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.
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.