The My Kid Could Paint That DVD's best (or worst) feature is a brief set of queries directed at the New York Times' Kimmelman (above). His answers and disingenuity make for an enjoyable bit of borderline hilarity as the man shows an utter ineptness in responding to even the most basic and straightforward queries on art, as well as having nothing of substance to say even when one decodes his pontifications. It's as if he's dedicated to the notion that art is the preserve of didacts and dilettantes such as himself.
Had Bar-Lev really wanted to push the documentary form further, he could have crafted a truly Postmodern comedy from the threads of all these seriously damaged and deluded individuals; from the narcissistic Kimmelman on down to the gullible patrons of Marla's 'art.' Instead he has wrought a film that tries to anguish over whether or not the whole silly scenario has worth or relevance in today's world. The short answer is that it does not, but the reason is not what one thinks is going to be first posited. This sordid scenario really adds nothing more to the dumbing down of society as we already know it, but My Kid Could Paint That never takes that deeper stab to expose why Marla's art – or Pollock's, for that matter, or any of the other AbEx phenoms' artworks – is terrible.
Instead, Bar-Lev silently assents to Kimmelman's unoriginal thesis that a declaration of art becomes more important than the creation of the art; the director seems unwilling to venture a true opinion, while Kimmelman drones on about ideas or intent in art being more valuable than skill, or the marketplace for art being of more import than the nature of the art. While one might overlook Kimmelman's well-practiced density, as he is just a featured talking head, it's much harder to overlook Bar-Lev's weak-kneed assent. After all, My Kid Could Paint That (this work of journalism-cum-art) is his work, not Kimmelman's.
As for Kimmelman, in his defense, he at least recognizes the obvious: that most sane and intelligent people recognize abstract art as a con game – one started even before the term existed, from the 'proto-found art' of Marcel Duchamp through the pop art that still is dominant today. The difference between a Duchamp and a Warhol vis-à-vis a Pollock or a Rothko, is that the former two were never seriously propounding their 'art' as 'high art,' whereas the AbExers were; or at least their shills, among them art critic Clement Greenberg, who also worked at the New York Times.
There are quite a few reasons why abstraction in the arts almost always fails, but I'll only touch upon a few major ones.
- Claimed abstraction in art is rarely, if ever, abstract. Why? Because there simply and rationally can be no such thing as non-narrative or non-representational art. Yes, you read that correctly. A smear of orange color is a smear of orange color, and can represent a smear of orange color. That smear, or dot on a piece of paper, also has a narrative, and that narrative is, 'smear/dot on a canvas.' Yes, that is a narrative, but its utter banality and bereftness points out just how creatively barren said work is. Imagine the mind that could create, or be fascinated by, such an inane display of so-called skill and talent, and such a ridiculous narrative thread. It might take a few seconds to craft, but only a few thousandths of a second to grasp. Art is a form of communication, but a higher form of communication than mere language; therefore the skill in which the communication is laid out is essential to its determination of excellence. Art is a verb, the how an idea is communicated – not the idea (the noun) itself.
- One can, as do many of Marla's buyers, imbue anything one wants into the painting/artwork, but while great art constructs no (or few) boundaries, what it can do is give linkage to imbue, a bit, of non-obvious things into itself – but not the whole thing. If the whole thing can be imbued there is no reason to work at art – the whole rationale behind found art. This displaces the creative impulse from being mostly on the artist and slightly on the percipient to being 100 percent on the percipient. So, if the percipient of the claimed artwork is doing all the creative heavy lifting with imbuement, what exactly is left for the so-called artist to do? This folly, naturally, sunders art from the realms of skill and craft. Art that works on multiple levels of interpretation is usually a deeper and more profound work. Claimed art that has infinite levels of interpretation is a scam, because, logically, if something means everything it means nothing.
- Intent in art means nothing. One can claim they intended something, but so what, if it fails that claimed intent? Since there is no true way of knowing what an artist intended, intent itself has no bearing on the art. The art work is all that is required; that someone was going through a divorce at the time, had gall stones, was pro or con a certain political position, or was squabbling over a real-estate transaction, might be interesting, but those facts are just as likely non-factors as factors. This false idea, of intent having stature in art, also allows for absurdities being propounded about certain art and artists – like Pollock's drip paintings somehow representing the nuclear age because they somehow were supposed to represent the whirl of the atomic shell.
- If seen as a subset of intent, the art then becomes less about itself and more about the backstory; a further reduction of modern life into the disease of the celebritization of everything. As an example, Jackson Pollock's pre-drip paintings showed him to be a meager, callow, and highly imitative artist; but it was his heavily promoted tale of woe (alcoholism and failed love life) and 'rebirth,' not any real skill, that made him a star in the art world.
- Finally, there is the plain old common-sense notion that if something is claimed as art – something that any layman can do with no effort or in little time (draw a dot in the center of a piece of paper, use a roller to paint a canvas one color, toss paint at a canvas and let the drips fall where they may) – then that is simply not art. Now, this does not negate great photography or cinematography, but I only mention these two art forms because folks often mistakenly claim both can be done with little effort and time, without realizing that most photographs, even by claimed Masters, simply do not rise to the level of art. It takes years of practice and understanding the 'impending moment' to create a truly great photo or film scene.
As mentioned earlier, simply contrast Marla's painting sludgefests to the young violinist in the documentary stock footage – he shows skill, she does not; it's really that simple. In fact, in the best moment in My Kid Could Paint That – a moment that should have been used as a template for the whole film – Bar-Lev torpedoes the hilarious claim that the DVD painting Marla did (to prove her abilities) was substantively different from any of her other work. All he does is show side-by-side stills of the DVD painting and of Marla's other work, even as gullible patrons ooh and aah over it. One sees, also, that there is no logical coherence (and not even a Keatsian Negatively Capable coherence) between the titles of Marla's paintings, and what is on the canvas. The names are immanently random and the paintings utterly generic messes.
In summation, My Kid Could Paint That is not a great documentary – certainly it's no F For Fake, the great 1974 pseudo-documentary by Orson Welles, which also dealt with the gullibility and idiocy of the art world when confronted with a blatant fraud. Still, the idiocy of the art world – from Kimmelman to the WASPy dilettantes suckered into purchasing garbage for thousands of dollars – has rarely been better portrayed. In fact, if the case was not documented elsewhere, one might think or wish this film was a hoax, for human greed, deceit, and stupidity is on full sloppy display here.
Still, My Kid Could Paint That is not wholly without redeeming qualities; they simply are not enough to allow it to become a minor curio in the history of art fraud instead of a cogent exposé of today's sickly arts zeitgeist. Again, the plain and disgusting reality is that Marla's paintings are total shit, whether she did them alone or with her father. And after all that is displayed in this film, if anyone still claims that Abstract Expressionism is not a con, then they are either fools or crooks. Go ahead, choose your poison.
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.