My Kid Could Paint That

Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary, My Kid Could Paint That (IMDB), focuses on Marla Olmstead, a four-year old child painter who took the art world by storm with her abstract paintings, and the subsequent controversy about whether (or how) her father, who had also been an amateur painter, might have contributed to some or all of the paintings. The film almost demands that we as viewers make a choice about whether Marla, who is now six, did all of the work on her paintings. In fact, the film is so adamant about introducing this controversy that I found myself resisting the particular question of whether Marla’s parents might be conning art world dupes, as the film implies, and wanting instead to ask larger questions about art and authorship, about abstract art and meaning, and about art and capital. While the film touches lightly on some of these questions, Bar-Lev’s stubborn insistence on selling the controversy rather than exploring what the controversy means left a number of important questions unanswered and, in some cases, unaddressed.

For what it’s worth, I saw no specific evidence that led me to believe, with any certainty, that Marla’s parents are guilty of the charges levied against them, although I’m not terribly interested in resolving that question. But I think it’s worth addressing the basics of the controversy in order to address some of the larger questions the film glosses. Bar-Lev hinges his own “crisis of faith” almost entirely on Charlie Rose’s hatchet job 60 Minutes interview with a child psychologist, Ellen Winner, who indicated that she regarded Marla as a “normal” child who could not have produced the paintings in question and that one of the paintings we see her produce is “less polished” than other works purportedly authored by Marla. Bar-Lev also seems to make much hay out of the fact that Marla doesn’t–and cannot–talk about her paintings in the language of the art world that voraciously consumes them, but he does little to explore how those meanings are constructed (although Bar-Lev’s comic depiction of a collector who claims to see figures standing next to a “blue door” in one of Marla’s paintings is treated with the right comic touch). Similarly, Roger Ebert has flatly insisted, without offering specific evidence, that Marla could not have produced some of the paintings attributed to her, speculating that Marla’s father is using her as a gimmick to introduce his own paintings into teh art world. In response to the authorship controversy, the Olmsteads have since recorded videos of Marla working on paintings from beginning to end, with some of them running about five hours (making them into cinema verite filmmakers themselves, although whether these videos are evidence that Marla has independently produced all of her paintings remains an open, unanswerable question).

But instead of taking the controversy at face value, I kept wanting to ask the question about why it matters that Marla is the sole author of her paintings and, perhaps more importantly, how that notion of authorship supports the incredible investments of capital in the art world (or, more precisely in the works of specific painters). As I watched the film, I found myself thinking about how authorship is constructed in other media, including film and literature. For example, no one would argue that T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” is a lesser poem because he received help from Ezra Pound. There is no crisis of faith when we realize that a film crew assisted a director in the making of a movie. To be sure, the high finance of the art world is at least partially contingent upon what Walter Benjamin referred to as the “aura,” the uniqueness of the original object itself, but it seems as if this controversy almost depends on a Romantic notion of authorship that needed to be complicated.

The controversy over Marla’s art also depends in part on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge how abstract artists are engaging with thorny philosophical and formal issues. While Bar-Lev does interview Michael Kimmelman, an art critic from The New York Times, providing more context for how abstract art fits within historical and political contexts could have helped. Instead, we are generally presented with art collectors with too much money to spend projecting their own meanings into Marla’s paintings. Abstract art essentially becomes decorative, its meanings left up to the subjective appraisal of the viewer. Certainly, Marla’s family has benefited from this perception of abstract art, but the film does little to explain, as Doug Harvey points out, how “expertise” is constructed in the art world. By relying almost solely on Kimmelman as a representative of art criticism, we get a limited understanding of how professional critics read abstract art.

These questions about the degree to which abstract art might itself be a fraud become intertwined with the Binghamton, New York, art gallery owner, Anthony Brunelli, who has been one of the most enthusiastic promoters of Marla’s work. We learn at one point that Brunelli is a hyperrealist painter who may spend months working on a single painting. While he has sold painting for thousands of dollars, it’s clear that he resents the art world’s clamoring over an abstract painting that could be completed in a few hours. Again, I’m not willing to play into the film’s insinuations of a specific hoax (someone is altering Marla’s paintings), but it is clear that Brunelli is fairly cynically manipulating a pliant art market in selling the narrative of Marla as a child prodigy (as a side note, the film does briefly address our need for child prodigies, but I’m not sure it takes this point far enough).

As my comments here certainly imply, there is a lot of interesting material here. I’m not quite convinced that Bar-Lev has handled these questions adequately, however. By focusing solely on his “crisis of faith” over Marla’s authorship, Bar-Lev seems to dodge the thornier questions about the degree to which concepts of authorship, value, and meaning in the art world are themselves contingent in the first place.

By the way, I’ve cross-posted this review over at New Critics.

Update: I haven’t been able to stop thinking about My Kid Could Paint That all afternoon.  Whether that’s a product of the film itself or my desire not to grade may be debatable, but I just wanted to mention Cynthia Fuchs’ thoughtful review of the film.  I think she’s probably right to identify the ways in which Bar-Lev is self-critical about the project about documentary, about the ways in which documentaries can lie, and especially the ways in which documentary filmmakers may exploit their subjects for the “documentary gold” of an unguarded emotional moment.  Bar-Lev has clearly tapped into some of my own deep-seated questions about both the institution of art and the practice of documentary, so perhaps I should give the film a bit more credit than my original comments allowed.

7 Comments »

  1. SEK Said,

    December 1, 2007 @ 1:37 pm

    I haven’t seen the film, but (as you note) the question you raise is one of central importance to most studies of modernism. During the first wave of critical feminism, there were multiple attempts to credit women for the works of men, some justified (Zelda Fitzgerald, Nora Joyce), others not (Lucia Joyce’s schizophrenia on Finnegans Wake); but the point’s a valid one, because unless you’re like Philip Roth or Annie Dillard and locking yourself in a shed behind the house while writing, your work’s bound to be a collaborative effort. But the Roth example points to the problems with this model — who has mined his life more fruitfully (or destroyed it more thoroughly) than Roth?

    All of which is only to say that the theoretical point about the nature of collaboration’s as fundamental as it is ignored, and tangling up with questions of will and intention an interesting approach. It’s one thing to say Joyce can’t write “Penelope” without Nora, but is it the same thing to say that Marla couldn’t have painted without the aid of her father? Seems like it is. Or the obverse, too: is it possible that her father couldn’t have painted without the aid of Marla?

    I’m skirting the issue of expertise in the art world — mostly because everything I know about art comes from two art history courses and Simon Schama — but the formal issues swirling around the problem of intention fascinate me. (And now I’ve bloviated all over your blog. Sorry about that. Great post though, liable to keep me thinking the rest of the weekend.)

  2. Chuck Said,

    December 1, 2007 @ 2:11 pm

    I dodged some of the art historical questions, as well. I’ve read my Hal Foster and Rosalind Krauss and took a course with Michael Fried, but it has been a while. But, you’re right…the main point for me is one about the tangled relationship between collaboration and authorship, and it’s a question that seems to be left unaddressed or mis-addressed (if that makes sense) in the documentary. The Roth example is an interesting one, and I’d argue that even someone as self-involved as Roth is constantly in tension with his readership, making his readers at least partial collaborators in the writing of (or at least meaning of) his books and stories.

    The documentary could have–and should have–been more explicit about the role of extratextual features (the briefly seen five-hour video of Marla painting, the captions that accompany all paintings, “Marla’s” website, or even this YouTube video showing her painting) in “making” the painting. Or, at least, making the painter. What stories are these extratexts telling us about the nature of authorship? Of art?

    Perhaps I’m coming at things from a perspective that is too skeptical about authorship, but I’m still fixated on the question of why authorship matters so much here and how it becomes tied to, perhaps the root of, capitalist speculation on the paintings produced by Marla.

  3. newcritics - » My Kid Could Paint That, or What is a Painter? Said,

    December 2, 2007 @ 10:15 am

    […] at The Chutry Experiment, but I thought New Critics readers might be interested in some of the questions about authorship […]

  4. From Fay To Z » Blog Archive » My Kid Couldn’t Paint That Said,

    December 3, 2007 @ 12:32 pm

    […] Film Professor Chuck Tryon wonders whether “My Kid Could Paint That,” now showing at the Cameo, is asking the […]

  5. The Chutry Experiment » 21 Media Moments in 2007 Said,

    December 21, 2007 @ 3:54 pm

    […] if Ifound myself disagreeing with it in places, Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary, My Kid Could Paint That, had me thinking about documentary and authenticity for […]

  6. Chaar Said,

    September 6, 2008 @ 11:46 am

    I saw the documentary and I was alittle sad for the parent’s ..I believe personaly myself that though’s paintings where made by Marla’s own hand’s..Has anyone notice maybe she is alittle camera shy and shy around stranger’s?Maybe Marla perfer to paint her painting’s at her own time .We have to understand Marla is only a child and she is not going to paint or do anything else when you want her too.Also I believe her father might have gave her idea’s somewhat but as far as her father having fixing the painting I disagree.And I am disappointed in the negative reaction people gave Marla Becouse of the 60 minute’s program and how awful can people be? Don’t they realize that it’s not just hurting the Mother,and Father but it also hurt’s the whole family includeing the children whom are involved.My prayer’s our with the family and the friends whom believed in Marla and her family..And if you had doubt’s about Marla’s painting why the documentary? How dare you the family was nice enough to invite you in the’re home and you don’t them and the’re child..You should be ashame of yourself..

  7. Chuck Said,

    September 6, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

    My understanding is that the documentary was made out of a genuine interest in Marla’s art and that the the filmmaker only began having doubts after he observed the family’s dynamics. If her parents are deceiving the art world, then that deception is worth investigating. Again, I’m more interested in what the film seems to be saying about authorship and expression in general than in what says about Marla’s family’s (possible) guilt.

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