Is it art? A response to a class discussion on the documentary, “My Kid Could Paint That”

One thing that all art has in common, whether that be Western or Eastern art, traditional or contemporary art, is its ability to teach. The paintings in the documentary, My Kid Could Paint That by director Amir Bar-Lev, do everything that any art should. Even though the strong messages these paintings send out to their audiences are unintentional on the part of their four year old creator, Marla Olmstead, they still stir our imaginations; they still get us to think about the value of modern abstract paintings done by adults; they not only make us gasp in awe, they ask us to re-question our beliefs about what makes art great.

In the documentary, what we see at first is a child quite randomly spreading paint on canvases, a child playing. But when the child finishes her play, her paintings do not portray her family as stick figures; they do not have the usual childish cloud-like green trees or box houses with triangular roofs. What we see are paintings resembling those done by Jackson Pollock, a forty-year old, dead, famous, abstract expressionist artist. The difference is, Marla does not have any reasons for creating what she does. She is four. She is playing. Whereas Pollock was a grown, mature man, ready to face his critics and defend his work. Instead of her lack of knowledge going against her, it only helps market her work. Knowing that her work is completely random and spontaneous, we can make it to be anything we want it to be. Even though we know there is no logical reason, the random aesthetics of the paintings gives us, the viewers, the room to think and work up an explanation for why what is there is there; it gives us the room to imagine.

It’s not until the 60 minutes show in the film, that we start doubting Marla’s capabilities as a painter. When the documentary first starts, it is easy to just go along with the story that she is a talented child. But after the show, we not only start wondering whether she is the one doing the paintings, we also start thinking about the work itself. With paintings so abstract, how can one tell who has painted what? What is polished and what is not? There is no way to really compare the quality of the works – they are drips and dribbles of paint on canvas, so random they could have been created by an animal. This of course applies to Pollock’s work and the work of all those who call themselves abstract expressionists as well. The only difference between the adult artists and the Marla is that they want to and are able to market and defend themselves whereas Marla just paints for the joy of painting like any other four year old.

Marla’s paintings are a hit because of her innocent, knowledge-less work’s resemblance to that of famous pieces in the art world. What does that say us though? If a child can create works, provided with the proper materials, that resemble works worth hundreds and thousands of dollars, has the art market been completely scammed? How does that affect our perceptions on art? From being something special and valuable, have we lowered its standards to the same level as a child’s play?

Marla has unwittingly managed to grab a lot of attention and raise a lot of questions about good and bad art with her work. She is by no means an artist – not unless one considers every child who enjoys working with colours an artist. But her work, although not intended to be so, is art. Any work that can make us more aware and critical of our beliefs, anything that can get us to seek more knowledge, and/or give our imaginations a work out, whether that be a painting or a news report or a musical, is art. Marla’s work is no exception.

 

Published on: May 4, 2010