My Kid Could Paint That

My Kid Could Paint That

****

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

What is art, and what is it for? What makes one work of art superior to another? Is the artistic process as important as the final product? Can art somehow be divorced from the worlds of commerce or celebrity? Can its value be reduced merely to what the market will bear? Are questions of provenance an essential part of art's qualities, or just a minor detail? If all art involves artifice, how can a particular work of art be judged a 'fraud'?

The beauty of Amir Bar-Lev's documentary My Kid Could Paint That is the way in which it anchors these abstract and potentially stuffy questions of aesthetics to an utterly gripping real-life story, while never forgetting to scrutinise itself by the same rigorously probing standards by which it examines the art of others. For all its apparent simplicity, it is, much like Capturing The Friedmans, the sort of family-focused documentary that will get viewers talking and even vigorously arguing about its content for hours after they have left the cinema, and possibly even re-evaluating their own most deeply held beliefs. Like all good art, this raises difficult questions.

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My Kid Could Paint That is a film of two halves. In the first, Bar-Lev documents the rise of Marla Olmstead as a recognised and increasingly profitable artist: the first hangings of her abstracts in a family friend's café, the growing interest in her work within the small-town community of Binghamton, New York, the championing of her talent by gallery owner/fellow artist Anthony Brunelli (another family friend) who begins dedicating entire exhibitions to her paintings, an article written on the artist and her family by sympathetic local newspaper columnist Elizabeth Cohen, and then the story that captures the imagination of the international media, turning Marla into a celebrated phenomenon almost overnight.

Key of course, to this story is the fact that Marla is only four years old at the time – for no matter what the merits of her art (and it does have merits), it is the age of the artist that is the real 'hook', both attracting the world's attention – and making her paintings sell like hotcakes. Brunelli and Marla's father Mark are positively basking in all the limelight (and raking in the cash), Marla's mother Laura is a little more circumspect about the effect this might all be having on her family, while shy Marla just likes painting – but in an excellent illustration of the Observer's Paradox, is proving difficult to catch on film doing her creative stuff.

It is in the film's second half that the real controversies kick in, as it emerges that Bar-Lev is not the only one making a documentary about Marla, nor the only journalist who has been invited to film in the Olmstead home. An hour-long exposé televised on 60 Minutes, including hidden camera footage of Marla at work on a canvas, aggressively attempts to debunk the notion that Marla has any precocious artistic talent, and accuses Mark of giving his daughter a generous hand with 'her' paintings.

After an initial period of shock, a flurry of vicious hate-mail from strangers and a dramatic plummet in the sales value of Marla's works, the Olmsteads hit back, publishing their own homemade DVD that shows Marla producing a single painting, entitled Ocean, from start to finish. Bar-Lev, meanwhile, still struggles to capture Marla producing anything decent on camera himself, and begins to question his own motives in making the documentary.

If you want to know whether Marla is a genius or a pawn, whether her paintings are genuinely sublime art or just a sideshow attraction for copy-hungry editors and a gullible public, My Kid Could Paint That will not give you readily digestible answers. Rather it offers intimate footage of the Olmstead family as their story explodes into the public arena, excellent contextual commentary from Elizabeth Cohen (who broke the story) and the chief New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, a portrait of an artist (in this case the director) tormented by his own doubts and sense of guilty complicity - and then leaves us to paint our own conclusions. The results are riveting.

Reviewed on: 19 May 2008
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Documentary about a four-year-old who has sold $300,000 of paintings - but is she a genius or an exploited child?
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Capturing The Friedmans
Pollock