Friday, June 6, 2008

My Kid Could Paint That

One of the most lingering, poignant, and thought-provoking documentaries I've seen in the past year was a small film called My Kid Could Paint That. The subject centers around a then four-year-old named Marla Olmstead, an adorable little girl from upstate New York who became a superstar in the art world in 2005 when her abstract paintings began to sell for tens of thousands of dollars. When Sixty Minutes came to do a piece about her, suspicion arose that perhaps she was not wholly responsible for production of her work, that her father, himself an amateur painter was either guiding her or doctoring the paintings himself. However, in the same piece, a curator for MOMA, without being told who the artist is, says that the paintings are worthy of the work that appears in any top museum. Much of the movie centers around the resulting controversy, and Marla's parents go on to defend her work against this suspicion by producing several videos which chronicle one of Marla's paintings from start to finish. Personally, I had a gut feeling watching the movie that there is some unhealthy and unacknowledged parental involvement going on in Marla's painting (something about the father's defensiveness and shifty eyes that lead me to feel this way), however, on a much deeper level the movie raises some of the most profound questions about art, and ends up being much more about the world of adults and the definition of art than a gifted child.

First of all, the movie shows just how important the story behind any work of art is. People are so drawn to the fact that these paintings were done by a child, and once this is known the paintings take on qualities that they might not have otherwise. It is impossible to experience these paintings purely for what they are intrinsically once you know they were painted by a four-year-old. This goes for so much of art... how often are we moved by something because of the story that surrounds it? Does Nick Drake's music take on an other-worldly beauty because I know about his tragic end? Is the last movement of Mahler 9 so haunting because I know it was one of the last things he completed before dying? Am I more drawn to Billie Holliday because I know what she was living through? How about that experience we've all had of being in a modern art museum and giving special attention to a work simply because it is by an iconic figure in the art world? Can we ever experience art purely for what it is and judge it solely on its own merits? In the end, except for the purpose of honesty and authenticity (nobody should be lied to in order so that art sells), why should it matter whether Marla's work was done by her father or not? If the paintings are as haunting, dramatic, and beautiful as people say they are, shouldn't they be just as valuable and worthy of our attentions, regardless of their origin?

The idea of a four-year-old producing a profound piece of contemporary art that is then compared to work by Pollack or Kandinsky also challenges the notion of contemporary art being something worth taking seriously. Mia Fineman, in an article for Slate (go here to read it), writes:

Ten years ago, I traveled around Thailand with Russian conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, teaching domesticated elephants to hold brushes in their trunks and apply paint to canvas. The project was cheerfully satirical, but the elephants really did learn to paint, and their bold, gestural abstractions were strikingly similar to Marla's—and raised many of the same questions. Like Marla, elephants approach a blank canvas with a blithe lack of inhibition and no preconceived idea of what a painting is supposed to look like. What matters to them is the process: the friction of the brush against the surface of the canvas, the creamy viscosity of the paint, and the fine-motor activity involved in making different kinds of marks, from long sweeping strokes to quick rhythmic dabs and slithery caresses.

Where does the notion of skill come into play when a four-year-old (or an elephant) can produce something that is compared to the masterworks? Is skill still important in art, or is it the intention or the idea behind the work that transforms it into great art? If is is the intention or idea that makes a work into art, again, isn't it troubling that a precocious but otherwise normal four-year-old can produce abstract art that is taken so seriously? Skeptics of modern art could easily conclude that the entire Marla Olmstead affair is proof that abstract expressionism is a giant hoax. Fineman ends her article refuting this notion and writes:

Yes, anyone can pick up a brush and slather paint on canvas in a drippy style that evokes Jackson Pollock. But it took an artist like Pollock to step back from his own work, which at the time looked unlike anything that had come before, and say, with bold conviction: "This is it. This is what modern painting looks like." In other words, Pollock taught us how to see art in a new way.

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