What’s Wrong With This Picture?

by Paddy Johnson and Matthew Leifheit on December 11, 2013 · 40 comments The Best of The Reeler

Marla Olmstead, child painter and the subject of "My Kid Could Paint That"

Marla Olmstead, child painter and the subject of “My Kid Could Paint That”

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.


Francis Thiebaud Winters December 11, 2013 at 11:34 am

Are you implying the Binghamton Sun and Press is not on par with the New York Times? Snob.

Paddy Johnson December 11, 2013 at 1:59 pm

No, I’m saying that a reporter is not a critic and that an art critic by definition is more qualified to discuss the quality of a work of art.

Francis Thiebaud Winters December 11, 2013 at 2:28 pm

That’s even snobbier.

Paddy Johnson December 11, 2013 at 2:38 pm

I can’t imagine you’re trying to do anything other than get a rise out of me. When someone’s profession demands they do a certain thing all day long they will naturally become more knowledgeable about that thing than others. I’m not sure why that’s even up for debate.

Will Brand December 11, 2013 at 2:51 pm

paddy did you leave your sarcasm detector in new york I can mail it to you

Francis Thiebaud Winters December 11, 2013 at 3:21 pm

That’s some ‘cult of the expert’ truism if i’ve ever heard it, and I don’t buy it. By extension people should basically ignore you and only read the critics who’ve put EVEN MORE time in, right? You know Jerry, Roberta, Peter, Dave, Christopher,…..have all got YEARS on you kids (….obviously that is SILLY). AND, you sound like Malcolm Gladwell, and WE know yr better than that (NO SARCASM…really.—-admittedly hoping for “a rise’ there). The idea that there isn’t a raging healthy debate about the validity of the ‘outsider’ perspective as a check on expert wisdom….c’mon!!!

Nancy Adams April 20, 2014 at 6:19 pm

Being snobbish beats the heck out of being stupid.

Eric Gelber December 11, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Art critics will never be taken seriously.

Maybebaby Rasmussen December 11, 2013 at 9:55 pm

I see it in many forms. Child actors, child musicians, child artists, child singers. It’s as if people get sold on the ability as compared to age. “Yes Carol, for a four year old, your son IS an amazing guitarist.” BUT, I will never be one of those lemmings that sits in a crowded bar, wooed by the idea of prodigy when all I am hearing is a seven yr old’s skill level coming from a four yr old’s hands. Just not impressed, nor am I swayed. But then, I am the type that can’t believe that advertising actually works on people, and I loathe child actors. Curmudgeon alert? Possibly. But I have already walked away, so I shouldn’t be a bother to people enjoying the “amazing” child before them.

thesketchupguy December 12, 2013 at 12:37 am

What about the public’s emotional motivation for embracing Marla’s…for embracing Marla? Doesn’t anyone think this has more to do with the public at large than with art? With the promotional establishment than an individual’s expression? That it speaks more to our collective needs than the validity of objects as art? If so, what does this phenomenon say about us?

Inate talent?…properly evaluate?…holy crap! I think that I really want to disagree with you on those points and I think it’s because it’s so devoid of passion, emotion. The visceral butthole puckering heart pounding toe curling mouth watering experience that art can be. Am I just being too romantic here?

Paddy Johnson December 12, 2013 at 12:52 am

I don’t think this phenomenon says anything significant about us. We are fascinated by the idea of child genius because with think innocence will tell us something about ourselves we don’t already know. That’s wishful thinking though. Nothing is revealed through this movie, because the entire story was constructed.

thesketchupguy December 12, 2013 at 10:04 am

Yeah wishful dreamer. That’s me alright. Ok, it doean’t tell us anything significant about ourselves. As wide as the world is, I can’t believe it’s that simple.
However insignificant…what are those things that we hope it will it will tell us? We’re searching for what…comfort, insight? Are we just craving a little fascination?
You know, I used to forget all the time that there are multitudes out there that don’t share my every thought and experience til I spent time with my niece and nephew. For some this might be significant.
I personally love thinking about the human condition, however insignificant I am or that practice might be.

Danny Olda December 12, 2013 at 8:28 pm

Seriously interesting. Maybe it’s a bit of a reminder that when authorship begins to matter so much, we should be a bit skeptical.

thesketchupguy December 13, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Don’t disagree. What kind of pressure do you think that sentiment is going to put on the new black female SNL cast member? I truly hope she walks the walk.

J Redmann December 13, 2013 at 2:56 pm

That’s not a fair at all to art, authorship is very very important. Authorship outlines the significance of the work by establishing context within the world (and art world as well as the artist own body of work).

Danny Olda December 13, 2013 at 8:42 pm

What’s not fair to art is ascribing too much import to authorship. We end up tumbling into a cult of genius, pulling our eyes away from the work and toward the artist.
I suppose its context providing aspect is pretty important, just like gender, nationality, ethnicity, regional politics, time, etc.

Nancy Adams April 20, 2014 at 5:35 pm

Someone with Paddy Johnson’s expertise should have been called upon to discuss and evaluate Marla’s imagery. The expert who steered us to view Marla’s work as the direct result of forceful coaching did everyone a great disservice. If the father was supervising her, even pushing her, this does nothing to influence the originality of Marla’s art. I have absolutely zero doubt that the works were all created by her hand. As a life long art dealer, I found the work to be both original and without these unsupported accusations, would have been easy to sell. This is not a commentary about the level of quality or the accomplishment of the artist. In work such as Marla’s there is nothing anyone can do to dictate the specific color choices and their exact placement on the canvas. The organization of these of forms are a unique language that simply cannot be directed and only the artist can speak. This is not handwriting, This is like taking a snapshot of the dreamlike state found in the mist of lines, forms and colors that exist in the mind of the artist and only the artist can share.

Paddy Johnson December 11, 2013 at 3:37 pm

My complaint wasn’t that experts should be the only voice, but that they should have been a voice. In this movie, we weren’t offered an expert opinion. Fewer voices make for a narrower perspective.

Have you watched the movie?

Francis Thiebaud Winters December 11, 2013 at 3:40 pm

No, I haven’t. It sounds TERRIBLE!!!

Francis Thiebaud Winters December 11, 2013 at 3:42 pm

No, it sounds TERRIBLE. Worse than the kid’s awful paintings.

Nancy Adams April 20, 2014 at 6:12 pm

Paddy, I agree with you completely. I was horrified that proper representation and evaluation was not offered. Once Rose aired these unfounded opinions they should have been shot down like the hot air balloon they were. At the point of this movie where Ellen Winner starts to critique the Father was when we moved into the world of her own personal opinions about raising children and a responsible, objective conversation about Marla’s art ended. I was also horrified that the dealer did not provide the voices of experts to protect the reputation of the artist and the value of Marla’s work. This would have been a very simple thing to do. Over the years I’ve viewed thousands of images from hundreds of various artist and I can tell you it is not unusual in anyway for some works to be more appealing than others. I can also tell you that every art dealer on the planet wishes this were not the case.

Clarniluan December 17, 2013 at 2:40 pm

I love music of all kinds. However I don’t listen to it every day – not even every week – and when I do, I don’t listen “actively”. Alas, I can’t hold a tune or play an instrument, nor have I studied music theory or appreciation; I have a poor ear and often have to wait to hear the words to recognize a song. None of the above means I should not be allowed to have an opinion, although I often find something good that has my more “in tune” friends groaning. If I took it into my head to start evaluating music in the media on a par with a professional musician or music critic, I have no doubt that even those as tone-deaf as myself would scoff, let alone those who are gifted and/or have invested time and thought in this arena. And nobody would criticize them for it, or call them snob or elitist. Why then do we apply different standards to visual art? Why expect, even demand, that the bar for making it or criticizing it be held so low?

We owe it to our craft, be it music, theater, literature, visual art, or sport, to protect its integrity.

Francis Thiebaud Winters December 18, 2013 at 11:31 am

Your lack of musical competence is a moot point.

Clarniluan December 18, 2013 at 3:31 pm

It’s what’s call an analogy.

Francis Thiebaud Winters December 18, 2013 at 3:41 pm

It’s what’s call’s grammar.

Clarniluan December 19, 2013 at 3:26 pm

OK – pick me up on a typo, but don’t respond to the point which is: why do we (you) allow the bar for visual art to be so low but not for other areas of the arts? Never mind, you have nothing to offer other than your own bombast.

Bobojacobo December 19, 2013 at 4:38 pm

“What’s call’s grammar?” That’s pretty lame grammar.

Francis Thiebaud Winters December 19, 2013 at 4:27 pm

When exactly did *I* lower the bar on criticism? Never mind, your tonedeaf.

Bobojacobo December 19, 2013 at 4:40 pm

It’s “you’re tone-deaf,” not “your tonedeaf.” I figure you’re sufficiently obnoxious to point these things out to you. Have fun trolling.

Francis Thiebaud Winters December 19, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Consider yrself “trolled” Bobo. Get a better hobby, go make some art, or something.

Bobojacobo December 19, 2013 at 5:16 pm

HAHAHA not so fun when you’re being trolled back, huh? I have a few hobbies, I’ve made a lot of art today, and I think I’ll start offering grammar lessons to trolls on the side. Have “yrself” a nice day.

Francis Thiebaud Winters December 19, 2013 at 8:14 pm

I’m having a great time AND yr still responding even tho u “don’t care” about me or my little shows. Glad to hear you’ve made “a lot of art” today. Any of it any good?

Bobojacobo December 19, 2013 at 11:06 pm

That’s right, I don’t care about you, just like people who hunt gophers don’t really care about the gophers too much. It’s for sport. You make posting obnoxious, pointless comments into a sport, and I enjoy calling you out on your obnoxious BS. Also, my art is coming along well, thanks! Going to see which free grad schools I hear back from, and how much funding I’ll get to attend. Enjoy the debt and sub-par education.

Francis Thiebaud Winters December 19, 2013 at 11:32 pm

I had a great education. It is impressive how aggressively you are willing to go out on a limb re: topics you are fundamentally ignorant of. Like my educational credentials….

Bobojacobo December 19, 2013 at 11:50 pm


Francis Thiebaud Winters December 20, 2013 at 9:44 am

JOYCE, herriman, PETTIBON: MY li’trary ODOLS.

DO URSELF A FAVE….lay off the HYPERBOLE., jr.

Bobojacobo December 20, 2013 at 10:15 am

Someone who doesn’t understand hyperbole, and can’t spell ‘literary,’ doesn’t have any literary “odols” (spelled “idols” in English, unless it’s some 8th Century term you’re reviving).

Francis Thiebaud Winters December 20, 2013 at 10:22 am

You’re failure of imagination is rather unbecoming for an “artist”. You might try sociology. Or possibly law. Though my guess is the bar would be a stretch for yr particular intellect.

Bobojacobo December 20, 2013 at 10:35 am

You’re right — people who adhere to spelling aren’t creative. REAL creative people should make up words, misspell things, and lecture everyone about everything, despite not knowing how to spell, not knowing how to argue, and not having anything to say about anything. Real creative people are mentally insane, like yourself.

Francis Thiebaud Winters December 20, 2013 at 11:10 am

We’ll thank you for finally outing YRSELF as a post-author social-practitioner or whatever.

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