In a real sense, the 83-minute documentary My Kid Could Paint That is one of the most disgusting films of all time. It disgusts because
a) it so vividly displays the utter nonsense and stupidity of the modern art scamming that has gone on for the last half century or more (especially in Abstract Expressionism) – and that's a good thing; and
b) it so vividly displays the exploitation of an innocent child, Marla Olmstead, to meet the personal and psychological demands and needs of her Mark and Laura – and that's a bad thing.
Basically, the film, released in 2007, follows the rise and fall, in 2004 and 2005, of a young girl hailed as a 'Pint-Sized Pollock' (Jackson, that is) – not to be confused with other claimed child painterly prodigies such as the 'Pint-Sized Picasso' of the 1990s (whodat?). Over the course of several months, we see Marla's rise to celebrity after an opportunistic Binghamton, New York, art gallery owner and photorealistic painter 'discovers' Marla. A local newspaper reporter then does a profile, and soon the child is declared a 'prodigy' by the New York Times and its arts editor, Michael Kimmelman. Suddenly, the local sensation becomes a global phenomenon, with addle-brained 'art lovers' lining up to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the girl genius' latest 'masterpiece.'
Then, reality sets in as a February 2005 exposé by 60 Minutes shows that the little girl, when left to her own devices, paints badly. Well, pretty much as she always did. The odd part is that the exposé is supposed to show that Marla could not paint 'masterpieces' alone, but only with her dad's help. (He is an amateur painter, himself.) Yet, the painting is no better or worse than the crap that sells at auctions.
A child psychologist is shown a secretly recorded video of Marla painting a particular piece, and it takes this woman to state the obvious: Marla is just swooshing paint around a canvas with no plan. Yet, this is held to be different from her other obviously unplanned drips-and-drab paintings. The only difference is that the claimants for Marla – and her detractors – all tacitly assent that there is something 'better' about the auctioned paintings. All this proves is that both the claimants and detractors have been sipping the same Kool-Aid, because the so-called 'masterpieces' are clearly slopped and glopped crap, too.
No one, however, recognizes this – not the parents, not the assorted art dealers, not the 60 Minutes folks, not the reporters who cover the tale, nor even this film's documentarian, Amir Bar-Lev. Which raises a question – or at least it should. And that question is not the one My Kid Could Paint That focuses on – whether or not Marla painted the paintings claimed to be hers. The real question should have been: why was such obviously dreadful art attracting attention, because even if Marla herself had painted them, clearly anyone could – animals, retards, fetuses – on a whim, and in only twenty or so minutes.
And the amazing thing is that the film answers both questions unwittingly. Through a series of interviews it becomes clear that Marla's father helped her paint the paintings and that her mother was likely clueless as to that reality, at least in front of the cameras. But in answer to the more cogent query mentioned above, My Kid Could Paint That provides plenty of answers as well.
We see archival footage of Jackson Pollock doing one of his drip canvases, and it's abundantly clear that there is no rhyme or reason to it. Why? First, there is simple observation of the act. Second, there is the simple recognition of what is left on the canvas. Third, and most importantly, is the fact that since the Abstract Expressionist's drip paintings lacked any coherent style, it has been easy as hell to fool so-called art critics, experts, and historians with so-called 'forgeries' of Pollock – although technically they would be frauds, not forgeries, since there is 'no style' to forge.
Just do a quick online search and the ability to deceive these fools is abundant. So, why do suckers still fall for this crap? In this case, the likely answer is the story behind the paintings – the very idea that Marla Olmstead might be a prodigy. But if her 'skill,' as shown in the 60 Minutes footage, is nonexistent, and the result is generic AbEx crap, only the idea of a child genius could be the lure. Yet, Bar-Lev uses archival footage of real child prodigies – such as a boy violinist – and the contrast with Marla is great. The violinist clearly has great skills, whereas Marla has none.
However, this is not the focus of the documentary. Instead, Bar-Lev makes the wrong choice of following the fall of the Olmstead clan, as Marla's painting prices plummet. Yet, why? If the works are really genius, who cares if that genius is Marla, her dad, or the two working in concert? Yet, we see that many of Marla's patrons, post-60 Minutes, are calling and demanding their money back. Why? Because they don't care for the supposed 'art,' just what they see as a business investment that may tank. Herein lies another clue to the utter phoniness and marketing-heavy domination of the art world – there's not an ounce of care for the work itself, merely what profit can be made off of it.
So why wouldn't Bar-Lev follow that angle, if not the angle that the art itself sucks? Most likely, because My Kid Could Paint That is just the logical extension of that profiteering. From the dim parents, the semi-sleazy gallery owner Anthony Brunelli, and the none-too-bright local reporter Elizabeth Cohen to the out of touch Times critic Michael Kimmelman, the 60 Minutes crowd, and Bar-Lev, everyone seems to be in the business of exploiting this child. Brunelli, for one, switches his opinions on Marla's art from initial claims of genius to claiming to have 'known' the work was not that good – right after the 60 Minutes episode – to again declaiming Marla's greatness once the family films the child painting to prove that she really could paint (so as to reassure investors). Yet, this painting is just as ridiculously bad as all the rest. There simply is no artistic talent or skill on display, ever!
The fact that others claim Marla can only create her so called 'masterpieces' when alone and not subject to verification should, even if one were to accept that dubious notion that there's any qualitative difference between any of her glops, point the way to the fraudulence of the whole episode because this is exactly the sort of thing proponents of all sorts of supernatural acts claim: from spoon-bending to UFO abductions, from paintings by toddlers or to the Virgin Mary's appearance, the act of observation irreducibly destroys the result.
As My Kid Could Paint That ends, the parents and Bar-Lev seem to be at an impasse, with the filmmaker disbelieving the claims that Marla painted the paintings alone, but … so what? He still does not realize that either way they are garbage and that he wasted a couple of years of his life on a subject that is utterly worthless. If only Bar-Lev had wanted to do a documentary exploring the meaning and history of art, he should have focused his camera's eye on the life of a worthwhile and great artist – someone who really could have used the little bit of publicity resulting from a 2007 Sundance Film Festival screening – to actually bring forth great art and ideas into the public arena. Instead, Bar-Lev wastes his talents on a story that means nothing, and an issue that is so clear-cut as to beg the question, Why do it? Aside from joining the queue of exploiters, the only possible reason is that Bar-Lev was as much of a dupe as the others.
The My Kid Could Paint That DVD, put out by Sony Pictures, is quite good. (The film is shown in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio.) The audio commentary by Brunelli and the film's editor, John Walter, is nothing spectacular. Brunelli shows he knows little of art, even if he has some skill of his own, and Walter is just dull, with no real insights into the Olmsteads or Bar-Lev.
There is also the 35-minute documentary Back to Binghamton, wherein Bar-Lev is seen still equivocating over the documentary and its meaning, while speaking to dullards at the Sundance Film Festival. The best part of this featurette, however, is a brief interview with a local artist who rejected Marla's entry into a Woman's Art festival because
a) she did not think the art was good,
b) did not think the child did the art alone, and
c) read Marla's 'Artistic Statement,' which clearly was not written by a 4-year-old – especially one who can barely speak clearly herself.
(In the statement 'Marla' even references Ozzy Osbourne. This sequence should have been in the final film because, even for non-believers, this is a smoking cannon, not merely a smoking gun. That Bar-Lev did not include it suggests, again, that he did not realize its import or that his film is simply part of the Marla Media Machine.)
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.
My Kid Could Paint That (2007). Dir.: Amir Bar-Lev.