about the Ugly American. How does John Udell put up with this man?

Many of the privileges which uniquely positioned the reporter - access to specialized information, topical knowledge, independence from the subjects of their review - have been eroded away by new technologies for the past thirty years. The Internet blew the lid off it, and the Web 2.0 sealed the deal. The question is not whether any control over content should be handed over to users; it's how to hand it over in the context of a toolset that users can use to develop great information resources. Helium probably isn't it. But Swivel, Yahoo Pipes, Coghead, and other companies are rolling out new ideas for how to harness the power - even the intelligence, Mr. Schwartz! - of the ants at the picnic. To say this is the end of expertise is to attack a straw man and call it a battle royale. Even the hordes on Helium can manage that. The challenge developers are tackling right now is to form social media that produces resources of lasting value. Resources that evolve with ongoing contributions rather than simply ranking existing content. Helium is a gesture in that direction, if not a very potent one.

Of course, this is coming from a site which features ads that do this when you accidentally mouse over the wrong part of the page:

So Schwartz can be excused for being just a single link in a chain of disrespect. If a publication doesn't respect its writers, how could its writers possibly respect its readers?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Culture Jamming: ShopDropping


Winnie The Pooh In Russia

My wife went to the Soviet Union six weeks before the military coup in 1991. While she was there, she bought a lot of books to bring back with her to the U.S. I discovered this one for myself recently while we were going through our bookshelves to thin out our stock. For some reason, for me Piglet was the first giveaway that these are characters from A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh.

The book is more of a booklet, 8 1/2 x 11" sheets that are folded and saddle-stitched (stapled). The paper is Bible-thin and the print quality is poor. The book's single spot color is brown, and all the pictures are brown, and look like they were generated on some sort of early computer or just run through one in the printing process. But they reflect a very different view of Winnie the Pooh than the one we are so familiar with in the United States. Looking at it - especially when being unable to read a word of it - is an interesting study in how visuals can come to seem embedded within the words, and how works of imagination can be taken over, wholly consumed, and stuffed and mounted by their copyright holders.

Potentiality and Actuality

The accretion that is Winnie the Pooh, built in my lifetime and just before it by Disney, wore out his welcome in my life long ago. For the past ten years or so he has stood simply as a logo for moms in sweats who wear the mark as a kind of visual cipher signifying Gemütlichkeit in the same way that Mickey Mouse apparel signifies Gemeinschaft.

If we rephrase the Wikipedia entries for these two Germanic terms, we could produce our own lexicon of Disney wear:
Mickey-wearers are broadly characterized by a moderate division of labor, strong personal relationships, strong families, and relatively simple social institutions. In such societies there is seldom a need to enforce social control externally, due to a collective sense of loyalty individuals feel for society. Historically, Mickey-wearing societies were racially and ethnically homogeneous.(Adapated from the Wikipedia entry for Gemeinschaft)

The underlying concept of Winnie-the-Pooh-cladding is that social tensions and certain environments can cause stress, resulting in a feeling of alienation. Winnie-the-Poohism is an active way of preventing such negative influences by going to places and/or meeting with people that are regarded to be Winnie-the-Pooh-ish. A Winnie-the-Pooher is one who takes part in this lifestyle and knows about the tensions he/she is able to cause, and thus tries to avoid these things actively. This way an agreement is established to make an "environmentally cosy" site (Heuriger, garden, cellar, backyard restaurant, living room...) "socially cosy." One characteristic of a Winnie-the-Pooh situation is that one could blind out everything else (past, future, other places and absent people) and yet everything would be fine (an eternal "now and here"). Winnie-the-Poohists describe that as "leaving everything at the doorstep" (though a Pooh-ish place doesn't necessarily have to be inside a house). (Adapated from the Wikipedia entry for Gemütlichkeit)
Now that I have a young daughter, however, I have had occasion to reread the original Milne and find it far less cloying and obnoxious than the Pooh Bear I remember. The seeds of Disney's visual interpretation are certainly there - the warmth of tone and rounded edges - but I have been pleasantly surprised by the book's scattered illogic and circuitous whimsy, elements Disney has eroded into mere absent-mindedness as they fit Pooh into the well-worn ruts all of Disney's early, charismatic characters have traveled as they shifted from the world of stories to that of brands.

Even E.H. Shepard's illustrations from the original Milne feel refreshing after a lifetime of Disney.

Pooh meets Tigger in The House At Pooh Corner.

The Russian edition I've been browsing lately is now helping me reimagine Pooh even further, and got me wondering about how such characters become fixed in our minds in a certain style, and what it takes to break them out of that form and regain our perception of something more abstract which might truly interest us.

At left, Pooh is falling from the tree in the first chapter of the book, after using a balloon to attempt to get at their honey. This is also the first chapter of the English-language version of the book.

In the 1930s the image of Pooh was a fairly fluid thing. A variety of illustrators in the U.S. took a crack at him when the stories were serially published there, and although the subsequent book editions had been given a strong imprint by illustrator E.H. Shepard (the illustrations you will undoubtedly see today), Milne welcomed Pooh's exportation to children's theatre, sound recording of Pooh stories by Jimmy Stewart and Gene Kelly, in "early animated paper films" (Wikipedia's wording - I'd certainly like to see those!) and in adertising various goods and services.

Neither Milne nor Shepard considered these characters to be their legacy. Both were leading contributors to the political magazine Punch and felt their most significant work was done there. Shepard reportedly grew to "hate" Pooh, and Milne wished to be remembered as a playwright rather than as the author of "four trifles for the young."

This may help explain why Milne left the rights to Winnie the Pooh to four different groups, who became quite confused over how to best carve up this golden-egg-laying goose. Disney bought rights from one of those groups and has more or less won the slugfest over who can legally employ the characters.

Death and Rebirth

Here, in the second story in the book, Rabbit entertains Pooh in his home prior to Pooh getting stuck in Rabbit's hole on the way out. In the Disney version of the stories all of the characters are heavily caricatured versions of those in the book, and the mean-spirited Rabbit takes to drawing on Pooh's rear end, if I remember correctly. In fact, this is one of the few Pooh stories (along with the bees and the balloon) used by Disney in the company's cartoons and videos.

The rest of the stories the Russian editor used appear to come from The House at Pooh Corner, Milne's second book of Pooh stories, which introduces Tigger (who became a leading character in Disney's cast) and which ends with Christopher Robin leaving Hundred Acre Wood forever, too old to play in the forest with stuffed animals. It's the perfect culmination to what is effectively an exercise in nostalgia. I mentioned earlier that parental influence helps suppress bad children's characters, but it also props up others artificially, like a welfare state's subsidized television stations might take the peaks and valleys out of a free market of popular expression. If you have any doubts about the role parents play in keeping children's books alive, you need only look to the persistence of nostalgia - a concept that is completely irrelevant to young children - as one of only a handful of the most influential themes in the history of children's literature. Sometimes this powerful source of inspiration, spoken by and largely to adults, is transformed into something of real, authentic relevance to young children. Sometimes it isn't. In the case of A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh, I can come down on either side of this question depending on my mood.

The things which tend to push me towards a hatred of Pooh are the things that Disney has done to him. I am a friend of Gemütlichkeit and the idyll of comfort, love, and total understanding that it promises. Such moments and experiences do exist, and they can be among the most important experiences of our lives. But when such things are turned into commodities, things always get ugly. At left we have the most extreme caricature Disney has come up with, from the live-action children's show The House At Pooh Corner, which I remember watching with my little sister back in the 1980s. Back then, I was just bored. Now, I see things, tragic things, in Pooh's face. The pinched, pained face of Pooh in this show reminds me of the freakish, post-plastic surgery Catherine O'Hara in For Your Consideration. The weathering of Pooh's visage - the theatrical revues of the 1930s, the shared inheritance of rights among multiple, entrepreneurial parties, the sellouts to Disney, the lawsuits - these have all been washed away, leaving a horrific hybrid between product and product packaging. This expression, this grimace - it is a death mask. This is the face of a character trapped in a kind of living death. He is a frozen image, begging for release.

But I see this Russian Pooh, and I wonder if my hatred is misplaced.

Winnie the Pooh has been quite popular in Russia. And unlike in the United States, no one exclusively owned the right to draw him. Above, Winnie the Pooh nesting dolls. Below, one of the popular Winnie the Pooh cartoons from Soviet animation powerhouse Soyuzmultfilm.

But still, the Disney image remains. I can see these other figures while I look at them - examine them, even attempt to refresh my image of who Pooh might be by using them, following their lines, absorbing their colors. But when I turn away, this remains.

Characters can't always be brought back from the brink. Sometimes they should just be allowed to die. And when market forces prevent this from occurring - when there is still money to be made from the mask, from the shell of the creature that animates the books - the words, which bear no responsibility for the evolved image, suffer anyway. And we read, and try to forget.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


I have a big post coming tomorrow. I have been working hard on it, and I think you will like it.

Monday, February 12, 2007

In Case You Were Wondering How You Would Survive Without "Parade" Magazine

From the wondrous Regret The Error:

The issue of Parade magazine included in today's editions of The [Baltimore] Sun [and nationwide] contains an item in the "Personality Parade" column saying that Barbaro is in improving health. Because the magazine's publication schedule runs weeks in advance of distribution, the item was written before the horse's death and could not be corrected in time.
You heard them. WEEKS IN ADVANCE.

Saturday, February 10, 2007


Friday, February 09, 2007

"Plagiarism" In Photography

Slate has an image gallery and discussion up this week on the concept of plagiarism and its problematic application to fine art photography. Like most of their art slideshows, it has some interesting points to make and has great visuals to go with it. [Thanks, Joshua!]

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Ad Campaign For "Veja" Magazine

The copy reads "Get both sides."


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

"Animated" Knots came up with a nice, simple online interface for learning how to tie almost any knot. Rather than using embedded video, the site threads together flipbook-style photographs which run once automatically and then can be accessed step-by-step using a timeline-style menu. Elegant, low-bandwidth, and better than video. I've never been able to learn to tie knots from a book, and this looks like a much easier way to do so. [Link]

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Google Tinkering With Free Presentation Software (Yawn)

Hey, I don't say "yawn" very often. But this is a special occasion.

Google appears to be preparing to enter the free online presentation software game. Based on the hints and the industry standard, the offering is unlikely to contain any of the advanced features PowerPoint offers. I always love rooting for underdogs, but I am seriously tired of text-only slideware being sold as the next PowerPoint killer. It's all about the animations, folks. To slightly modify a quote from Homer Simpson, in the world of presentation software, animation effects are the cause of, and the solution to, all our problems. [Link]

Monday, February 05, 2007

Eleven Things To Think About When Thinking About The Aqua Teen Hunger Force Bomb Scare

What is the Absurd? It is, as may quite easily be seen, that I, a rational being, must act in a case where my reason, my powers of reflection, tell me: you can just as well do the one thing as the other, that is to say where my reason and reflection say: you cannot act and yet here is where I have to act... The Absurd, or to act by virtue of the absurd, is to act upon faith ... I must act, but reflection has closed the road so I take one of the possibilities and say: This is what I do, I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection.

- Soren Kierkegaard, Journals (1849)

For Camus... People may create meaning in their own lives, which may not be the objective meaning of life, but still provides something for which to strive. However, he insisted that one must always maintain an ironic distance between this invented meaning and the knowledge of the absurd lest the fictitious meaning take the place of the absurd.

- Wikipedia entry for "Absurdism"

  1. Guerrilla marketing is a symptom of corporate arrogance. Graffiti is a symptom of social powerlessness.
  2. Why do graffiti artists feel powerless? See Kierkegaard.
  3. Marketers choose guerrilla marketing strategies for two reasons: to save money, and to suggest to the general public that the products of multi-billion-dollar corporations run by boards of directors and shareholders are actually ruled by rebellious young people.
  4. Companies which engage in guerilla marketing tactics are rarely penalized beyond the direct cost of their actions. This makes it very cost-effective advertising, which makes boards of directors and shareholders happy. I have heard the figure of $750,000 cited by the Boston police. This is very cheap advertising considering the stunt's impact.
  5. Why doesn't acting like rebellious young people damage corporations' credibility in financial markets? See Camus.
  6. The term "guerrilla," - "little war" - has its origins in small groups of Spaniards who resisted Napoleonic rule in the early 1800s. The advertising community found this term attractive for two reasons, one explicit and one subconscious. The explicit connotation, the one they know they like, is that they resist control by moving more quickly and fluidly than the power structure can, because they are not constrained by the power structure's logistics and its rules of war, and thus slip through its fingers and live to fight another day. The subconscious reason is that guerrilla marketing is an act of violence against the very modest checks against the absolute privatization of our public space to have survived the last thirty years. Since corporations are a dominant force in our world, the explicit reason is a perfect example of marketing double-speak, and the implicit reason is the one that has caused it to stick.
  7. The Wooster Collective reports on Stephen Brown's recent art project in Germany: "In front of the town's City Hall on the main square, Steven built a stone hearth each night for 10 days (Jan 14-23 2007). He simply built and burned a fire from sunset until midnight. Each night people stopped by and lingered and shared stories. There was no press and word spread the old-fashioned way. Slowly, there became a regular base of people who came every night to interact (and often bring the artist food and drink)."
  8. How would the Boston Police Department have responded to this project?
  9. How do this project and the Aqua Teen Hunger Force guerrilla marketing campaign differ in terms of their engagement with the public, with public space? Does one respect its audience more than the other? Should the intended effect, and the project's motivations, be considered in evaluating and responding to the work?
  10. How many different brands can you think of that could turn Brown's project into an effective guerrilla marketing campaign with a linked series of network television commercials? Think beyond Duraflame and fireplace bricks. What brand of beer would you sell with this stunt? What brand of clothing? What kind of car?
  11. How do you feel about having so many billboards in your head? Where's the real guerrilla marketing taking place? See Camus.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Microsoft Redesigns the iPod Product Package


Update: And from Boing Boing:

The video of the redesigned iPod packaging first appeared last year. Later it was confirmed by Microsoft spokesman Tom Pilla that their own packaging team created it.

"Microsoft spokesman Tom Pilla on Tuesday confirmed with iPod Observer that his company initiated the creation of the iPod packaging parody video that was first reported last month. "It was an internal-only video clip commissioned by our packaging [team] to humorously highlight the challenges we have faced RE: packaging and to educate marketers here about the pitfalls of packaging/branding," he said via e-mail."

Mothers For Social Drinking

We just posted this badge on Z Recommends, along with a Statement of Belief for anyone to use. Click here to read about the badge and get a link to the MSNBC report which inspired it, or here to read the statement. Displaying the badge and linking to the statement is an easy way for parents to document their adherence to this position and link a personal statement to a list of trackbacks at ZRecs, but anyone is welcome to use the badge for any purpose and explain it in their own way, as we are releasing it under a fully free Creative Commons license.

Felted Wool Sculpture Gallery

Check out Mamaquilla's gallery of felted wool sculptures.


Paper Stop-Motion Animation By Carlo Giovani

Carlo Giovani has created an amazing papercraft stop-motion commercial, a paper-based world to follow up the experimental short he previously did for MTV. [Via|Link]

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Contrast Draws The Eye

Temple of the Seven Golden Camels has a great breakdown of this image, focusing specific on areas of contrast and how they assist in composition. I love this blog.

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.