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What's Wrong With This Picture?

By Paddy Johnson

I know this sounds snotty, but the media phenomenon of Marla Olmstead, the then 4-year-old painter whose brightly colored abstract canvases sold for upwards of $20,000 dollars each in 2005 represents my worst nightmare as an art critic. I say this not because I believe good fine art can only be made by adults, but because her status as a child prodigy is constructed upon popular myths I work to dispel on a daily basis: that artists have innate talent that cannot be taught; that virtually anyone working in the field of art has the knowledge and background to properly evaluate abstraction; that exacting skill and authorship necessarily correlates to artistic talent or the intrinsic worth of a painting.

Paint by numbers: Marla Olmstead with one of her canvases in My Kid Could Paint That (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

These falsehoods permeate Amir Bar-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That, a documentary about young Marla’s rise and fall from art-world fame. As the story goes, Marla began her career as a painter at age 3; by the time she was 4 she had become a superstar, her work discussed in The New York Times, The Today Show and Good Morning America. But was Marla the sole author of these paintings? On an infamous 60 Minutes II episode featured in the film, Charlie Rose interviewed child psychologist and art prodigy expert Ellen Winner who cast serious doubts on their authorship. Sales soon dry up, and Bar-Lev himself begins to question the legitimacy of Marla’s work.

By choice, My Kid doesn’t provide any concrete answers to the controversy. “To me it’s not a film at all about a child prodigy and painting,” Bar-Lev told me in a recent interview. “It’s a family drama about what happens when you let the media into your house.” I suppose I wouldn’t take issue with this had some acknowledgement been made that the entire Olmstead story was constructed. From a fine art perspective, Marla’s paintings were never skilled enough to be exhibited in the same gallery world as the masters to whom she was being compared; surely a major museum or cultural institution would have purchased her work had such been the case. Moreover, in a time when assistants frequently complete the work of professional artists with little to no attribution, authorship disputes of this nature simply aren’t evaluated by the fine art world on the same terms as they have been by the media. The heart of this story lies not in how authorship challenges the value of Olmstead’s art work, but rather, how it creates a crack in our preconceived ideas of what constitutes precocious artistic talent.

Not that the film illuminates this. Bar-Lev merely reconstitutes the myths that created the phenomenon in the first place. By leveling his interviewees as though each were as well-versed as the other, Binghamton Sun and Press reporter Elizabeth Cohen, NYT art critic Michael Kimmelman and even Bar-Lev himself become experts in the field -- despite only one having any credentials. Making matters worse, the lone art professional never issues a statement on the child’s actual talent. The only specific discussion of aesthetics here comes from a collector who finds figures and meaning in Marla’s non-objective forms -- the same way one might identify the shape of a face in the clouds. What is the variation of size from piece to piece? How does the mark making change? Does Marla’s move from abstraction to representational imagery signify the help of a parent or merely a different developmental stage in her childhood? Not only will we never know, we never even asked.

Speaking to the dearth of experts in My Kid Could Paint That, Bar-Lev's explanation was twofold. "One criterion that was really important to me was that [the experts] had some personal involvement in the story," he said. "I was much less interested in investigative journalism about Marla Olmstead and much more interested in the human dimension of what goes on behind those stories."

Which is fine from a filmmaking point of view, but the ultimate result is a reinforcement of our fears, myths and misunderstandings about contemporary art, with the high praise the film has won among critics only reaffirming its marriage to the cultural status quo. If we value documentaries that bring together new bodies of knowledge to change us, expand our understanding or move us in certain directions, then Bar-Lev's film leaves much to be desired.

Paddy Johnson is the editor of the New York art blog Art Fag City.

Posted at October 5, 2007 7:38 AM

Comments (5)

The work looks pretty good to me (I've only seen it on the Internet) and I paint abstract myself. Whether and how it gets done is another question, but I have a three year old who paints pretty well too. I think you could show a three year old how to cover a full canvas.

I found getting a "polished" (even a "prodigy") look lies in the materials used. With cheap (but non-toxic) kid's poster paint, kiddies brushes, and on newsprint my son's stuff from the church daycare doesn't look very professional. With artist's acrylics of other professional stuff on good paper it does.

I used to live in India and spent a lot of time in the families of traditional artists. Kids there serve a sort of apprenticeship to their parents and I suspect that Marla --- assuming no outright misrepresentation is occurring ...I didn't see Charlie Rose's show-- may be experiencing elements of the same sort of new materials and letting the kid see you draw something with it so they get the idea if they get stuck is reasonable. Teachers Colleges here in Canada drill a lot of Vygotsky into their students...this is how it works.

Re: your "status as a child prodigy is constructed upon popular myths I work to dispel on a daily basis: that artists have innate talent that cannot be taught; that virtually anyone working in the field of art has the knowledge and background to properly evaluate abstraction; that exacting skill and authorship necessarily correlates to artistic talent or the intrinsic worth of a painting." I could say a lot.....first if you have in mind in your comments about "experts" that opinion is adversarial and only one opinion is the 'correct' one, that's a bit dubious. I would say that each person's lived experience gives them some facet from which they know something about abstraction...painters who paint abstractly know something surely, so do critics, collectors, and equally people who have had children know something about another aspect of the context that can push forward understanding. Surely you're not claiming you have to be a professional art critic to have a valid opinion? That would be too authoritarian for my taste.

Re: that artists have innate talent that cannot be taught (you seem to disagree strongly), it seems to me that there is no simple statement that can be made because artists differ markedly in how they do art. Artists of many types can be trained, especially if they have an interest. But I have also seen artists who seem to have some innate difference from the norm that gives them a good hand at painting without formal art training either of the western (art school) or a traditional type, though usually they do practice. The thing is that aesthetic sense is heavily a function of culture -- the same aesthetically sensitive person, however they got this way nature or training, will develop a different aesthetic depending on the culture he grows up in, and depending on what cultures he/she is later exposed to and how open he/she is to cross cultural aesthetic experience. Thus it is a mistake to use the word "artist" as if all artists were the same -- obviously there are personal differences to style, but I refer here to deeper issues of how they are artists.

As far as authorship goes there are two issues - (well really a lot more than two)- transparency is one. That is, acknowledging what is really a joint work, and in subtle ways most works are , color manufacturers, framers, brush makers etc. all contribute to the look of a piece by a professional artist much more than people realize, not to mention getting your wife to give you the colors, and "assistants," where the hand of these influence's the aesthetic of the piece significantly. There is a tension over this because of ego and economic pressures as you seem to know, so it is not simple fraud, but worldwide, I see that transparency in this area is not what I personally would like it to be. But you seem to understand this. The second issue is where an artist's conscience bothers him/her about signing a work as his own (or his pre-literate child's) when he knows he had been too active a coach and is really the joint artist, or even the dominant one. If this is done on a systematic basis to create a public image for a child painter then something is not right. If I feel I have done this with my son I put both our names on the piece (I don't sell them). If I commercialized his painting and passed these pictures off as his because they were easier to sell that way since the non-artist buyers are not sufficiently sophisticated about this and want "sole authorship: but are vague and unrealistic (as you note) about their criteria on what constitutes this, then I would be doing something objectionable. But as you rightly suggest, these are really subjective feelings on my part, and there are no bright line criteria for authorship. What I may feel is working jointly, someone else may sincerely feel is either a legitimate assistant's role or master painter's treatment of a student painter. Marla's dad is a fraud if he thinks he is and is knowingly misrepresenting for financial reasons, and if he makes false statements of fact ('she painted this whole painting, when he had a major hand in it, and not under her direction (which would make him an assistant) .. But he's not in my view if he sincerely believes he is not, provided he's transparent within reason, he isn't though others have the right to argue...I think it is this last that is upsetting the public, not the former.

This comment was posted on my blog by Tom Moody. Since it's relevant I'm reposting it here as well below:

"How quickly we forget the last prodigy:

Alexandra Nechita
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Alexandra Nechita (b. August 27, 1985) is a Romanian-born American cubist painter and muralist.

At the age of two, she was working with pen and ink and by five was working with watercolors. Upon her seventh birthday, oil and acrylics were her tools. She had her first solo exhibition at the age of eight at the public library in Whittier, Los Angeles County.

She has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show and has appeared with numerous celebrities, including Bill Clinton. Her talent led to her being known as the “Petite Picasso” as her work, to some, resembles that of the master; she has been known as a child prodigy until late in her teens."

The problems at hand are generally created by a misunderstanding that Art is something transcendental rather than fashioned by culture. RE: "The thing is that aesthetic sense is heavily a function of culture." I would mince one word. Aesthetics is a product, ENTIRELY, of cultures. Art and artistic appreciation is something specific to humans, because Art is simply a subset of human creations. With Arthur Danto as a reference, we must require, when determining something to be art or not, whether the creator-in-question had any understanding of what they were doing. To call a work of art "Abstract" is not simply predicating the work with an adjective, but that says that the work falls at a certain point in the history of art. Calling the works of these two girls, "Abstract" or "Cubist" is assuming that they understand that their pieces fall at a certain point in art history. It is hard for me to believe that these children have that capability.

We have reached a point in art history and the philosophy of art where we understand that art is not a transcendental concept, and to assume such is to continue posing fallible questions. To ask about authorship and "identity" of works is to continue in this fallible line of questioning. Pragmatics is dictating the way we answer questions of this sort, and it is not pragmatic, from the stance of the artworld, to permit children to make "art."

From my standpoint, I believe that some parents push their children to become pseudo 'child prodigies' in order to live vicariously through them. In doing so, some want to believe so much, that they become intensely preoccupied with the notion that their children are 'baby geniuses'. A guiding hand can become a controlling creative dictatorship. I believe that if a child wants to explore painting, feel free to get someone to show them basic technique, just so they can learn to hold a brush, but other than that, interference otherwise takes one's creation and morphs it into someone elses.

I have a daughter just about 4 and I dabble with impressionism

My daughter also creates pretty pictures

Marla doesnt appear to have any understanding of modern art, colour theory, or any of the technicalities I spend hours reading and studying and furthermore this shows in her paintings and certainly the ones that were documented on video.

From an artists point of view Art is created as a work of art not a form of play, she could make a pattern out of shoes thats not art either........ until some art critic or collector decides to comment on it or buy it.

However if I plan and premeditate research and consider a work then it is art regardless of what anyone else has to say

Does marla think its a work of art? probably not, but im sure as hell her parents do. and im sure over the past few years thats what her parents taught her.

My kid wants to paint with daddy too, but im not about to call it genius artwork and sell it to gullable collecters who perhaps need to read the likes of Chevreul or Ogden Rood, and consider how they are feeding the art world and all its leeches with their ridiculous taste in 'art'

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