Friday, April 4, 2008

Could a Four Year Old Paint That?

So, I've been working on this blog for a while, and I've just gotten around to finishing it. Like I said in the opening, I knew that my posting would be erratic. Maybe now that school is coming around the bend, I might post more regularly since I will need to find ways to procrastinate. I also think I have some ideas to post more.


I watched this really awesome documentary the other day that really had me thinking about aesthetics and forgery and creation and the personality/identity/construction of the artist. Amir Bar-Lev's My Kid Could Paint That showcases the rise of infant painter, Marla Olmstead.

I think two of the most important questions that the film posed (and that it left rather open ended for all intents and purposes, which I find is a good thing) are the following:
1) Is art about truth or about lies? (Especially when displayed for the public eye/consumer)
2) Is the story that a painting tells the story of the artist or of the painting?

What slowly develops from this neat, little documentary about an avant-garde prodigy is this sick, twisted interrogation of truth and lies and art. Is Marla the real painter behind the beautiful canvases that are marketed under her name? Are people "buying" (into) the Olmstead's ruse? It becomes rather clear to the filmmaker, who at about twenty minutes into the film, starts to realize that he has not been able to actually film Marla painting at all. [Aside: Before showing her paint, there is a scene with her in the bath tub, in which she puts four lines on the wall and calls it a purse. Child's play or genius imagination or both?]. The filmmaker prods her on the subject, asking her to paint for him, and at several points, he asks the parents to get her to paint. It culminates in the placement of hidden cameras and the filming of one canvas that is certainly painted by Marla albeit a very different type of painting. (The difference is hard to describe with words but is definitely noticeable to the eye.)

Marla's father, Mark, was an amateur artist for years, and like any good parent, (along with the mutual support of his wife), he "enabled" Marla's gifts for painting. They definitely treat her like a child, and it is clear that the mother attempts to protect Marla. However, want to talk to a 40 year old. They sell her first canvas for $250, and her parents said if it would have ended there would have been happy. Yet, the dad secretly books shows behinds the mother's back and wishes/dreams that Marla can get a show in Europe....selfish, much? Could the father perhaps be painting Marla's canvases? It does become very strange when you see him giving her directions on which colors to use and how to move the brush. In fact, he's a constant presence in her painting. Mark has to be there to help her set up. She couldn't just go off and paint. (She would be painting the walls. Why, does she need to be told to paint on the canvas? Is she inherently desiring to do this or being directed to?) Why does she need help really? He's on the phone making plans, while she's being interviewed and saying how she makes joint decisions and then they show him in the house with people filming her painting (yet she is painting a canvas all one color). Mark constantly asserts that this is not normal.

"She reacts differently when the cameras or around."

Is Marla being manipulated?
Certainly the answers to this question enter into the film-maker's mind as he has this on-camera dilemma. He wonders why he cares and about the ethics of film-making? Does he have a truth that he must uphold? And if he does, why doesn't Marla or Mark or Mamma Olmstead (whose name escapes me).

By watching Marla in this video, and the video of her painting that the family markets her and her genuine-ness, makes her in some sense inescapable because you are caught up in these representations of her paintings and her painting, even if some of them are fake and some of her actions are rehearsed. And in some senses, isn't that what art is doing, asking you to come and be a voyeur? To suspend belief and believe lies?
For me, a lot of how I feel about this film and concept is wrapped up in that previous questions and in a comment that the mom says towards the end. "We've put our selves here." It's quite the double entendre. Not only have they littering created the idea Marla as the artist, they have also helped to create her art. Perhaps my prejudice comes out here, but I really don't think that she painted most of those canvases alone. Surely she painted them, maybe started all of them. But finished them? I'm highly suspect of her involvement. Would it really be the first time that a parent has manipulated their own child to gain status or money or achieve personal ambitions?
Surely art is about the suspension of disbelief. Even realism, the most realistic of the real, asks us to use our immagination, to believe lies, to believe truths, to use representations and symbols that have been created for us rather than by us. But could a four year old paint that? I say a heavy maybe, leaning towards no. But who am I to say?

1 comment:

CJSL said...

Just a brief comment: I just wanted to say that I kinda wish our culture would get over our fascination with talented kids.