'Child Prodigy' Film Revives Question: What Is Art?

Marla Olmstead with painting i i

hide captionFour-year-old Marla Olmstead's abstract paintings attracted a wide range of collectors and art dealers.

Mark and Laura Olmstead/Sony Pictures Classics
Marla Olmstead with painting

Four-year-old Marla Olmstead's abstract paintings attracted a wide range of collectors and art dealers.

Mark and Laura Olmstead/Sony Pictures Classics
Painting "Ocean" i i

hide captionOne of Marla's paintings, titled "Ocean." Some of her work has sold for as much as $25,000.

Mark and Laura Olmstead/Sony Pictures Classics
Painting "Ocean"

One of Marla's paintings, titled "Ocean." Some of her work has sold for as much as $25,000.

Mark and Laura Olmstead/Sony Pictures Classics

Audio Extras

Online-exclusive outtakes from Elizabeth Blair's interview with filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev.

Marla Olmstead Painting i i

hide captionMarla Olmstead works on one of her paintings. Some media reports have cast doubt on the authenticity and independence of her work.

Mark and Laura Olmstead/Sony Pictures Classics
Marla Olmstead Painting

Marla Olmstead works on one of her paintings. Some media reports have cast doubt on the authenticity and independence of her work.

Mark and Laura Olmstead/Sony Pictures Classics
Painting "Beautyface" i i

hide captionOne of Marla's works, "Beautyface."

Mark and Laura Olmstead/Sony Pictures Classics
Painting "Beautyface"

One of Marla's works, "Beautyface."

Mark and Laura Olmstead/Sony Pictures Classics

Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev spent almost a year filming media phenomenon Marla Olmstead for his documentary My Kid Could Paint That. The story follows Marla, who became famous at age 4 for the large, colorful abstract paintings she may — or may not — have created.

Bar-Lev spent hours interviewing Marla's parents, her dealer and collectors of her work. He also shot footage of the putative prodigy getting messy as she plays — and paints — on her big canvases. He says that aside from asking whether Marla herself created the works sold in her name, the film raises bigger questions about the value of art.

"The fact that she was being called a prodigy in abstract expressionism raises a bunch of questions in my mind," Bar-Lev says. "Who decides what's great art, how does art get valued, what is art?"

Prices (and Skepticism) Rise

Before Bar-Lev began filming, Marla was already selling paintings for $5,000 to $6,000. After a story about her work appeared in The New York Times, a tidal wave of requests came in for Marla, both from media outlets and from potential collectors. Within a few months, her paintings were selling for $20,000 to $25,000.

Franklin Boyd, a consultant to art collectors who described Marla's work as "decorative," says Bar-Lev's film doesn't address an important art-world reality: Most serious contemporary dealers would not let prices for their artists' work skyrocket so fast, for fear of losing customers. Collectors who can afford $6,000 paintings, Boyd says, are in a different league than those who pay substantially more.

"That's a very different stratum of people who are able to routinely buy art work that's in the $20,000 to $25,000 level," Boyd says. "And [dealers] don't want to alienate a solid base of collectors."

Just as sales of Marla's paintings were booming, 60 Minutes aired a story that cast doubt on the authenticity of her work. "Either somebody else painted them, or somebody else doctored them up," says Ellen Winner, a psychologist featured in the television report.

Sales of Marla's paintings plummeted and Bar-Lev's documentary shows her dealer and her collectors fretting, believing their reputations to be on the line. (They may have worried needlessly, it turns out: Offers for some of Marla's paintings were higher than ever following the premiere of My Kid Could Paint That, despite the fact that the film questions the authenticity of Marla's work.)

Art's Classic Divide

People who work in the field of contemporary art think Marla should never have received so much attention in the first place — and they show little interest in the film. Jonathan Fineberg, director of the Center for the Study of Modern Art at the Phillips Collection in Washington says the only thing setting Marla apart from other kids is that her parents gave her high-quality paint.

"The work of little Marla is actually no different than probably half a billion children in the world except that the materials are a little different," Fineberg says. "People get fooled because they don't know the difference between that and the really serious stuff. That's where there's a problem."

But critics question whether it is a "problem" or simply a matter of taste.

My Kid Could Paint That explores a classic divide about art: There are modern art insiders who think the marketing of Marla's work is a scam, and then there are the realist painting enthusiasts who think all abstract art is a scam.

"There is this large idea out there that abstract art and modern art in general has no standards or truth and that if child can do it that it pulls the veil off this con game," says Michael Kimmelman, art critic for The New York Times.

Con game or not, there might be a common ground for these two groups of art consumers: museums, where education and dialogue are usually encouraged. But the reality is that museums can't afford to buy art when collectors have made it into a billion-dollar market.

"Because there's so much money in the hands of some very wealthy people who are after commodity value, they've driven prices up beyond reach of museums and serious collectors," explains Fineberg. "Some of them are serious collectors. Most of them are just buying expensive goods."

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