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

What do I find phony?

I find people with an excess amount of pride phonier than phony because most of the time, they have nothing to be proud of. They want everyone on earth to know how smart or how beautiful or how kind they are, when in reality, they are nothing but a bunch of pathetic fools who can’t face the truth about themselves. If they are overconfident about their intelligence, they will be found cheating off other people’s ideas and calling them their own, or interrupting with blasts of nonsensical questions or comments to appear knowledgeable. If they are conceited about their beauty, they are sure to paint their faces so thoroughly that they look more alien than human, more plastic than skin. If they are self-righteous about their kindness, they are definitely being “kind” so they can get either praises or favours in return. They don’t know who they are. People with genuine reasons to be proud of are usually the opposite of proud. They are modest and humble. They don’t need to wear their qualities like crowns and shoot their mouths off to the world about how amazing they are. If they have brains, they work hard and succeed in life honestly. If they have good looks, they don’t need mirrors to flatter themselves with. If they are good hearted, they help in the quietest ways. People with natural qualities don’t need any recognition or appreciation. They allow themselves contentment without the admiration of others. People who are full of their own vanity on the other hand, label themselves as phony and are nothing but empty shells full of empty lies.


Published on: May 4, 2009

Understanding power

When I say I am a Muslim, everyone knows what I am talking about. When I say I am a Daudi Bohra, I get blank looks. Daudi Bohra is a Muslim sect that believes in Allah and Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) as all other Muslims. However, we have our differences. One of these includes the way we dress. Men wear beards, gold-rimmed white hats, and “saya kurtas”, and women wear “ridas”. At the age of thirteen, I was required to vow to do all things that a Daudi Bohra woman should do, including wearing the rida. Before taking this vow, “misaak”, I put on a rida for the very first time. When I looked in the mirror, all I could do was stare at myself. It was a surprise. A surprise I loved. Something clicked inside of me then and I knew that it was time I started taking my religion seriously.

A year later, I finally gathered the courage to start wearing my rida to school. On the first day, I was the center of attention. Everyone stared. I was pretty scared. But as I started appreciating the rida, I got immune to the stares. I knew I had done the right thing, and I liked myself much better because of it. Through this knowledge, I gained supremacy over all the people who spoke against the way I dressed. I realized that not caring about what other people thought or said as much as caring about my own priorities and values was what defined power for me. I believe that power flows in any relationship. It is everywhere, and it comes in many different forms. And although it is in each of us, it is up to us to find it within ourselves. For me, power is fighting my fears so I can stand by what I find important regardless of other people’s contradicting views.

Being scared of stares, stares that carry thoughts, thoughts that carry judgments, and still making my way to school with the gut wrenching tension of being judged unfairly became my meaning of power. It has been two years now since my first day in school with the rida. I still remember the looks I got, the way people’s heads turned, the whispers they tried and failed to cover with their hands on their mouths. They had enough energy to make me want to go hide in a corner and never come back out. Yet, the knowledge that I was not wrong gave me courage when I was terrified.

After the first week, I got used to the stares. I now knew that they only mattered when I let them. Now, when people say something rude to me about the way I dress, I don’t bother with a response, because I know now that it is not important to be liked or understood by anyone as long as I like myself, as long as I know I am making the right choices and not doing anything wrong. This knowledge has helped me find power within myself. It has shown me that my beliefs are more important than other people’s judgments about me.

Once I realized that what others thought did not matter more than my own thoughts, I became confident in myself for my decision. No one can hurt me with rude comments anymore because my knowledge of my own ideas’ importance truimphs over others’ disagreements. My own approval of myself is much more important than anyone else’s acceptance on how I choose to dress or live or be. I know now that I made the right vow by accepting the rida as a part of my religion, and by accepting who I am – and this knowledge gives me even more power. It makes me respect and be content with myself. It helps me see myself as a courageous human being with independent thoughts that rely on no one else’s feedback.

I have power over all who speak against my rida because it has helped me aknowledge that my identity is stronger than anyone’s ideas on how one should dress. This power can only be taken away from me if I get too terrified to believe in myself, believe in the values I have grown up with, and instead choose to go along with the tide of other people’s thoughts and opinions instead of my own. The rida is now a part of me. It keeps me from drifting from my religion by being a constant reminder of my priorities as a Muslim, and I hope that the boldness it has given me will keep me from ever abandoning it or forgetting its importance in my life.


Published on: May 4, 2008