Pallet-Knifed Ambition

October 29th, 2008 § 0 comments

“We love our children, and we long for the children we used to be.”

marla olmstead

Though My Kid Could Paint That (2007) is a documentary that follows the story of a little girl, Marla, who became an art world darling in 2004 when she was four-years-old, I would venture to say this film has little to do with children or art. The main themes deal instead with parents, their children, talent, and society’s encouragement for the former to exploit the latter two. Marla alone, the painter and artist in the film, emerges with her integrity—she is protected from her own grubby story by her innocence, childhood, and her strong refusal to be a pawn in adult games. Do you want to talk about your paintings? NO. Do you like riding in limos? SILENCE. It is not really clear if Marla’s mother Laura knew or not that her husband helped her daughter paint, though it seems she didn’t in the beginning and gathered as much in the end. The director, Mr. Bar-Lev, states that he saw his documentary as a film about “modern art,” though in the end he saw it more as an exploitive disaster he had not intended to make; however lovingly he edited his footage of the Olmstead family, he leaves little doubt that this child did not paint those paintings. As A.O. Scott states of the director, “he has made an excellent documentary, but it would have been better if he had not made it at all.”

The art world (and media), behaving contemptibly throughout the story, is shown in relation to real people, and because of this is not seen as an isolated monster of greed, consumption, and gimmicks. Instead, much more truthfully, galleries and collectors are shown as an extension of a certain way of thinking that is currently crashing down around our ears. It is easy to a point finger at the larger machines that run our society, and much harder to draw the foundations of thought that allows them to function. The predictable behaviors of the mass media (60 minutes), gallery owners, and even the film’s director, seem less harmful than the parents, friends, and family members who encouraged and supported a four-year-olds shaky fame. The documentary, taking place largely in the Olmstead’s home, exposes more than the highlights of an appealing story, and it is in the smallest moments of family conversation that the most chilling statements arise, exposing our deepest misconceptions of childhood. Laura, saying, “Marla doesn’t want to talk to forty-year-old’s, she just wants to be with other children.” The manner in which the parents rationalize and justify their systematic exploitation wounds viewers as much as it disturbs. It is harder to watch the sacrifice of the innocent than it is to watch two elderly collectors overpaying for a painting.

After accumulating disturbing details, the film then begs the larger question of who are these parents? Who would not only let, but actively encourage their child to be publicized, exploited, and demonized at four, and what return could possibly be worth the price? The harsh truth remains, however, that everyone has had, or has known, parents just like these—manipulating in their manner, and in turn manipulated themselves. Growing up I remember the stories, the tears, the situations, the competitions, the relations between mothers and daughters and fathers and sons; basketball, ballet, track, theater, school, they all came with these same characters. Every mother pushed her daughter hard toward a dream she had once held herself, women living vicariously through little girls struggling for approval, and behind their childish potential always lurked a force that drove their talent to die. In this case it was Marla’s father who painted through his child. I remember the rebukes, the warnings, and the truths my mother instilled that held at bay my peers and their parents. No matter how good you are someone else will always be better. While it is hard to feel too much sympathy for Marla’s parents, the questions of why and for what must be asked as they are not unique to this family.

The last segments of the film do raise questions about making art, the art world, and how people outside of both view art. The more thought provoking ideas lie outside this predictable territory, however, in questions that ask why we make, what we make, and what we hope get from what is made. There is little point in saying children can’t, or don’t, make art, yet there is also little point in treating this idea as an anomaly or as something that “debunks” adult artists. We need to be reminded of a child’s interest in paint just as we need the disenchanted, we need the social critique at the same time we need children to learn the mediums we use. Switch the word “art” for any other discipline and the problem dissipates—children might love history, but they are not called historians. It was never Marla’s art that was questioned, but her art becoming adult art, which in turn turned out to be her father’s art. Collectors bought Marla’s work when they thought she was a prodigy, but were outraged when they realized she was just a little girl who liked paint, and perhaps the saddest part of the story is the dislike she will come to have of painting.

“Cartier-Bresson used to say that photographing people was appalling — that it was some sort of violation of them, that it was even barbaric. Because you were essentially stealing something from them, you were imposing something on them. He sensed the inherent unfairness in this transaction. All writers, all storytellers, are imposing their own narrative on something. All art in some way is a lie: it looks like a picture of something, but it isn’t that thing, it’s a representation of that thing. Your documentary will be a lie; it’s how you’ve decided to tell a particular story.” -Michael Kimmelman

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