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My Kid Could Paint That (2007)

kidcouldpaint.jpgMy Kid Could Paint That is a documentary about the career of 4-year-old painter Marla Olmstead, who was producing powerful abstract paintings in Binghampton, NY in 2005. The lure of a child painting prodigy was irresistible to the media and the New York art scene, and Marla’s paintings started selling for thousands — and then tens of thousands — of dollars. However, it took 60 Minutes to ask the questions that any reasonable person should have asked, namely has anyone other than her artist father ever actually seen Marla produce the paintings? The answer is “no”, and when attempts to film Marla at work prove less than satisfactory, it all starts to unfold. The documentary started filming before the debunking, and we get an immediate look into the unfolding of the scandal. And while the filmmakers are at first inclined to give these two likeable, unassuming parents the benefit of the doubt, that gets harder and harder to do as the difference between Marla’s on-camera and off-camera paintings becomes more apparent with each attempt.

Unfortunately, that immediate, personal story is, for the most part, as deep as the documentary goes. Which is really too bad, because it really raises a lot of interesting questions about the world of modern art.

My dad is an amateur painter, and growing up I was always surrounded by his paintings and art books. So while I’m not remotely a sophisticated or knowledgeable appreciator of modern art, I know enough to know that modern art isn’t a scam. I probably couldn’t tell a Rothko from a decent imitation, but that doesn’t mean that when I saw No. 5/No. 22 it didn’t have a big impact on me. And so, I think that My Kid Could Paint That does not show that modern art is a scam. It shows that the modern art world — the place where art meets marketing, vanity and greed — is the scam. Or, to quote Roger Ebert: “your kid couldn’t paint that.”

“Marla’s” paintings are beautiful, but there are a lot of pleasing paintings in the world. If they had been done by a 44-year-old, they would be more likely to be lining the walls of a moderately upscale coffee shop than a Manhattan art gallery. But because there is a story — and an easily digestible and imminently repeatable one — attached, the merits of the work are outweighed by its marketability. It’s not a case of the emperor having no clothes, though. There’s clearly some heroic self-delusion going on, as Marla’s parents and the sellers and collectors of her paintings struggle to convince each other — and themselves — that no, they are the victims and the media has been twisting the facts. The culmination of which is (SPOILER) Marla’s re-emergence in the art world at age 6, complete with a fresh cycle of uncritical news reports and higher price tags on her work than before.