By Jeffrey Overstreet
Note: With this post we welcome another member to the Good Letters team. Please go over to our Contributors page and read Jeffrey’s bio.
Do you buy modern art?
No, I’m not asking if you purchase contemporary artwork. I’m asking: Do you buy modernism as a legitimate form of artistic expression? Or do you think those who spend a fortune on Jackson Pollock canvases have been duped?
Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary My Kid Could Paint That raises that question, and many others as well. By bringing his cameras to the right places at the right times, he’s captured enough wonders, scandals, and mysteries here to make the film worth seeing several times. Viewers will end up discussing what makes art meaningful. Should the identity of the artist influence our assessment of a work? Should the price at auction affect our interpretation?
This is the story of Marla Olmstead, a feisty four-year-old who learned to love painting in her Binghamton, N.Y. home. Watching her get up to her elbows in yellows and blues, viewers may become nostalgic for the glorious mess of finger-painting or the specific scent of a fresh, unspoiled box of crayons. (Didn’t you want the big box with the sharpener?)
That’s where Marla’s experience departs from our own. When her parents displayed her free-form paintings in a neighborhood coffee shop, Marla was “discovered.” Her meteoric rise to fame and fortune—the family made more than $300,000 in 2004—got the attention of the New York Times. The paintings provoked comparisons of Marla and Jackson Pollock.
Bar-Lev picks up there, capturing the conflict of pride and worry in Marla’s mother, dental assistant Laura Olmstead. Marla’s father, Frito-Lay factory night manager Mark Olmstead, seems intoxicated by media attention, while the proud gallery proprietor Mark Brunelli gets high on the sales.
Then, the fairy tale seems to collapse under the harsh eye of investigative reports. Charlie Rose's 60 Minutes report, aired in February 2005, concludes with the implication that someone might be messing with Marla's paintings. Dad, perhaps? Humiliated, modern art collectors abandon the Olmsteads. Sales plummet.
"It was like someone had ignited a match under a fuse, and it started to burn," says Elizabeth Cohen, and she's more right than she knows. Doubt is contagious and destructive. As the Olmsteads fight to win back their reputation, Bar-Lev’s function as a “witness” shifts—his camera becomes an instrument of surveillance, a tool the Olmsteads hope will help exonerate them. Eventually, they plead their case before the camera, terrified that their own storyteller is turning against them.
Meanwhile, Brunelli shape-shifts, suddenly dismissing abstract art as a “scam.” He praises his own paintings as more legitimate. Why? Because they’re nearly photorealistic, and they take more time to craft. (Georgia O’Keeffe would disagree: “Nothing is less real than realism.... It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.”)
New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, a calming voice of reason, never takes sides on the question of “Did she or didn’t she?” He does offer valuable insights regarding the appeal of “Marla’s paintings.” In an art world that celebrates crass audacity, “Marla’s paintings” can be a inspiring reminder of imagination uncorrupted by cynicism. “Nobody is saying ‘Fuck you!’ in these paintings,” he observes.
It’s remarkable to find a New York Times art critic asserting that art can reveal such a thing as Truth with a capital “T”. But Kimmelman reminds us that any storytelling is a kind of lie. We craft stories from limited perspectives, selecting and emphasizing to achieve particular effects. “Your documentary will be a lie,” he tells Bar-Lev. “It's how you decided to tell a particular story.” Then, in a moment so sharply ironic that it stings, he asks, "Shall I say that?" He repeats his insight, performing it for the camera as if it were a spontaneous comment.
It’s JonBenet Ramsey all over again, but this time it isn’t a murder case. It’s more like abuse. Marla is trapped in a storm of adult misbehavior from which she is unlikely to escape anytime soon.
Showing Bar-Lev’s film to friends, I’ve been surprised by their range of reactions. One stood abruptly as the credits rolled and angrily condemned Marla’s father as a charlatan. Some praised Marla’s mother for her conscientious hesitation about celebrity, while others judged her as naïve, gullible, easily manipulated by the attention-seeking men in her life. One complained that Bar-Lev’s film was, itself, an act of ruthless exploitation. A few still believe Marla’s a wunderkind, a visual-art Mozart, and feel deeply saddened at how her play has been compromised by selfish adults.
These differing responses highlight what may prove to be the most valuable function of Bar-Lev’s film. One of art’s richest rewards is its way of teaching us about ourselves—our assumptions, fears, doubts, hopes, and capacity for faith—by the very responses it stimulates. My Kid Could Paint That gets people thinking and talking.
Me? I’ve come away from My Kid Could Paint That troubled by how easily I can be influenced by the powerful, distorting powers of storytellers—whether the manipulators be skeptics from 60 Minutes or parents raving about their kids. At the end of the film, I know I’ve been misled, but I’m still not sure how, or by whom.
Further, I’m discontent with the condition of my own creativity. Marla’s story made me consider how my own creative work has changed under the influence of attention and criticism, the pressure of deadlines, and an increasing concern about sales. To serve others through creativity, I know a healthy sense of self-awareness and critical discernment are essential. But if I don’t grant myself enough permission to play, wander, and experiment, I’ll be strung like a marionette, bound and controlled. I’m restless to recover the joys of spontaneous play that leaves Marla splattered head-to-toe with paint.
I’m longing for a set of crayons again—the big box, with 64 colors. And a sharpener.