What is art? It’s a seemingly innocent question that doesn’t offer an immediate response. While few could debate the pastel enchantment of a Monet, the brooding introspection of a Hopper, or even the cultural relevance of a Warhol — abstract art has always been a less defined arena. Does art have to relate a cohesive narrative? Does the scene have to clearly depict people and places or can there be lines, patterns, non-discernible images or even scribbles? Can it be labeled art if a child is capable of its creation?
In his documentary, My Kid Could Paint That, director Amir Bar-Lev attempts to explore the answers to these questions as he profiled Marla Olmstead, a gifted abstract 4-year-old painter. The subject, however, of his film — the dissection of modern art and the story of Marla, the “pint-sized Pollock” — radically shifted as questions of authenticity of Marla’s art work surfaced and became the unexpected twist in the plot line.
According to Mark, Marla’s father, the story began one day when he, an aspiring artist himself, set up canvas and paint supplies, preparing to spend the afternoon painting. Marla insisted she wanted to paint too. So, he set her up with her own canvas and suddenly these amazing images began to unfold. The Olmsteads realized that their daughter had an exceptional talent and decided to contribute some of her paintings to an art show held at a friend’s local coffeehouse. People soon were inquiring about the prices of the work and a local gallery owner was so impressed that he offered Marla her own art show.
As Marla and her 2-year-old brother Zane raided the cheese and crackers on the buffet table, Marla’s art work sold out the show, amassing thousands of dollars and soon enough, national media outlets picked up the story. Marla and her family made the rounds on news shows and art collectors around the world clamored for her pieces.
Marla’s parents were both somewhat dazed by the experience. Mark, a worker at the Frito-Lay plant and his wife, Laura, a dental hygienist assistant, were clearly somewhat out of their element in the art world. However, they offered very different reactions to the attention being lavished on Marla. Mark clearly relished the attention and his desire to keep it seems to be evident when he is captured on camera sternly ordering Marla to paint. Laura is visibly ill at ease and often contemplated the long-term effects that this experience could have on her daughter.
Laura’s fears become prophetic when a 60 Minutes special brings the Marla phenomenon to a screeching halt. Charlie Rose had a childhood psychologist examine videotaped footage of Marla painting. The psychologist declares that Marla’s actions show her to be an ordinary child creating art, not a prodigy. Furthermore, the techniques depicted on screen show that it is not possible for Marla’s creations to be attributed to her work alone.
Suddenly everything is called into question. Are the Olmsteads knowingly exploiting their daughter for profit? Is Marla the true artist? Or is she just the gimmicky vehicle for her father’s own frustrated artistic passions? Is Marla the victim of a cynical age that cannot acknowledge her true greatness? And as the director himself begins to have his own suspicions should he voice them and change the tone of the entire documentary, despite his growing relationship with the Olmsteads? The documentary unfolds to address the questions and present the evidence, ultimately leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions and wrestle with the definition of art itself.
Pablo Picasso, an artist known as much for his body of work as his own scandal-ridden lifestyle once said that art had the power to transcend the “dirt” of society and “wash the dust from the soul of everyday life.” If this is indeed true, then the paintings of Marla Olmstead have the power to transcend the doubt and the skepticism swirling around her. Yet, while my sense of hope wants to believe in Marla and always in something real, I have to admit that as the evidence mounted, I pressed the “off” button on the remote and sighed, feeling more than a little dirty.