It’s been nearly a century since Wassily Kandinsky painted the first completely abstract modern painting, but many otherwise culture-savvy citizens — enthusiasts for other 20th-century innovations like movies, jazz and comic books — are still bewildered and hostile when it comes to nonrepresentational painting. “Squiggles on a canvas is not art,” they might say. Or, “You either throw paint at a canvas, make swirls or stamp a bunch of shapes around. Any person on this planet could do modern art. It takes absolutely NO talent.” There’s some kind of principle at stake, a valid skepticism about what is meaningful in human culture and who gets to say so. And it’s a pivotal sore spot for the Art World, in which constant rationalizations and renegotiations of plausible deniability are themselves something of a choreographic masterpiece.
The above quotes were, in fact, lifted from the IMDB message board for Sony’s just-released documentary My Kid Could Paint That, Amir Bar-Lev’s intimate, Sundance-rocking portrait of 4-year-old prodigy abstract painter Marla Olmstead. Coming on the heels of the recently-issued-on-DVD Who the Fuck Is Jackson Pollock?— which follows the ongoing story of dumpster-diving San Berdoo trucker grandma Teri Horton’s battle to authenticate a $5 thrift store drip painting as being from the master’s hand — My Kid paints a complex and frequently infuriating negative-space portrait of the contemporary art establishment from the point of view of the excluded outsider.
Bar-Lev’s film doesn’t exactly shy away from these deeper questions — in fact the film owes much of its coherence to the consistently cogent contextual commentary of New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman — but halfway through what is initially a straightforward journalistic account of Marla’s rise to fame, the filmmaker turns the camera on himself, confessing his doubts about the authorship of the work, and the story shifts into a less interesting postmodern meditation on authenticity, storytelling and ethics.
The turning point is a 60 Minutes “exposé” in which Charlie Rose strongly implies that Marla’s father, Mark — night manager at an upstate New York Frito-Lay factory — is the actual artist. The “evidence” of this fraud consists almost entirely of the expert testimony of clinical psychologist Ellen Winner, who declares the painting Marla created for 60 Minutes’hidden camera less “polished” than the other work — which she initially asserts could be slipped “into the Museum of Modern Art.”
After this media-fabricated bombshell, Bar-Lev claims he is secretly haunted by the suspicion that Rose’s allegations are true, even as he enjoys unprecedented access to the Olmstead family home. When he finally tells the parents that he believes Mark worked on the — again, more “polished” — canvasses, mother Laura is stunned to tears. “Documentary gold!” she spits before walking off. Indeed.
I first wrote about Marla and her paintings in a column for the Weekly in 2006 titled “Prodigy Schmodigy.” My conclusion then (and now): “What [the paintings] have to say is said in the formal visual language of painting, and they are entirely persuasive, whether Charlie Rose’s expert witnesses can dig it or not.” The column is, in fact, included in the documentary — panned across at the beginning of a montage of news articles embracing the 60 Minutes scandal and decrying the work as fraudulent. Anything to make the story clearer for the audience, I guess.
Therein lies the problematic crux of this movie, which Bar-Lev cutely acknowledges with his fourth-wall-breaking asides and quotations about the mass media’s insatiable need for new stories and how all documentaries are lies: In the final analysis, the filmmaker’s crisis of faith is unconvincing, except as one of a series of blatantly manipulative decisions that, despite the lack of any kind of empirical evidence, bolsters the most commercially viable story that can be milked from the situation — the one where Marla’s parents are supernaturally cunning con artists out to exploit the gullibility of the deluded collectors of essentially fraudulent modern art.
This raises a whole shit-icane of issues — why a story of layered cynical manipulation that debases and invalidates the sheer joy of creative expression is more appealing to the public than a story about a gifted child whose talent calls into question the authority of our cultural institutions, for instance. Or how our culture has come to accept the kind of bullying and propagandistic implication that characterizes Penn Jillette’s pseudoskepticism or Christopher Hitchens’ master-debater sneers as actual critical thinking.
Bar-Lev’s ostensible coup de grace in these sweepstakes is a side-by-side comparison sequence where he reiterates the 60 Minutes insistence that the works created on film by Marla are patently and indisputably inferior to the ones created in Dad’s secret underground studios. And, like 60 Minutes, Bar-Lev realizes that to merely assert this qualitative assessment with an authoritarian tone — “Any monkey looking down from Mars on Earth knows .?.?.” — is enough to persuade most of us.
But I don’t see it. I’ve painted almost every day for a quarter of a century, and am as “expert” as the next art critic. The works created by Marla on camera are different from some of her canvasses, similar to others and better than many. Bar-Lev’s big reveal is a bust, and turns what could have been a compelling inquiry into the machinations of the art market and media into a tawdry embarrassment. Apart from the questionable ethics, it’s lousy art. Leni Riefenstahl is spinning in her grave.
From an almost diametrically opposite polemical position comes Who the Fuck Is Jackson Pollock? — a documentary from 2006 by former 60 Minutes producer Harry Moses that’s been on video shelves a couple of months. Who the Fuck is uncannily similar to My Kid, with its story arc of an unlikely protagonist whose incorrect abstract paintings demand comeuppance. But instead of My Kid’s narcissistic self-appointment as the vehicle of correction, Who the Fuck maintains a posture of impartiality, even as it is inexorably drawn into the role of advocacy by the facts of the story.
Marshaling a wealth of forensic evidence against the mind-boggling self-importance of ex-curator Thomas Hoving (who can’t even be bothered to come up with an argument other than, “Scientists are very interesting, but they come after the connoisseurs”), Who the Fuck culminates in an eerily familiar side-by-side visual comparison of details from Horton’s thrift store find with a bona fide Pollock. This time I see it. The fingerprint match between her canvas and a paint can preserved in Pollock’s studio doesn’t hurt either. Give that granny her $50 million.
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Because that’s what it’s all about, right? Unlike the relatively benign portrayal of the easily duped, well-meaning art community in My Kid, the conflict in Who the Fuck pivots on the use of art objects as nearly arbitrary receptacles for the binding (and unsupervised exchange) of enormous amounts of capital, away from the grubby paws of working-class trailer trash. Another question might be “Who the fuck really thinks a Jackson Pollock painting is worth $140 million?” I mean, I love the dude, but do you know how many condoms that would buy? Or vaccinations? Or bicycle-powered water pumps?
Ultimately, both films are compelling revelations — though not necessarily regarding their ostensible subjects. What comes across most strongly is the intensity and complexity of emotions that can still be stirred up by abstract painting, the tiny amount of persuasion that’s required to pass oneself off as an “expert” in the field, and how far we’ve come since Kandinsky wrote that “art is not a vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul.”
MY KID COULD PAINT THAT | Directed by AMIR BAR-LEV | Sony Pictures Classics | Citywide
WHO THE FUCK IS JACKSON POLLOCK? | Directed by HARRY MOSES | New Line Home Video